The 6th seeded Minnesota Stars upset the 3rd seeded Islanders 2-1 on Sunday night in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, to move on to the semifinals of the NASL playoffs against the San Antonio Scorpions. They Stars earned the victory with a number of firsts.
Stars head coach Manny Lagos came into this quarterfinal playoff match with a new formation trying to feature more attack. The Stars, who usually play with two defensive midfielders, switched to a diamond in the middle leaving Kentra Takada out of the lineup but added two forwards, Amani Walker and Simone Bracalello, up front with Miguel Ibarra tucked in behind them. Neil Hlavaty filled the defensive midfield role and Orlando City loan player Jamie Watson covered the left side midfield while Lucas Rodriguez took the right. The game plan seemed to work perfectly as the Stars defended well across the field and only attacked on the counter – which is exactly how the Stars scored both of their goals and to perfection. Bracalello assisted on both goals with Walker scoring the fist and Ibarra the second. Bracalello, who had not had an assist all season and only one in 2011, had two on the night. And the win was the first-ever for Minnesota in Puerto Rico against the Islanders.
Even though the Islanders looked to be threatening the first several minutes of the match it was Minnesota who went up 1-0 on a Walker goal in the 9th minute of play. The Stars seemed to transition out of their defensive third and into the attack quite efficiently with the new formation, something they had struggled with the last several months of the season. As Minnesota broke out in a counter attack, they found Bracalello on the right side who made a run up the touch line. After gaining some space he played a long cross which arched perfectly into the path of Amani Walker who had beat his mark on the far left post. The 6’2″ forward headed back the opposite direction and past Puerto Rico Islanders keeper Richard Martin to score the first goal of the match.
Puerto Rico had a few more chances and the game settled in with the Islander's best coming in the 39th minute when Jonathan Fana could only swipe at a cross that was driven through the box by David Foley.
Just a minute later the Stars added to their tally. Again it was a perfectly executed counter attack with the cross coming from Bracalello. And again the play started on the right side with a pass from Neil Hlavaty to Bracalello who chested the ball then popped it up and over his defender before playing it back to Hlavaty for a give-and-go that sent the Italian forward down the right flank. Like the first ball played to Walker, Bracalello laid another perfect cross to find Ibarra making a run at the far post. Being marked tightly he cut the ball back and then shot hard across the mouth of goal from 18 yards out, beating Martin to the far post.
The Stars did their best to contain the Islanders and in the 50th minute nearly notched a third goal when Bracalello took a corner kick and hooked his driven ball in through the goal box. Watson got his head on the ball but redirected it just inches wide of the far post.
Miguel Ibarra curled a ball in towards the far post in the 75th minute that looked goal bound but was headed away from danger by the Islanders’ Anthony Vazquez. Just one minute later it was Watson’s turn for a near miss. His shot from distance got past the outstretched Martin but he couldn’t beat the post as the ball caromed across the mouth of the goal.
The Islanders finally pulled one back in the 79th minute with a goal by David Foley who gave the ball the slightest of touches to redirect it after Joshua Hansen took a shot from the top of the box and found its way through traffic and to Foley.
The Stars had one last scare and it was Kyle Altman with the heroics when he cleared a ball that was rolling over the goal line in the 85th minute.
Minnesota and San Antonio will play the first leg of their series next Saturday, October 6th, at NSC Stadium at 7:30 p.m. before traveling to San Antonio for the October 14th second leg at Heroes Stadium.