BLAINE, Minn. (Oct. 20, 2012) — With one game to play in the 2012 North American Soccer League season, Minnesota Stars FC is sitting in a familiar seat: leading a two-game series by two goals with a trip to Florida around the corner. The Stars topped the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0 in front of 4,642 fans on a chilly Minnesota night at NSC Stadium.
Amani Walker broke a scoreless tie in the 67th minute before substitute Martín Núñez poked home a flicked header in the final minute of stoppage time to give the Stars a 2-0 lead in the aggregate goals series as it heads to No. 2 seeded Tampa Bay’s Al Lang Stadium for the second leg.
“I thought we really had them in the first 10, 15 minutes and maybe should have had a goal or two, then they should have had a goal or two, and in the second half, the guys really stepped up for a special night,” Stars head coach Manny Lagos said.
The first half was an end-to-end affair in which both teams had their goalkeepers to thank for keeping things level. Walker looped a header off the crossbar only six minutes before Tampa Bay’s Jeff Attinella, the NASL’s 2012 saves leader and Best XI selection, was alert early as a Simone Bracalello and Walker led attack pressed in the first 15 minutes, accompanied by late runs from wingers Jamie Watson and Miguel Ibarra. In the middle stages of the first half, it was Stars goalkeeper Matt VanOekel’s turn to step up, as he frustrated Tampa Bay midfielder Keith Savage, who latched onto an early cross from Shane Hill and a low ball from former Stars midfielder Luke Mulholland, forcing diving saves. Neither side dominated the half’s final 15 minutes, as Ibarra and Tampa Bay captain Frankie Sanfilippo both sent chances wide.
The second half brought the best out of the Stars, who nearly took the lead only two minutes in. Watson worked himself past two defenders before crossing for Bracalello, whose volley from six yards out was cut out by a sprawling Daniel Scott. Two minutes later, Attinella made the save as Watson played Walker through, but the Stars’ leading goalscorer directed his shot right at the Tampa Bay goalkeeper. In the 62nd minute, Attinella sprawled out twice to stop Watson, who had cut into the central channel from the wing and directed a shot and a follow-up on goal, only to be denied.
It was a night when something special would be needed to beat either keeper, and Walker produced it in the 67th minute. Bracalello collected a long pass from the defense on the left wing and played the ball square along the top of the penalty area. Allowing the ball to roll across his body onto his right foot, Walker blasted his first-time shot just under the crossbar out of Attinella’s reach.
Tampa Bay’s best chance of the half once again belonged to Savage, who slipped behind the Stars’ defense to collect a Mulholland through ball, but VanOekel was quick off his line and blocked Savage’s shot just as it left his foot for his best save of the match. As the final whistle neared, it seemed both teams were content to hold out for a 1-0 Stars win, but Watson pounced on a loose ball in midfield and sprung a Stars counterattack that led to a corner kick in the final minute of stoppage time.
Not content with only a one-goal lead, the Stars brought their target men forward, and the move paid off. Connor Tobin flicked Bracalello’s cross goalward, and Nunez tapped it in from the doorstep before Tampa Bay could clear the shot off the line. The goal touched off a wild celebration in front of the Dark Clouds’ section, as an advertising board gave way, allowing the team and its most ardent supporters to celebrate the crucial goal as one chaotic mass.
“Second goal is huge,” Stars midfielder Neil Hlavaty said. “We were lucky enough to get a set piece at the end of the game, and when that happened, we definitely saw the advantage the opportunity to get the second goal ahead of the second game. It maybe changes a little bit of what we want to do, but we’re in familiar territory up two goals going on the road.”