Minnesota Stars Reach NASL Championship Finals — Again
The Minnesota Stars FC reached the NASL Championship Finals for the second consecutive season, eliminating the regular season champion San Antonio Scorpions 2-1 Sunday evening at Heroes Field in Texas. The Stars will meet the Tampa Bay Rowdies next Saturday at their home NSC Field, with the second leg of the Championship Finals occurring Saturday October 27. Like last season, Stars coach Manny Lagos has brought his team to the finals from the last playoff seed. The Stars and Scorpions had played to a scoreless draw in the first leg of their semifinal series last weekend in Minnesota.
Over 6,200 fans were on hand in San Antonio in support of their Scorpions. And they got what they wanted when NASL leading scorer Pablo Campos gave the home side the go-ahead goal in the 25th minute of the match. Campos scored for the 21st time this season when he pounced on a rebound from a Hans Denissen tap saved by Stars goalkeeper Matt VanOekel. Jonathan Greenfield initiated the play with a fine low cross from the left flank into the mouth of the goal.
Unfortunately for Coach Tim Hankinson’s Scorpions, Campos negated the positive situation resulting from his goal when he received a straight red card for a flagrant foul on the Stars’ NASL Best XI Kyle Altman. Altman fouled Campos, putting his hands on the Brazilian’s chest following a high boot by Campos, but Campos overreacted and laid a headbutt on the Stars defender, causing his quick ejection. The Stars thus had a man advantage for more than an hour.
The black-clad Scorpions have performed well during the season in situations where they’ve been at a man disadvantage, and they held onto their 1-0 lead not only for the remainder of the first half but far into the second. But with fifteen minutes left, the game changed when a cross by the Stars’ Neil Hlavaty from the left side to the far post was accidentally knocked into the goal by retreating Scorpions defender Blake Wagner. Hlavaty’s cross went over a leaping Amani Walker to bound off Wagner with the Stars’ Simone Bracalello closing in on the goalmouth.
Wagner nearly put the Scorpions back in the lead, as an immediate response from the Scorpions saw a Wagner header miss from a cross from Josue Soto. But Bracalello got the game winner five minutes later. Following a Scorpions’ throw-in deep in their own territory, the Stars came up with a quick turnover. A well-aimed pass from the left hit Bracalello on the move. He drifted right and then fired off a shot from outside the box that one-hopped into the goal to the right of San Antonio goalkeeper Daryl Sattler to give the Stars a 2-1 lead. Hankinson brought in attackers Jeff Cunningham and Esteban Bayona, but there was too little time left and the Stars go to the finals again, eliminating the Scorpions by an aggregate score of 2-1.
Despite the gap between the two clubs in the regular season standings, the Scorpions and Stars had played at a pretty even level in their four regular season meetings and the first leg of their semifinal series. But playing a man down for more than an hour was too much of a burden for the Texas club to overcome. According to Lagos, Campos’ ejection “… changed the game, in both ways. They had to sit back and defend, and we knew we would have chances to move forward and have opportunities to control the game and get back into it. At halftime, I felt we were really starting to play well. It was a great effort considering how many guys they had behind the ball. At halftime, we got excited about attacking and getting the ball in good spots.” The Stars totaled 18 shots on the night to only five for the home side.
The Stars’ victory means that for a second consecutive season, the NASL’s regular season champion was eliminated before the Championship Final. Like last year’s Carolina RailHawks, the Scorpions were dominant most of the season before struggling during September and losing out in the playoffs. Still, much can be taken from the club’s first campaign on the field, as they led the league in wins, goals scored and allowed the least amount of goals during the regular season, in addition to topping the league in home attendance. San Antonio fans have a lot to look forward to once the disappointment of falling short of the Finals wears off.
For the Stars and Manny Lagos, they continue the trend exhibited in other American sports (most notably the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball and the New York Giants in the NFL): what matters is not who wins the most games in the regular season, but who can perform well in the playoffs. A special tip of the cap goes not only to Lagos, but to goalkeeper Matt VanOekel, who in his first year as the Stars regular goalkeeper has allowed only two goals in three playoff games.
Next Saturday’s first leg matchup between the Stars and Rowdies for the championship kicks off at 8:30 pm EDT