Pressure didn’t faze Lucas Rodriguez as he calmly rolled home the winning shot
in a penalty shootout to lift the Stars past the No. 1 seed Carolina
RailHawks and into the North American Soccer League championship series.
The two-legged semifinal finished tied 4-4 on aggregate after a wild
4-3 game in the second leg that flew in the face of the typically
low-scoring games between the two teams.
“It’s hard to explain why a game plays out the way it does, why it ends up
with a lot of goals instead of a few,” Stars head coach Manny Lagos said
after the game. “There was good soccer by both teams, but also some
individual lapses, and the theme for the night was the group rallying
together against adversity.”
The Stars clinched a playoff berth with a win against the RailHawks at
WakeMed Soccer Park on September 24, and the club’s season continued
there Saturday night in a wild game that saw Carolina twice erase a
two-goal deficit in the total goals series. The Stars led 1-0 after the
first leg at NSC Stadium in Blaine, Minn., and Andrei Gotsmanov, the
hero of that game, scored again in the 40th minute with a deflected shot
from long range to put the Stars up 1-0 on the night and 2-0 on
aggregate. The goal capped a positive spell of play from the visitors
that had also seen Neil Hlavaty slam a dipping, 30-yard shot off the
The cushion didn’t last long, as Pablo Campos began a prolific night in
first-half stoppage time. Stars captain Kyle Altman allowed a long ball
to bounce, and Campos fought him off to win the ball. Altman and
goalkeeper Joe Warren got in each other’s way attempting to make a play,
and Campos slammed the ball into an empty net to make it 1-1 for the
game, 2-1 on aggregate.
Rodriguez restored the Stars’ two-goal advantage in the 52nd minute. Gotsmanov
found him on the left wing with a nice cross-field pass, and Rodriguez
made space for himself against Carolina centerback Devon McKenney with a
stepover before hitting a left-footed shot that deflected off Gareth
Evans and past Brad Knighton.
Carolina head coach Martin Rennie made attacking changes, bringing in forward
Nick Zimmerman and attacking midfielder Jonny Steele. The moves paid
immediate dividends. Steele headed a poor clearance back into the
penalty box, leading Stars centerback Cristiano Dias to run over Campos,
who converted his penalty kick by sending Warren the wrong way in the
61st minute to make it 2-2 for the night and 3-2 aggregate. Two minutes
later, the series was tied as Zimmerman ran onto a through ball from
NASL leading scorer Etienne Barbara and chipped a shot over the
onrushing Warren with the outside of his right foot.
Just as it seemed the momentum had turned, Carolina gave it right back. In
similar circumstances to Campos’ first goal, McKenney allowed a ball to
bounce in defense, and Rodriguez rushed onto it and rounded Knighton.
Before Rodriguez could finish into the empty net, McKenney pulled him
down. The ref played advantage initially, but the Stars couldn’t finish,
prompting the official to point to the spot and send McKenney off after
66 minutes. Neil Hlavaty stepped up to convert the penalty, scoring his
fifth goal of the season and restoring the visitors’ one-goal cushion.
Tied at three in the second leg, up 4-3 on aggregate and with a man
advantage, the Stars had wrested momentum back.
But Campos would not let Carolina lose. The forward missed a penalty off
the crossbar in the 88th minute after Hlavaty was called for a handball
in the penalty area, but he atoned for his miss in dramatic fashion. In
the fifth minute of stoppage time, Steele’s downward header off a corner
kick landed right at the Brazilian forward’s feet, and he turned from
the penalty spot to fire off Warren’s hands and in for the late
equalizer to send the game to extra time.
The Stars enjoyed the best chances of the 30-minute extra time period.
Knighton tipped substitute Simone Bracalello’s right footed shot onto
the upright in the first half of the extra period, and substitute Devin
Del Do hit a dipping half volley from 20 yards that just didn’t get down
The shootout was on.
Hlavaty put the first kick of the shootout in off the underside of the
crossbar, and Warren played his part as Steele looked to answer. The
midfielder’s left-footed shot was hit powerfully, but was within easy
diving range to Warren’s left. Del Do, Altman and Bracalello all made
the following kicks for the Stars, and Barbara, Kupono Low and Knighton
all converted for Carolina. Rodriguez stepped up for the Stars’ fifth
kick with a chance to put the No. 6 seeds into the championship series.
He proved that accuracy trumps power, placing a low, left-footed shot
just inside the post at the bottom corner to send the Stars pouring onto
the field to celebrate the first championship berth for a Minnesota pro
soccer team since 2003.
“Obviously, we practice penalties, and we want our guys to be comfortable taking
kicks in tough situations,” Lagos said. “As a group we took great
penalties, and Joe gave us that one save that made the difference in the
The Stars will face the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the two-legged,
total-goals championship series, hosting the opening game next Saturday
night at 7:30 at NSC Stadium in Blaine. The Strikers defeated the Puerto
Rico Islanders 5-2 on aggregate, knocking the 2010 second division
champions out in dominant fashion.
“Fort Lauderdale without question is the hottest team in the league right
now, and they’re going to present a tremendous challenge for us, but
it’s one we’re excited about,” Lagos said. “I’m excited about having the
first leg in Minnesota. I think it’s a great soccer market, and it’s
growing, and having a championship game here is great testament to the
Carolina 4, Minnesota 3 (Series tied 4-4 on aggregate. Minnesota wins series 5-3 in shootout.)
GK Joe Warren, D Justin Davis, D Cristiano Dias, D Brian Kallman, D
Kyle Altman, M Neil Hlavaty, M Andrei Gotsmanov (Kentaro Takada, 56), M
Jeff Cosgriff, M Lucas Rodriguez, F Brian Cvilikas (Simone Bracalello,
75), F Luke Mulholland (Devin Del Do, 102)
GK Brad Knighton, D Kupono Low, D Devon McKenney, D Tyler Lassiter
(Nick Zimmerman, 55), M Floyd Franks, M Tony McManus (Chris Nurse, 75), M
Matt Watson, F Brian Farber (Jonny Steele, 55), F Pablo Campos, F
MIN: Gotsmanov, 40
CAR: Campos (Low), 45+
MIN: Rodriguez, 52
CAR: Campos (penalty), 60
CAR: Zimmerman (Barbara), 63
MIN: Hlavaty (penalty), 67
CAR: Campos (Steele), 90+
MIN (5): Hlavaty (goal), Del Do (goal), Altman (goal), Bracalello (goal), Rodriguez (goal)
CAR: (3): Steele (saved), Barbara (goal), Low (goal), Knighton (goal)
MIN: Kallman, 7; Gotsmanov, 10; Civilikas, 36; Altman, 47; Davis, 120+
CAR: Campos, 45+; Steele, 57; Franks, 85; Nurse, 103
CAR: McKenney, 66