In advance of tonight’s game against the Cleveland City Stars (7 p.m.; WakeMed Soccer Park) we decided to examine the standings and league schedule. We’ve been keeping an eye on the table all season, and now, two-thirds of the way through the season, four distinct groups have emerged:

There’s a three-way struggle for first place between teams that have been consistently strong all season; two teams safely in the playoffs jostling for fourth place; three teams vying for the last two playoff spots; and three teams far, far behind.

  1. Charleston 41 pts; 22 games; 1.86 ppg; +11 goals
  2. Portland 39; 20; 1.95 ppg; +19
  3. Carolina 39; 20; 1.95 ppg; +13


  4. Puerto Rico 35; 22
  5. Rochester 29; 20


  6. Vancouver 25; 20
  7. Miami 25; 19
  8. Montreal 23; 19


  9. Minnesota 15; 18
  10. Austin (-2) 14; 21
  11. Cleveland 13; 21

Carolina is finished playing against their top two rivals, from whom they extracted only five points in six games (a victory against Charleston, two draws against Portland). In order for the RailHawks to keep pace with the Battery and the Timbers, they really need to pick up three points at home tonight against Cleveland, the league’s weakest performer.

(As for the RailHawks’ two main rivals at the top, there’s a big game at 10 p.m. EDT in Portland, as the Timbers host Charleston in what will be their second meeting. Their final match will be in Charleston on Aug. 28.)

What’s striking about the remainder of the RailHawks schedule is that while they’ve exhausted their games against the two other top teams, after tonight, they’ll be done against the three bottom teams (which is why the three points tonight are so essential). The rest of the way is mid-table, with the next three matches being particularly difficult: two against Vancouver and one against Rochesterwith two of them on the roadin eight days.

We spoke to coach Martin Rennie yesterday to get a few of his thoughts about this week. In my absent-minded fashion, I left my notes on the office serverwhich I can’t access from homeso I’ll have to paraphrase the conversation:

How important is it to finish in first place in this league, in relation to preparing for the post-season? Some might say that it’s a problem to have your team idle for two weeks [as a result of receiving a first-round bye] but I’ll deal with that if the time comes. It would be an tremendous achievement for this club to finish in first place [in the regular season].

I asked him about the lineup he showed in the 1-0 win over Rochester Wednesday, one that included two defensive midfielders (Brad Rusin and Amir Lowery) and Kupono Low, normally a defensive player, up on the wing. Was Rennie playing for a road draw against Rochester? Not at all, I was looking to go with a bigger lineup. [Click here for video of Low’s game-winning, 90th-minute goal.]

How is Brad Rusin, who took a nasty blow to the nose against Rochester? It may be broken. I doubt he’ll play [Saturday].

How does he make sure his team is focused and motivated against the league’s last-place team? Rennie said this was no obstacle: This league is so competitive that if we let our standard of play slip, any team can beat you. Furthermore, things are competitive within our own lineup: We have many players who want to play that motivation isn’t a problem.