BLAINE, Minn. (Sept. 11, 2012) — Having gone two months without a win and two months without scoring more than once, it was safe to say Minnesota Stars FC was in a rut. That changed in a big way Tuesday night at NSC Stadium as the Stars defeated the Puerto Rico Islanders 4-0 in front of 1,402 in the team’s final home game of 2012. With the win, the Stars qualify for the North American Soccer League playoffs with two games to spare and climb into fifth place ahead of the idle Carolina RailHawks.
It was the Stars’ second 4-0 win against the Islanders this season at NSC Stadium and marked the first time since July 12 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies that the Stars had either won or scored more than one goal in a game.
“There was a huge stress of having so many ties, particularly at home when we had leads. The fragility of this team is pretty high, but the character is even higher, the resiliency is even higher. It was not an easy game for us considering we gave up some leads in games where we should have won and we tied,” Stars head coach Manny Lagos said.
The game started on a familiar note for the Stars: with an early goal. Nate Polak, making his first start as a professional, took a feed from Jamie Watson in the 17th minute and beat Puerto Rico goalkeeper Richard Martin from 15 yards out on the break to give the Stars a 1-0 lead.
One-goal leads have been precarious of late for the Stars, but unlike previous games, the Stars took advantage of their chances to build upon it with a three-goal outburst on either side of halftime. Miguel Ibarra’s started the flurry in the final minute of the first half. The move started with Ibarra running through a shirt pull and near takedown by Martin. As the crowd cried for a penalty while the referee signalled advantage, Polak managed a shot that rebounded into the corner near the goal line. The rookie forward gathered his own rebound and muscled through a challenge before playing a ball back across goal, which Amani Walker deflected into Ibarra’s path to tap in.
“My first goal when I got signed was to help any way I could, whether it’s scoring goals, getting assists or just working hard on and off the field, and I made it happen,” Polak said. “When a play is building up, my first thought is always just look for a second chance, look for another opportunity, and I was able to do that.”
The second half was barely underway when Watson ended the match as a contest. Ibarra carried the ball through the heart of the Islanders’ midfield before laying a perfectly weighted ball into Watson’s path to curl into the top corner with a fine right-footed strike. Watson, for years the subject of a Dark Clouds chant, humorously led a synchronized dive in front of the supporters’ section to celebrate.
Two minutes after Walker struck the crossbar with a first-time shot, Ibarra played provider again in the 53rd minute as Walker got his goal and capped the scoring. Polak ran onto a through ball as Ibarra and Walker ran back from a passive offside position. When Polak was dispossessed, the ball fell kindly to Ibarra, now onside, and he crossed for Walker to head home from the top of the six-yard box to put an exclamation point on the Stars’ night. The goal was Walker’s seventh of the season in league play, a new Stars record for goals in a season.
Up 4-0, the Stars were content to play possession for the final 35 minutes of the game. Three days after the Stars failed to build upon a lead before seeing it slip late in a 1-1 draw with FC Edmonton, Watson stressed the importance of doing both as the season winds down.
“I’m trying to share what I’ve seen [in eight seasons] and gotten to figure out in game situations and in certain points in games, like tonight when it’s a chance at 1-0 for us to slip players in and we’re making the decision to hold it on, well maybe you look to slip guys in to get the second goal and the third goal and really put our foot on the throat and really kill the game off, and the reverse when it’s 4-0 and how do you make this a big field, make it into a possession game,” the on-loan striker said. “I’m proud of the boys for being able to use what was a letdown and turn it into a situation where we killed the game brilliantly, I thought.”
Minnesota's 4-0 win Tuesday night played a big role in the North American Soccer League's playoff picture. The Stars became the sixth and final team to clinch a playoff spot, joining San Antonio, Tampa Bay, Puerto Rico, Fort Lauderdale and Carolina. Edmonton and Atlanta were eliminated with the Stars' win, while San Antonio clinched a bye through the first round into the league semifinals.
Despite the field being set, there's still seeding to play for as most teams play two or three more games (except Carolina, which has a four-game gauntlet to run that includes two matches against second-place Tampa Bay and one against league-leading San Antonio). Only three points separate the Islanders in third place from the Stars in sixth, and the Stars and Islanders meet again Saturday night in Puerto Rico. The four teams looking most likely to finish No. 3-6 will find seeding very important, as seeds No. 3 and No. 4 have the option to host their one-game quarterfinal playoff game. Right now, Fort Lauderdale and Puerto Rico occupy those places.