By FRANCO PANIZO
For Minnesota Stars FC, playing as visitors in the second leg of the NASL Championship Series is nothing new. They experienced it last year, traveling to South Florida before playing to a scoreless draw and capturing the NASL crown.
That scenario is not one the Tampa Bay Rowdies are hoping repeats itself.
The Rowdies currently trail the defending champions, 2-0, on aggregate after last weekend’s loss at NSC Stadium, and they will need quite the rebound performance if they are to be the ones hoisting the NASL trophy during the championship celebration at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday.
For Tampa, it starts in the back. Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella has proven to be one of the premier netminders in the league, but the defense in front of him will need to do a much better job of protecting him. Minnesota hit 21 shots in a back-and-forth affair last Saturday, and the Rowdies cannot afford for that to be the case again due to the two-goal deficit they face.
Should they be able to clamp down defensively, the second-seeded Rowdies can then set their sights on offense. Obviously, they need two goals and will throw more numbers forward the longer the game goes, but they have enough talent in Luke Mulholland and Mike Ambersley to break open the Stars defense.
As for the Stars, their approach to the second leg will be vital to seeing if their lead will hold or evaporate. Minnesota, who was the lowest-seeded playoff team at No. 6 this year, has the offensive firepower in players like Martin Nunez to score more goals. An attack-minded mentality could leave them exposed at the back, however, and surrendering an early goal would be the worst possible scenario in this leg, as it would give the Rowdies fans a real sense of optimism.
Going too defensive could also be counterproductive for the Stars, too. Sitting back and trying to absorb the pressure for 90 minutes might be too conservative against a team as talented as Tampa, though Minnesota was able to execute that type of gameplan in the second leg of the 2011 NASL Championship Series against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.
In any case, Stars head coach Manny Lagos will have an interesting choice to make and his tactics will be key in this championship decider. Minnesota has not won inside of Al Lang Stadium all season long. But they do not need to worry about that, as even losing by one goal will be enough for them to win the NASL Championship Series for a second consecutive season.