Despite entering the playoffs as a sixth seed, the Minnesota Stars are 90 minutes from a stunning NASL Championship repeat after taking a 2-0 lead over No. 2 seed Tampa Bay in the first leg of the finals this past Saturday.
Under chilly conditions at NSC Stadium in Blaine, Minn., the Stars rode a 67th-minute strike from Amani Walker and a stoppage-time tally from Martín Nuñez to pull ahead in the home-and-home series.
“That second goal is absolutely enormous for us going down to Tampa, because they play extremely well at home,” said Minnesota goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel. “We know they’re going to be coming after us the next 90 minutes.”
Both Walker and Nuñez have onetime ties to Major League Soccer – Walker was an unsigned 2011 Supplemental Draft pick by the Chicago Fire, while Nuñez turned down a contract with the Red Bulls in 2008 and has starred with several second-division teams in North America.
Familiar face Jamie Watson, who had time with both Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, proved the catalyst for Minnesota’s attack for most of the night, forcing saves from NASL Best XI goalkeeper Jeff Attinella on more than one occasion.
Luke Mulholland, whose 2011 efforts earned a tryout with the New England Revolution, led the attack for Tampa Bay as he dictated the midfield for the visitors. His efforts were in vain as Van Oekel turned in a career night for the Stars
With both netminders brilliant in the back-and-forth affair, it wasn’t until the 67th minute when Walker’s 20-yard strike broke the deadlock.
Down a goal, it was up to Tampa to press. The Rowdies’ best chance to equalize the score came in the 74th minute as Mullholland again lead a counterattack. But Van Oekel remained up to the task.
Minnesota, who have become upset specialists in recent years, cemented their hold on the series in the dying seconds of the match when Nuñez tapped home a cross to make it a two-goal lead.
“To be honest, I think they wanted it more than we did in the second half and it showed with the 2-0 result," said Attinella. "But now we head home – we’ve been scoring goals there. It will be tough but hopefully we can get a result.”
The second leg of the total-goals, two-leg tie will be this Saturday at 7:30 pm ET at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla.