A red card slowed them down, overtime sapped their strength and a shootout tested their nerves, but none of those challenges were enough to keep the Tampa Bay Rowdies from wresting the NASL Championship from the defending champion Minnesota Stars.
Entering the second leg of the 2012 final on Saturday with a two-goal deficit, Tampa Bay fought back to even matters with a 3-1 victory that prompted a decisive penalty-kick shootout. On the back of three massive saves from Best XI goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, the Rowdies laid claim to the Soccer Bowl, the highest honor of the American and Canadian second division.
A back-and-forth first leg set the bar high and what followed at Al Lang Stadium was one of the most intense matches in the league’s two-year history, as aggregate scores flip-flopped, regulation produced four goals and a sell-out crowd of 6,208 in St. Petersburg, Fla., provided a fitting atmosphere.
Whereas the first leg of the Soccer Bowl featured the exploits of many former MLSers, round two gave well-traveled Carl Cort, once the pride of Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, the spotlight. Cort put away a rebound after 25 minutes to start Tampa Bay’s comeback, and his size and composure gave the Minnesota defense plenty to worry about throughout the night.
The two teams exchanged goals one minute apart in the 51st and 52nd minutes when onetime Chivas USA man Keith Savage struck for the Rowdies, only to see the Stars regain the aggregate lead when Lucas Rodriguez answered with a goal of his own.
The final minutes of regulation saw a series-tying goal from Rowdies substitute Daniel Antoniuk followed almost immediately by a red card to Shane Hill, forcing Tampa Bay to play with 10 men in extra time. Still, the home side held on, setting the stage for a dramatic win.
Attinella, an unsigned 2011 Supplemental Draft pick by Real Salt Lake, stole the show by stopping three of Minnesota’s efforts to secure the championship and extend their home unbeaten streak to 12 games.
Now that the 2012 NASL season has come to a close, fans will look forward to a 2013 campaign that will usher in considerable changes. A split-season format, the arrival of the New York Cosmos and the construction of a soccer-specific stadium for San Antonio all offer signs of a bright future for the second division.
For now, though, the Tampa Bay Rowdies can enjoy their victory.