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Minnesota Stars on Cusp of 2nd NASL Championship with Win over Rowdies

2012 October 21
by Brian Quarstad

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.”

12 Responses
  1. John permalink
    October 21, 2012

    U cannot deny that Stars is a beast and their absence next year will be felt across the league

  2. October 21, 2012

    Who says the Stars are going anywhere? Folding the Stars, who will at least have appeared in the the first two NASL Championship Series, now probably winning both, would be a huge publicity drag for the league. Especially after Davidson has been quoted as saying they would give it 3 years to try and find an owner up there.

    I don’t think Stars or NASL fans have to worry about Minnesota, at least in the short term.

    These guys just know how to win when they have to. I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a strong run at one of the two championships next year. Maybe by finishing 6th these last two years they were simply pacing themselves lol, knowing that the real fight for the title would be the playoffs.

  3. Mike permalink
    October 21, 2012

    Who says the Stars are going anywhere? The league board of governors, who vote on it on the 27th. Yes, it would give the league a huge black eye if the Stars are contracted after winning another championship, but business is business. If you were one of the owners footing part of the bill, you’d think otherwise. If I was a fan of the Stars, I’d be very worried right now.

    As for Davidson, well, he lied. Not the first time he’s done it.

  4. October 21, 2012

    So Mike, tongue in cheek again, right? Or may not… or maybe….

  5. Bart permalink
    October 21, 2012

    I don’t know why there is all the hooplah about whether the Stars will be around next season or not. If they played as they did the last 2 seasons, they will never make another playoff game, and will be banished into the hinterland.

    And we lose all the excitement that the Stars created because of good ole American spirit and can-do attitude.

    What an outright shame.

  6. Mike permalink
    October 21, 2012

    @BQ,

    A little from column A, a little from column B. I like to keep people guessing.

    With tongue completely out of cheek, I want the Stars to finish it off on the 27th, make the board members squirm, and hopefully get a reprieve. Those 4600+ folks who showed up in chilly weather deserve better. I’m not confident it’ll happen, but I do hope.

    To touch upon what Bart posted, I mentioned in a prior thread about the fun of rooting for an underdog in playoffs. That goes away next year, and instead you have the potential for lots of fun scenarios such as this one:

    A team fights to finish 1st in each half season, falls just short both times, yet winds up with the best overall record in the league. Their reward is to sit at home while two inferior teams play for the championship.

    There are plenty more just like it, I’ll cover those when I have more time. Much better than these boring playoffs, yup!

  7. Darren permalink
    October 21, 2012

    You’re a real fun guy, Mike. I bet you get lots of dates. San Antionio couldn’t win when it counted… don’t dump on the Stars for their success; its makes you look small.

    Whether the Stars are back next season is a discussion for another day. Right now, the Stars and their fans are focused on this team’s great playoff run. If this these are our last days with this team, then let them be good days indeed.

    Next year there will be other teams that I can root for to kick SA’s ass.

  8. October 21, 2012

    The view from the cheapseats after the Stars won game #1

    http://bambuser.com/v/3079016

  9. October 22, 2012

    Go Starts go team! Continue so, we are with you to support you in your best moments. Big victories.

    Admiral Soccer

  10. October 22, 2012

    @Admiralsoccer, “we are with you to support you in your best moments.”
    Well that is true because not long ago I recall you supporting the Islanders over the Stars. Curious.

  11. Strikers Return permalink
    October 23, 2012

    Unfortunately I am forced to agree with Bart and Mike. With next year’s stupid schedule format, gone is the excitement the playoffs has created over the last two seasons. And no one better toss out that well 6th place teams don’t deserve to play for the trophy argument. If all we care about in terms of winning the Soccer Bowl was who had the best regular season record, AND, if uncertainty in playoff dates and locations is SUCH a problem, them there is only one fair solution, single table, full season, points champion lifts the Soccer Bowl. At least that scenario slightly mitigates the number of meaningless regular season games for more of the teams.

    Anyway, I allowed those rubes Mike and Bart to sucker me into straying from the story theme. Damn good job by the Stars in leg 1. And Striker fans can tell you exactly what is coming next in Tampa. Manny with his two goal lead will go down there and do exactly what he needs to do to win. It won’t be pretty, but if the past is any indicator, it will be effective, and BQ and all the other Stars fans will be celebrating once again.

    And I’ve been saying all along I believe the Stars will be back again next year no matter what. I think this run again this year only solidifies it.

  12. yankiboy permalink
    October 23, 2012

    “…we are with you to support you in your best moments…”

    Over at Admiral Soccer, they tend to have a pretty short memory. They were the official kit supplier to last year’s USL I-League/MISL’s “barely one (season) and done” Norfolf Sharxx. Then PASL and Admiral were touting Admiral becoming involved with professional indor soccer for the first time with the Anaheim Bolts and PASL.

    So all the “me love you long time” stuff with the stars is nothing more than low budget corporate garBAge (gotta say it a really fake French accent when you say it people).

    Man. I really miss the days that my beloved Puerto Rico Islanders where rocking the sick orange-navy blue and orange-white striped Calvo jerseys–those joints were TIGHT. They looked a hell of a lot cooler than what the Islanders are wearing these days.

    Just sayin’…

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