Stars FC halfway home to title repeat after home success

Two late goals gave defending NASL champion Minnesota Stars FC a 2-0 lead and a clear advantage heading into the second half of the North American Soccer League championship series. The Oct. 20 game played at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine left Stars supporters pleased with the result. They now wait until next Saturday to see who will hoist the NASL Soccer Cup.

Stars goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel (red) leaps to collect the ball in the first half of Saturday’s NASL final in Blaine. Photo by Jason Olson

Amani Walker gave the home supporters a reason to cheer when he scored in the 74th minute with help from Simone Bracelello, who collected his third assist of the playoffs.

Walker said the final home game was a bit poetic because the team began the season with the scoreless Metrodome opener against Carolina and one-two attacking punch reconnected in the finals.

“He played a great ball through and I finished it off,” Walker said.

First-year Stars striker Martin Nunez made his presence felt after coming on for Walker in the 78th minute generating multiple scoring chances before scoring in extra time to double Minnesota’s lead to 2-0. Bracelello sent in a corner kick that was headed by Connor Tobin through traffic to the far post, where the ball bounced off Nunez’s his leg and into the goal.

Stars assistant coach Carl Craig wanted even more scoring. “Having that second goal is tremendous,” he said. “I’ll take three of four more, but the nice thing is now we have something to protect [when they play at Tampa Bay]. It’s easier to fight to keep that goal than need to go out and get something.”

A scoreless first half saw a few near goals by both sides. Posts and point-blank saves kept things scoreless until the Stars made some defensive changes at half-time which paid off in more possession and even more play in the Rowdies end of the field.

Minnesota’s defense came up big in the first half as Justin Davis, captain Kyle Altman, Connor Tobin and goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel made standout stops or took the ball away when it was severely needed. Van Oekel stood strong in net with at least three point-blank diving saves. He pushed another handful of balls over the net to help preserve the clean sheet through the first leg.

“Kyle seems to really be on fire right now,” Craig said. “He comes through in the big game at the right time.”

Van Oekel took over keeper duties this season after backing up Joe Warren since the days of the Minnesota Thunder.

“Things are clicking now for us and to get that late goal was enormous for us. I couldn’t be more happy for Martin [Nunez],”  Van Oekel  said.

Walker reflected on the last two seasons as simply magical. “We knew what we needed to do to get back here after what we went through last season, winning at Puerto Rico and we just played our hearts out,” he said.

Minnesota’s faithful, including the Dark Clouds, let their presence be known with noisemakers, flares and homemade signs played in front of an announced crowd of 4,642.

Minnesota won one and tied another of the four meetings between the two teams this season, splitting the two games played in Blaine. To reach the finals,  Minnesota came from behind to defeat the regular season league champion San Antonio Scorpions 2-1 at Heroes Park in San Antonio, Texas, Oct. 14.

The Stars reached the finals in another thrilling game, similar to last season where they went on to win the inaugural NASL Soccer Cup over Fort Lauderdale.

The Rowdies finished second in the regular season standings, while Minnesota squeaked into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the field of seven teams.

Stars captain Kyle Altman was named to the NASL Best XI squad and Van Oekel finished fifth in the league with a 1.20 goals against average and sixth in the league.

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