2014 proved to be an up and down season for the Wilmington Hammerheads. They started the year off right thanks to the scoring exploits of Sammy Ochoa and Jordan Hamilton but after Hamilton left for Portugal they found themselves struggling to get consistent results during the busy summer months. The busiest month of their summer was the last one and the Hammerheads knew that they would have to get back on track just to make the playoffs.
The team got themselves back on track in August picking up points on a regular basis against some of the toughest teams that USL Pro has to offer. By August 22nd it looked like Wilmington were going to slide right out of the playoff picture thanks to a string of defeats but they turned things around with the first of several strong weekends in a row. A win over Orange County Blues and a draw against LA Galaxy II got them back on track. They key result of their season may have come in the following week though when the Hammerheads grabbed a 3-1 win over the eventual regular season champions in Orlando City FC.
They still had some work left to do to lock down a playoff spot in the final week of the season as draws against Sacramento Republic and Orlando City, the top two teams in the league, were not enough to clinch their spot. That left Wilmington with two games this past weekend needed just a single point to ensure their playoff spot. They got the job done on Friday night with a 4-0 win over last place Dayton Dutch Lions.
A 2-0 defeat against the Rochester Rhinos on Sunday meant that Wilmington had to settle for 7th place in the league table. The sets up a first round playoff meeting with Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday at 10:30 PM eastern. It is not the most favourable matchup for the Hammerheads as they managed to take just a single point from Sacramento this season. They got the 0-0 draw when the two teams met at Legion Stadium in North Carolina but their trip to Bonney Field in Sacramento ended in a 2-0 defeat. The Hammerheads will have to be a lot better this time around if they want to make any kind of playoff run.
With Wilmington finishing the season on a 3-1-3 run they are certainly one of the form teams in the league heading in to the post season. They can also take confidence from that fact that their final day defeat against Rochester was only the second time all season that they lost to one of the teams now heading to the post season. That other defeat was the 2-0 loss to Sacramento. In 13 games against the teams they will be joined by in the playoffs the Hammerheads managed a 3-2-8. If they had turned a few more of those draws in to wins they will be a fair bit higher up the league table but now come playoff time there are no more draws which may work in their favour.
When the Hammerheads meet Sacramento they will be going up against a number of faces that will be familiar to Toronto FC fans. They are just completing their first season in USL Pro and have been impressive under the guidance of former TFC coach, Preki. They also have one Justin Braun playing a major role in their attack even if his 4 goals in 19 appearances could be considered quite disappointing.
The Hammerheads can look back on this season and be thankful for the contributions that they got from Toronto FC loanees this year. Over the course of the year they got 9 goals from the combination of Jordan Hamilton, Daniel Lovitz, Manuel Aparicio and Mark-Anthony Kaye. They also got 3 appearances from Jeremy Hall and 17 solid league starts in goal from Quillan Roberts.
It was a partnership that seems to have worked out in the best interest of both parties this season. Wilmington got some help on their way to a playoff spot and Toronto got some valuable minutes for several of their promising young players.
Next year though it seems the partnership will no longer be in place with Toronto FC intending to launch their own team which will play at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughn for the 2014 season. Duane Rollins over at Canadian Soccer News has been all over breaking that story and the details should be confirmed in the coming weeks by the club.