Only five games into 2016, the Cosmos encounter their first must-win match of the season. After taking the first two games at home, the Cosmos blew their last two matches in the 90th minute at Indy and Minnesota.
In contrast, the Carolina RailHawks are flying high, claiming victories in all of their four games this season, including come from behind wins in their first two.
A Cosmos win would put them back in the spring title conversation and just three points behind Carolina. A loss would all but put it out of their reach. But the win will not come easy.
After a third-place finish last spring, Carolina’s seventh-place finish in the fall, coupled with their tie for second-most goals surrendered for the year, dropped them to sixth overall.
While possessing one of the stronger goalkeeper options in the league in Akira Fitzgerald, last year’s back line let him down, making him the league leader in both saves and goals permitted. This offseason, however, the RailHawks made sure to bring in some experienced NASL talent to support him signing Drew Beckie (Ottawa Fury), Kareem Moses (FC Edmonton), and Paul Black and Simon Mensing (Atlanta Silverbacks).
The forward line saw an addition with 2015 Rowdie Brian Shriver joining them. Shriver, a RailHawk back in 2012-2013, won a Golden Boot and a spot on the NASL Best XI with them and will look to make an impact as he re-joins them and a strike team that also includes last year’s Fury and Striker, Aly Hassan.
The midfield saw some new faces, as well. Marvin Ceballos joined from Indy 11, and James Marcelin was acquired from the Strikers via trade. They join a strong corps of players including the offensive firepower provided by Nazmi Albadawi, Austin Da Luz, and Tiyi Shipalane that has catapulted them into first.
Since the changes to their line-up, the results are clear. First place, wins in all four matches. Nine goals (most in the league) on 46 shots, a 26% goal conversion rate (also, tops), all while giving up about a goal per game.
Expect the RailHawks to line up in a 4-2-3-1 based on their previous matches and results. The Cosmos get a little trickier. After successful use of a 4-1-4-1 in their first two home games, will their results on the road (both with a 4-2-3-1) push them back to a wider formation? Or will they continue to try to make the formation they used extensively last year work?