The Minnesota Stars carry a two-goal lead into the second leg of the North American Soccer League Championship Series after an impressive 3-1 victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in front of 4,511 fans at NSC Stadium. The Stars and Strikers square off again next Saturday at the Strikers’ Lockhart Stadium at 6 p.m. CDT in the second of two legs in this total-goals series.
Neil Hlavaty got the Stars off to a dream start with a goal in the third minute. Andrei Gotsmanov drew a foul at the top of the penalty area, and Hlavaty stepped up with his right foot, crushing the ball around the wall and inside Fort Lauderdale goalkeeper Matt Glaeser’s far post.
“It was big to score that early against Fort Lauderdale because we’ve struggled against them this year, and to go up three minutes in gave us a confidence boost that showed the whole game,” Hlavaty said. “I couldn’t really get the shot up and down from that close, or didn’t want to try to, but I was hitting them inside yesterday, so I was going there the whole time, and luckily it went in.”
The Stars defended resolutely the rest of the first half, holding Fort Lauderdale to two weak shots on goal that goalkeeper Joe Warren saved easily. On offense, they continued creating chances, as Brian Kallman, Gotsmanov and Hlavaty all had open looks from distance.
The Strikers made adjustments at halftime and moved forward with more purpose, but they still struggled to find space to shoot. Despite their struggles, they were even in the 52nd minute after Justin Davis chested a Strikers cross past Warren under little pressure.
The blow could have crippled the Stars. Instead, it seemed to unite them, and a minute later, Davis atoned for his mistake. Moving forward, he collected a ball on the left wing, carried it past a defender and played a low ball into the penalty area that found Luke Mulholland on the opposite side of the box. Mulholland had time to control the ball before powering a swerving, right-footed shot through a crowd and into the back of the net to put the Stars ahead for good.
Head coach Manny Lagos called that spell the pivotal moment in the game and was especially pleased with the rookie Davis’ response to his mistake.
“We’d been playing pretty well and to give up a tough goal makes it very difficult, but that reaction by the guys was unbelievable,” he said. “It just happens sometimes that the game doesn’t go your way, but Justin has done a good job understanding what things you can and can’t control.”
Fort Lauderdale looked for an equalizer, but it was the Stars who scored the game’s final goal. Minutes after missing a great opportunity after taking too long to shoot, Lucas Rodriguez gave the Stars insurance after skipping around two Strikers defenders and catching Glaeser with a slow shot to the near post.
“The way I look at it, I’m cautiously optimistic because I know we’re playing a very good team next week in Fort Lauderdale, and they’re going to be excited to try to steal this one from us now,” Lagos said. “We’re going to have to play some soccer to win this thing.”