Saturday's results in the NASL had a familiar ring to them. Minnesota, won. San Antonio, won. New York, won.
While the NASL season was split this year into two ridiculously unequal "halves," Saturday's 3-2 win over Edmonton was the midpoint of Minnesota United's 27-game league schedule. With the season half gone, it's become clear that the Loons, the Scorpions, and the Cosmos are the teams to beat.
The league's imbalance was on full display last year, as the relentlessly-promoted Cosmos won the league title despite having participated in just half the season. Coming into 2014, though, there were whispers that both Minnesota and San Antonio had ambitions - and finances - to match their New York brethren. And while the Cosmos have struggled slightly, while also seeing a major dip at the ticket counter, the other two have blown right by.
Minnesota has lost just once all year and has a nine-game unbeaten streak. San Antonio has won eight of its last 11 matches. United has 33 points on the year, the Scorpions 32 (with one more game played than Minnesota) - and then comes a major drop-off. New York, with 27 points, is the only other team near the top two. Fort Lauderdale, in fourth place, is eleven points adrift of San Antonio - nearly a point per match.
Combine that with the box office, where Minnesota and San Antonio top the season attendance list (apart from Indy's incredible numbers), and the obvious ambitions of both to eventually play at the top level of American soccer, and you begin to sense the difference. New York has had trouble scoring goals and drawing fans, it's true, but they're rumored to be trying to spend nearly $5 million to buy striker Roque Santa Cruz from Malaga - more than the annual salary budget for every team in the league (possibly more than all of them combined - they aren't public). And their other plan appears to be to sign Spanish legend Raul to play in front of countryman Marcos Senna.
It's all representative of a sea change in how the NASL runs itself. For years, second-division soccer was mostly a competition between evenly-matched teams. In 2012, San Antonio won the league championship with 1.67 points per match; in the spring of 2013, Atlanta took the first-half title with 1.75. As long as a team won slightly more than they lost, and didn't draw too often, they had a chance at the league title.
In the fall of last year, though, New York came in and blew everyone away, winning nine times and losing only once on the way to 31 points in 14 games - 2.21 per match. United had to repeat that number to edge San Antonio in the spring, and currently leads the fall standings with four wins and one draw in five games - 2.6 points per match.
Four teams will make the playoffs this season, and anything can happen in the playoffs - something Minnesota fans well know, having seen their team finish sixth but reach the league final in both 2011 and 2012. That may paper over the cracks a little bit, especially if one of the league's weaker teams manages to pull an upset in the playoffs. But right now it looks virtually certain that the top three seeds in the playoffs will be the three big, ambitious, financially-well-set teams.
Tampa Bay has also shown a willingness to spend, without much to show for it, and if Indy can reinvest the funds from their outstanding gate receipts into the team, they may become a force as well. But right now, it would appear that it's a three-team race in the NASL - and as long as the finances and the ambitions stay in place, it may be that way for awhile.