The Stars’ Amani Walker celebrates his game-winning goal with fans as smoke from supporters section flares clouds the background. It was the forward’s 2nd goal of post season and 9th in all competitions. Photo by Jeremy Olson – www.digitalgopher.net
In arguably the most entertaining and intense match of the year, the Minnesota Stars FC defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0 on Saturday night at the NSC Stadium in front of the 2nd largest crowd (4,642) this season. A 67th minute wonder strike by Amani Walker was needed to beat NASL Best XI goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and Martin Nunez scored his 6th goal of the season deep into added time to give the Stars a cushion as they head to St. Petersburg next weekend for the 2nd leg of the total goal series.
“That second goal is tremendous – massive,” said assistant Stars coach Carl Craig. “It gives us a cushion to go down there. When you’ve got something it’s easier to fight to keep what you’ve got than to try to gain something. Now that we have those two goals, certainly we are going to fight to keep it.”
On paper the matchup between the two teams looked as if it would be a good one. Both the Rowdies and Minnesota were noted for playing a possession-oriented game and the two teams were the cleanest of any of the 8 NASL squads, with Tampa winning the Fair Play award and the Stars coming in second. The contest did not disappoint.
While the opening minutes saw the two sides crowding the midfield and pinging balls with no real possession, each team settled in for a thrilling 90 minutes. Minnesota hit the crossbar just 6 minutes into the match and Simone Bracalello forced Attinella to dive to his left in the 12th minute to keep the game scoreless.
The Rowdies had an excellent chance in the 15th minute when Shane Hill hit a driven cross from left to right to find Carl Cort who one-timed a fierce shot from close range that forced Stars goalkeeper Matt VanOekel into a one handed reaction save. That would not be the last big save the Stars keeper would need to come up with. Just seven minutes later the Rowdies’ Mike Ambersley broke open on the left side and fired a hard shot at the upper corner of the Stars goal. But VanOekel was able to get his hand up to parry the ball away.
Not long afterwards the Rowdies’ Keith Savage got around Stars defender Justin Davis. The Stars’ right back twirled around Savage with a hand full of Rowdies shirt. No call was made and Savage took his shot which went right to VanOekel.
At the end of the half the Stars had outshot the Rowdies 11-7 but the better quality chances went to Tampa as each keeper ended with 4 saves. But that would all change in the second half after Minnesota made changes to assignments of their defensive midfielders, Kentaro Takada and Neil Hlavaty. The Stars also came out with more purpose and outshot their opponents 10-2 forcing 5 saves from Attinella in the 2nd half.
With Minnesota pressing, Justin Davis played a long deep ball to the left side where Simone Bracalello had beat his defender. He cut the ball back and rolled it square to Walker who was making a run through the middle of the field. The big Stars forward turned to go with the ball then unleashed a 20 yard rocket that hit just under the crossbar and put the Stars up 1-0.
The Stars kept the pressure on Tampa Bay but the Rowdies also had their chances. In the second half none was better than when Savage got behind the Stars defense to hit a point blank shot at VanOekel in the 75th minute which the Stars keeper dropped saved and amazingly held on to. “He smacked the crap out of that ball,” said a laughing VanOekel after the match. “I thought I got a little bit of a late jump on it but a little bit of luck didn’t hurt.”
But the Stars were not finished and in the waning moments of added time, 77th minute substitute Nunez cushioned the Stars’ aggregate lead to two by finishing off a corner kick that was taken by Bracalello and headed down across the box by Minnesota defender Connor Tobin. It was a play that was confusing at first as a mass of players were in the box and Attinella actually dove and slapped the ball out, but evidently not until the ball had already already crossed the line.
Nunez and the team rushed over to the Dark Clouds supporters section to celebrate where there were nearly 300 in the east stands. The throng of on-rushing fans caused the dasher boards to break as supporters went happily headlong onto the field. Officials had to get the match back underway and the whistle blew sending the Stars to St. Petersburg’s Al Lang stadium next Saturday with a 2-0 aggregate lead.
“That second goal is absolutely enormous for us going down to Tampa, because they play extremely well at home, and we know they’re going to be coming after us the next ninety minutes,” said VanOekel. “It’s gonna be crazy. They’ve got a really small, short field and the way they play is very direct, and if they play like that the entire time they’re going to be dropping the ball into the box the entire game. It’s going to be a wild ninety minutes down in Tampa. I hope we come out like we did last year, and take it home, and bring back the cup.”
Matt VanOekel IMSoccer News Man of the Match
“This is my first finals that I’ve got to play in and it felt right,” said a wide grinning Matt VanOekel after the match. VanOekel had to sit and watch from the bench last year when Joe Warren played in all the Stars post season matches and hoisted the Soccer Bowl trophy when the Stars won the championship in 2011. VanOekel made 6 critical saves on the night.
“Everything was clicking for the group and the guys and I couldn’t be happier right now. They were really coming at us in little bit but we tweaked a couple of tactical situations with Taka and Neil [Hlavaty] in the midfield and the second half was a lot better. I saw a lot less shots and only had to come up with one or two little saves and did my job and kept us in the game for the finals.”