San Antonio Scorpions head coach Tim Hankinson knows one advantage of his team's 0-0 draw with the Minnesota Stars in the first leg of the NASL semifinals: "No one's having to do math here," he said.
Hankinson, whose team has the advantage of being at home in the second leg, was happy with the draw in the first leg. "Coming away from the home of the defending champions in our first playoff appearance as a franchise, without a deficit, I feel like you have to feel good about it," he said.
With neither team scoring in the first leg, the second leg of the match becomes a straight-up, winner-take-all battle. Said Stars coach Manny Lagos, "I'd be lying if I didn't always want to have a lead, but looking at it glass half full – we could have been down a goal or two goals."
"We've moved on. We realized that at the end of the last game, it was halftime. We have to approach it in a way that has the guys ready to go down there and get a result."
Getting the strikers untracked: San Antonio
Neither team could find a way through the defense in the first leg. Stars target forward Amani Walker really had just one good chance in the match, and the same went for the league's leading scorer, Pablo Campos. Both coaches know that they need to get some space for their center forwards to operate – and both have a plan to do so.
For Hankinson, it's just a matter of making sure that the Stars defense is engaged elsewhere. "They were doing a lot of double-teaming," he said. "I think it's important for us to get additional players into the attack so that the defense has more to do than just focus on Pablo. If we can make better runs into space, and show other players to be dangerous, then defenders have to pull off Pablo, and hopefully that gives Pablo his moments to be dangerous."
Stars defender Kyle Altman knows that the Scorpions have other attacking options, and that Campos can be a creator, as well. "Campos is better at passing the ball than we give him credit for, and he can create if you put too much attention on him. You can't forget about the other players they have, because once you focus too much on Campos they have other players that can hurt you."
Getting the strikers untracked: Minnesota
The Stars have often attacked by crossing the ball for 6'2" center forward Walker to head the ball goalward, but San Antonio boasts a back line that has three players who can match Walker's height. He admits that this has a little bit of an effect on his game. "You have to be more aware that it's going to be a challenge going up against three other guys who are 6'4" and winning headers and holding the ball up, but that might mean they're more susceptible to you getting in behind."
"The big trees, you have to get through them somehow. You can't just knock them down."
Lagos believes that ball movement will be the key for his side. "It comes down to being a little sharper in the moment, being a little quicker. Down there, I don't think they're going to sit back quite as much. We'll get the ball moving quickly, hopefully we can create a few more chances."
The field of battle
San Antonio plays at Heroes Stadium, a converted football field that's both an artificial surface and a narrower field than most of the other fields in the league. Lagos downplays the difference in the surface, but knows that the field dimensions will make a difference for the team. "That makes a difference in being able to spread a team out and attack down the middle, but both teams have to play on it."
"It's just a smaller version of a bigger field, and you have to figure out those angles to maximize chances."
Preparing for penalties
If the scores are still even at the end of the match, the teams will play a half-hour of extra time. If they're still deadlocked, it will be on to penalty kicks, the arbitrary, unfair, and deeply nerve-wracking soccer tiebreaker.
Stars keeper Matt Van Oekel is getting ready, just in case. "We'll prepare a little bit today and tomorrow with taking and get me ready to stand in front of them. I'm just trying to react, see how their hips and their feet are pointed, and hope for the best. "
Would you ever just straight-up guess? Van Oekel laughs and looks guilty. "I don't think I should say that. We try to react as much as we possibly can," he claims.
Altman named to NASL's Best XI
Altman was named to the All-NASL team this week, the only Stars player so chosen. The captain preferred to talk about the team, but did say, "It's a great honor. I've been relatively new at center back for the past couple of seasons, coming from center midfield. I feel like over the past two seasons I've really understood the position a little bit better and started to excel a little bit individually."
Time: Sunday, 6:00 p.m. Central time
Location: Heroes Stadium, San Antonio, TX
Details: With the match locked at 0-0, the winner of this one takes all. If it's tied after regular time, a half-hour of extra time will be played (not sudden-death). If it's still tied, penalties will decide which team moves on to the finals, which are also a two-leg matchup.