By JOHN BOSCHINI
If having a week of rest and a first-round bye is supposed to be an advantage it certainly didn't look that way on Saturday as both top-seeded Carolina and #2 Puerto Rico slumped to first-leg losses in the semifinals of the NASL.
For the Puerto Rico Islanders, an astounding 10 international call-ups could explain a 3-1 loss to the third-seeded Fort Lauderdale Strikers. It was the first home loss of the season for the Islanders, who surrendered a late goal which puts Puerto Rico in the difficult position of overturning a two-goal deficit in Florida this weekend.
Problems are harder to explain in Carolina as the once unstoppable Railhawks suffered their fifth loss in a row with a 1-0 defeat to the NSC Minnesota Stars. It was Minnesota's third victory over Carolina this season as the Stars extend their surprising unbeaten run to five games. Carolina needs to rediscover its offensive form soon or it could be an early exit for the regular-season champions.
Here is a look back at both of the games from the NASL.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers 3, Puerto Rico Islanders 1
The Puerto Rico Islanders saw their unbeaten home campaign snapped at the worst possible time as Fort Lauderdale takes a commanding lead in their semifinal tie.
Mike Palacio capitalized on a Puerto Rico miscue in their own penalty area and sent a cross to the waiting Brian Shriver in injury time. The goal extended the Strikers lead to two goals.
Fort Lauderdale opened the scoring in the 47th minute after a scoreless first half when substitute Martin Nunez buried Lance Laing's cross. Walter Restrepo doubled Puerto Rico's advantage with a well-taken shot from distance. Jonathan Fana got a goal back two minutes later before Palacio's late goal.
NSC Minnesota Stars 1, Carolina Railhawks 0
Minnesota continued their domination of the Carolina Railhawks with a 1-0 victory. Andrei Gotsmanov scored late in the game to snatch a victory as the Stars got the upper hand in this rematch of the 2010 semifinals.
Despite the goalless scoreline, both teams had several quality chances with Carolina goalkeeper Brad Knighton and Minnesota keeper Joe Warren coming up big on multiple occasions. Warren was eager to come off his line and his aggressiveness paid off with point-blank saves on Pablo Campos and Matt Watson. Knighton deployed a similar tactic with a fantastic save Brian Cvilikas but couldn't keep Gotsmanov's deft chip out as the Stars took the lead in the 90th minute.
Carolina was in a similar position last fall but was able to win 4-0 at home to overturn a first-leg deficit. To accomplish a similar result the Railhawks will have to get an offense that has scored only once in their last five games back in form.
What did you think of this weekend's games? Can Puerto Rico or Carolina save their seasons? Do you forsee a Fort Lauderdale vs. Minnesota final in the cards?
Share your thoughts below.