ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (May 25, 2012) — Minnesota Stars FC closed to within a point of the Puerto Rico Islanders for first place in the North American Soccer League and remain the last unbeaten team in the NASL after a 0-0 draw against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium on Friday night. In the midst of a long roadtrip, the Stars played an unfamiliar lineup in earning a point and shutout on the road.
“I wasn’t too happy with the play in the final third,” said Stars FC head coach Manny Lagos, who made wholesale changes from the lineup that defeated the Des Moines Menace 2-0 in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup on Tuesday night. In all, seven players made their first starts of the season for Minnesota Friday night as the team prepares for a US Open Cup third round match with Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake. Among those new starters was goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt, who recorded four saves to go along with the shutout in his professional debut.
Considering the changes and the team’s current roadtrip—six games, and possibly more depending on Open Cup results—Lagos and Stars captain Kyle Altman were pleased with the commitment to defense as the Stars recorded their fourth clean sheet of the season in league play.
“It’s a tough place to play,” Altman said. “It’s hotter than Minnesota and humid, so you do get tired and need to focus. We’re pleased to get a point on the road, play well for each other on defense, and get another shutout.”
In the Florida heat and with both teams coming off Tuesday night matches in the Open Cup, the first half was short on chances, although both side could have broken the deadlock. In the 12th minute, Rowdies forward Mike Ambersley broke on goal after picking off a stray back pass, but Stars captain Kyle Altman was able to close him down before he was able to shoot. Ambersley had another great chance in the 23rd minute, but with time and space to shoot, he struck right to Stars goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt, who was making his professional debut Friday. Devin Del Do had the Stars best chance of the half, rising to Daniel Wasson’s free kick to slam a header off the crossbar.
The second half was much of the same, with the Stars content to concede possession and look for opportunities to come forward on the counterattack. An opportunistic shot in the 58th minute forced a reaction save from Rowdies goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, and Travis Wall sent a shot over two minutes later after combining with Ibee Ibrahim on a counter.
Tampa had the lion’s share of possession for the half, but couldn’t crack the Stars defense, settling for long-range shots and struggling to generate chances from its wing attack. Fafa Picault brought creativity off the bench late in the half, but his speed wasn’t enough to unlock Minnesota’s defense.