SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Oct. 14, 2012) — The NASL Soccer Bowl trophy isn’t going anywhere just yet. Minnesota Stars FC overcame a 1-0 halftime deficit Sunday night at Heroes Stadium in San Antonio, Texas, to progress to the North American Soccer League Championship Series for the second consecutive year, with a 2-1 victory. The Stars will face the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the two-legged championship series beginning next weekend in Blaine.
Simone Bracalello scored the winner eight minutes from time for Minnesota, who played more than an hour of the match with a man advantage after a moment of anger from NASL Golden Boot winner Pablo Campos put the Scorpions in a hole that may well have cost them a trip to the finals in their inaugural season.
Campos had gotten the Scorpions off to a great start in their first-ever playoff match. Midfielder Jonathan Greenfield worked the ball down the left wing and into the Stars’ penalty area. His low cross was deflected on goal by Hans Denissen and saved well by goalkeeper Matt VanOekel, but the rebound fell for kindly for Campos to slam into the roof of the net for his 21st goal of the season.
A minute later, Campos’ night was done. Stars captain Kyle Altman fouled Campos in the Scorpions’ attacking third, and Campos reacted to the foul with a headbutt to Altman, prompting angry reactions from the Stars and a straight red card from the referee.
The Stars responded well with the man advantage. Bracalello worked his way into the penalty area, but the Scorpions closed him down as he shot. Stars midfielder Lucas Rodriguez tested Scorpions goalkeeper Daryl Sattler a few minutes later with a low shot from the edge of the penalty box, but the 2012 Golden Gloves winner dove well to his left to parry the shot wide. Sattler needed to be alert again in first-half stoppage time as the Stars deflected a low Neil Hlavaty corner kick on-goal at the near post.
“It 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,” Stars head coach Manny Lagos said. “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’ pressure didn’t let up in the second half, but the Scorpions’ defense was determined to absorb the pressure. Bracalello did well in the 53rd minute in the penalty area to dribble past Wes Knight before squaring a low cross in front of the goal, but the Scorpions defense blocked a close range shot to bail out Sattler, who was stuck at the near post. A minute later, Bracalello curled a free kick high and wide, unable to take full advantage of an off-the-ball foul by San Antonio captain Kevin Harmse. Sattler’s best moment of the match came right on the hour mark as substitute Martin Nunez latched onto a ball over the top and forced a left-handed save from the Scorpions keeper with a powerful shot from 15 yards out. Sattler then had Hans Denissen to thank for clearing a shot off the line off a Stars corner kick.
After playing with a man advantage for nearly 50 minutes, the Stars finally drew level in the 76th minute. The goal itself was richly deserved, although it took a stroke of luck. Neil Hlavaty crossed from the top corner of the penalty area and caught Scorpions defender Blake Wagner running toward his own net, and with pressure on his back shoulder, the San Antonio man deflected the cross into his own net to draw the game and semifinal series level.
Five minutes later, the Stars had the lead. A Scorpions turnover let the Stars push forward quickly, with the ball played to Bracalello 30 yards from goal. Bracalello let the ball's momentum put him in a more central position before skipping a powerful shot past a diving Sattler and into the far-side netting.
The Scorpions made attack-minded changes, bringing Esteban Bayona and Major League Soccer career goals leader Jeff Cunningham into the game, but the 10-man side was unable to craft a shot on goal in the final minutes, although the Stars got a let off in stoppage time as the Scorpions drove a shot wide from the top of the six-yard box while the Stars appealed for offside.
“In the locker room, we knew we could come back into the game,” Bracalello said. “They were a man down, and we always work hard. We have this reaction all the time. We have a good spirit, and we never give up. We’re not a lot of big stars, but we always fight for each other.”
The Stars host the first leg of the 2012 NASL Championship Series next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at NSC Stadium in Blaine. The away leg will be the following Saturday at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla.