Stars Connor Tobin goes high to keep the ball from Scorpions leading scorer, Pablo Campos. Photo by Jeremy Olson – www.digitalgopher.net
The San Antonio Scorpions were training in Texas on Thursday with temperatures in the high 80s. Just two days later they were playing in Minnesota for the first leg of the NASL semifinals. The temperature at game time was 43°. But that didn’t seem to bother the Scorpions who negated the home field advantage for Minnesota and played them to a 0-0 draw.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” Scorpions midfielder Kevin Harmse said about the massive temperature difference. “We were all sorted. These guys are all pros.”
What may have made the difference in this match was players like Harmse who spent 7 years playing MLS and has 9 caps for Canada. Stars head coach Manny Lagos pointed out that there were many others also in the Scorpions lineup that were veteran players of post season. “If you look at their players they have an infinite amount more of playoff experience than my roster. In terms of playoff experience they are probably heads above us. That’s why I’m very proud of the guys tonight. I think we managed things very well.”
The match started out with the Scorpions getting after the Stars in the early going. Like the four matches played earlier this season between the two teams, chances were few and play physical with contrasting styles; Minnesota playing a possession game and San Antonio sitting back and defending playing direct, looking for NASL Golden Boot winner Pablo Campos. The Stars outshot the San Antonio 7-5 in the first half even though the Scorpions seemed to have the better run of play most of the first 45 minutes.
The best chance for the Stars may have come in the 37th minute when Miguel Ibarra made a twisting, turning run that saw him pivot 180 degrees then take a shot that sailed high over the bar. Just minutes later it was Simone Bracalello with a chance which he hit from the left top of the penalty box and hooked around Scorpions goalkeeper and NASL Golden Glove winner Daryl Sattler. His shot came within inches of the target.
The second half saw better play from Minnesota but San Antonio had their chances as well. In the 83rd minute Campos broke through the Stars defense to go one-on-one with Stars keeper Matt VanOekel. The big keeper kept his feet and waited for Campos’ shot which he kicked out to save the draw for Minnesota.
“I wanted to stay on my feet as long as possible to cut down that angle because I thought Campos would try to bring it in a little deeper rather than shoot right away,” said VanOekel. “Lucky for me he mishit it and I was lucky enough to get my feet down quickly and kick it out.”
VanOekel who was named the IMSoccer News Man of the Match for his game-saving stop, said he knew it would be a close and physical contest. “They’re a big physical team. We know that. Pound for pound I think they all outweigh us by about 20 lbs. We knew they’d come in hard and physical.”
“I think it was just a buildup from the 4 close games throughout the season and everything gets amped up a little bit during the playoffs,” said Stars defender Justin Davis who believed the Stars just needed to settle down and play their game. “I think we just calmed down a little bit and started connecting a few passes. Miguel got at them, Jamie got at them and I think that’s what we were looking for when we changed our formation up last week. I think it’s working out well for us.”
Both Lagos and Scorpions head coach Tim Hankinson said in their post match comments that the teams are now at “halftime.”
“You have to look at this two legged playoff almost as if it’s one big game of 180 minutes,” said Hankinson. “Today was the first half. Now we’ve got a week long halftime. The important part for either team in the first leg is not to create a deficit. Therefore you take fewer risks in the first leg. We knew we’d have some chances, we had a great breakaway at the end. It’s not like we were sitting back. Our approaches were as often and as good as theirs but they were released their shots and we were always looking for one more pass. So I thought they were more dangerous overall.”
“I was hoping to take advantage of the home field advantage,” admitted Lagos. “I don’t think by any means it was our best game or our best playoff game. But when you have the kind of pressure to play well and to defend at home it’s difficult. It’s halftime. I don’t think we should have our heads down. But tonight we weren’t quite sharp enough in the final third.”
The Stars will now travel to San Antonio next Sunday to play the Scorpions at Heroes Field which has averaged nearly 7,000 per match and seen crowds of over 13,000. A question about that sort of pressure drew a big grin from VanOkel. “That’s when we play best. Throughout the season when people are watching us that’s when we bring our game. I’m excited to go back to San Antonio and hopefully put a couple more in their net.”
“Minnesota has played us tight there,” said Hankinson. “We’ve had two draws. There’s nothing that really divides these teams. It’s just going to come down to a given night and who happens to put the ball away. If you look at other games we have played in the league, there have been tight games but there have also been games that have been clear wins. But not with Minnesota. These teams are very well balanced and they play each other very evenly.”
“I think we can absorb a lot of positives but not be naive about the challenges ahead of us to go to San Antonio where they have been so successful at home,” said Lagos. “But I think we can look back at this match and get excited about the character and resilience of this team to do well.”