by Alex Haueter
All the pieces came together May 5 as Minnesota Stars FC topped the Atlanta Silverbacks 2-0 in front of 1,692 fans at damp National Sports Center (NSC) Stadium.
During the Stars’ NSC home opener, Ernest Tchoupe scored on his debut for Minnesota, Miguel Ibarra scored his first professional goal and Matt VanOekel made two exceptional saves in posting his third shutout of 2012.
With the win, the Stars move into second place in the North American Soccer League, sitting just one point behind the idle Puerto Rico Islanders.
“Tonight was just a positive result, and it took a lot of guys to get that positive result,” said Stars head coach Manny Lagos. “We had guys step up big – guys like Matty [VanOekel]. Matty was outstanding tonight at key moments of the game to make sure we pushed them and really dictated the game.”
The Stars started quickly and with a lot of energy, but Lagos was forced into an early substitution when center back Connor Tobin – himself starting in place of injured team captain Kyle Altman – was forced off after 21 minutes with a hamstring injury.
Lagos substituted Tchoupe, who was rostered for the first time this season. The substitution changed the game.
Just two minutes later, Tchoupe dove low at the back post to head home Neil Hlavaty’s 23rd-minute corner and give Minnesota a deserved 1-0 lead after its fast-paced start.
The team had a chance to double the lead in the 27th minute when Devin Del Do tried to slip a shot under Atlanta goalkeeper Daniel Illyes, but the keeper partially blocked the shot before Martyn Lancaster cleared it to safety.
Atlanta responded well and turned up the pressure in the final 15 minutes of the half. Lancaster flicked a header goalward that VanOekel did well to punch clear, but the Stars were let off the hook when Ciaran O’Brien drove the rebound wide through a crowd with the Stars goalkeeper out of position.
O’Brien then curled a free kick just wide of VanOekel’s post as the Silverbacks looked close to an equalizer as the first half wound down.
Instead, it was almost the Stars who scored again.
Justin Davis slid in front of an Atlanta defender’s clearance, deflecting the ball up in the air and onto the foot of Amani Walker, who controlled well and finished but was undone by a late offside flag.
The pacy Martin Nunez replaced Del Do at forward at halftime as another injury hit the Stars, this time forcing the team’s leading scorer from the game with a quad injury.
Nunez nearly made an immediate impact, getting behind the Atlanta defense and sending a shot wide just minutes after coming on. He would later draw a save out of Illyes as the speedy combination of Nunez and Ibarra looked a constant threat to stretch Atlanta’s defense.
At the other end, VanOekel produced the best save of the night to deny the NASL leading scorer Reinaldo Navia and keep Atlanta off the board. Navia combined well with Danilo Turcios, but VanOekel reacted quickly to dive to his left to rob Navia from 14 yards out.
As the teams jockeyed, the Stars gained a massive upper hand in the 70th minute when McManus, already playing with a yellow card for dissent from the 62nd minute, fouled one too many times for the referee’s liking, earning a second yellow card after tripping up Nunez on the edge of the penalty box. He was sent off reducing Atlanta to 10 players.
It wasn’t long before the Stars added insurance, and did so with style, as Ibarra and Kentaro Takada combined in the penalty area to make it 2-0 in the 77th minute. After receiving a return pass from a throw in, Ibarra cut inside to the top corner of the penalty area before splitting two Silverbacks defenders with a pass to Takada, whose cheeky back heel put the ball right in Ibarra’s path for a right-footed finish into the side of the net from about 15 yards out.
“One of the great things about Miguel is that he brings so much energy to the game and even though he’d missed a chance earlier, he bounced back and had a great combination play with Takada for the goal,” Lagos said.
The Stars continued to attack and frustration got the better of Atlanta’s Borfor Carr in the 88th minute. Having tussled with Stars left back Justin Davis earlier in the match, Carr flew in with two feet on Davis along the left wing, earning a straight red card and leaving Atlanta with nine men.
The Stars improved to a record of two wins, three draws and no losses with the win and moved into second place in the NASL. They trail early leaders Puerto Rico by one point and are ahead of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on goal difference. The Stars also have a game in hand on Fort Lauderdale.
The team returns to action May 12 at 7:30 p.m. at NSC Stadium, facing the Carolina RailHawks in a rematch of the April 7 Dome Opener, which ended in a 0-0 draw. Tickets for the Stars-RailHawks game are available at mnstarsfc.com or by calling 763-792-7355.
Editor’s note: Alex Haueter is director of media and public relations for the Minnesota Stars FC.