Looking at NASL Championship Match

The victor between Minnesota Stars FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies will be the team with least mistakes
by Daniel Casey   |   Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

Minnesota has had a professional soccer team for more than 20 years.

For the dedicated core of fans, the current incarnation, Minnesota Stars FC, is perhaps the most successful and yet most precarious team. The Stars, for the second year in a row, are facing a team from Florida in the NASL Final. Last year it was the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and this year the champions are looking to defend their trophy against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

The 2011 Stars had an improbable run. They secured the last playoff spot by a point, skimming by Tampa 1-0 in the quarterfinals, dragging the No. 1 seed, Carolina, into extra time and then won in a penalty shootout. The Stars went on to defeat Ft. Lauderdale 3-1 at home in the first leg of the Final.

Minnesota earned its trophy last season. And the hardscrabble way it had to go about it has become a defining characteristic of the team. Quickly, devoted supporters embraced the idea that their (still) owner-less team was able to defy the odds. Minnesota Stars FC, “the team that no one wanted,” is in the final … again.

Last Saturday saw the Stars get that much closer to their dream of a repeat as they defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0. It was a fortunate result for Minnesota which needed to take advantage of Tampa being without NASL Best IX defender Takuya Yamada. A 67th minute goal by Amani Walker and a literally last second goal by Martin Nunez in stoppage time put Minnesota in a strong position heading down to Tampa.

The NASL Final is determined by pure aggregate as away goals do not carry more weight than home goals, unlike in most European play. But the scoreline of the first leg doesn’t reveal just how evenly matched these two teams are.

On paper, Minnesota and Tampa look about level.

Over the regular season, both teams were about even in goals scored (34 for Minnesota, 37 for Tampa) and assists (26, 30). Both teams lack a single, major goal-scoring threat yet they compensate for this by spreading their offense around among several dangerous players.

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

The Rowdies have a potent mix of forwards/attacking wingers like Daniel Antoniuk (7 goals, 4 assists), Tsuyoshi Toshitake (6, 2), Mike Ambersley (6, 8), and Luke Mulholland (5, 5).

Tampa’s strength is that goal-scoring opportunities can be created by nearly every player in the attack and that every player in its attack is also a threat to score. Similarly, Minnesota has seen its goals come from its strikers, Amani Walker (7, 5) and Simone Bracalello (5), and youthful wingers, Martin Nunez (5, 2) and Miguel Ibarra (3, 4).

But each of these attackers will butt-up against stingy and consistent defenses. Tampa tied for the second fewest goals surrendered over the regular season due in large part to the team’s stalwart NASL Best XI goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who led the league in saves as well as boasting a miniscule 1.07 goals-against average over 2500 minutes.

Minnesota has a consistent backline led by its own NASL Best XI defender, team captain Kyle Altman, and possibly the most dangerous fullback pairing in the league in Justin Davis and Brian Kallman (the two have combined for 7 assists).

Last Saturday’s first leg was a back-and-forth affair. Each team carved out serious chances that were only denied because of brilliant goalkeeping. Attinella made more than a few superior saves, but it was Minnesota’s first-year keeper Matt Van Oekel who came away with the shutout. Neither team ever took their foot off the gas – the pace was fast, the challenges were hard and fair and the shots were either achingly close or stunningly rebuffed.

Going into the second leg in Tampa, the Rowdies must win by three goals or more to be crowned NASL Champions. Certainly their home crowd will attempt to cheer them on to that. But if Tampa fails to win outright, if they even the aggregate, it will force two 15-minute halves of added extra time (AET). If the aggregate is still even after AET, the champion will be decided via penalty kicks.

It may seem a bit of a twisting road for the Rowdies. But with the proven weapons at each team’s disposal, what will determine the victor of this Saturday’s match will be which team makes the fewest mistakes.

This article has been dedicated by the author to Gary Moody.

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.