Joel Delgado, San Antonio Scorpions
A moment of madness from San Antonio striker Pablo Campos, and a moment of brilliance from Minnesota striker Simone Bracalello, were enough to give Minnesota the victory that puts them in the NASL finals for the second year in a row.
One moment of madness. One moment of brilliance. San Antonio Scorpions striker Pablo Campos was guilty of the former, and that madness opened the door for Minnesota Stars forward Simone Bracalello to win the match with his brilliance.
Campos was sent off in the 26th minute of the winner-take-all semifinal match for headbutting Stars defender Kyle Altman, just minutes after he'd scored to put the Scorpions on top 1-0. San Antonio had to try to hold out for almost 70 minutes with only ten men, but a Blake Wagner own goal and a low, swerving strike from distance from Bracalello were enough to give Minnesota the victory.
Both teams kept the same side from Saturday's 0-0 draw, and both teams started cautiously in the opening minutes. San Antonio went nearly 25 minutes without troubling the Minnesota goal, but when they finally broke through, they found the back of the Stars net. Scorpions midfielder Jonathan Greenfield, working one-on-one down the left-hand-side, got free enough to deliver a cross across the front of Minnesota's goal. San Antonio forward Hans Denissen got a touch towards goal that Stars keeper Matt Van Oekel managed to palm away, but only into the path of Campos, who slammed the ball home for the 1-0 lead.
It was no more than a minute from the restart, though, when Campos made the mistake that would lose the match. For some reason, the big striker took issue with what he felt was a foul from Altman. Rising from the deck, Campos headbutted Altman, earning himself a straight red card and reducing San Antonio to ten men.
Not surprisingly, the man advantage opened the offensive game for the Stars. Justin Davis was the first to take advantage, driving forward from center back and poking the ball just wide of keeper Daryl Sattler in the San Antonio area. Minutes later, Lucas Rodriguez caught Sattler off his line, but his drive from outside the area couldn't find his way around the Scorpions keeper, who was able to punch the ball away from danger.
Even with the advantage, though, the Stars could not find a way through in the first half, though they twice came close as the half finished, as Jamie Watson headed a cross back across goal for Walker - a header that Sattler was able to claim just ahead of the onrushing Stars striker. Moments later, Rodriguez turned a low corner kick goalward, but again Sattler was there to punch the ball away.
It took eight minutes of the second half before Minnesota began creating chances. Bracalello danced down the left, much as Greenfield did for San Antonio in the first half, but the Scorpions were able to get his cross away from the goal. Bracalello then had a chance from a free kick from the top of the area, but his drive cleared the goal with room to spare.
Just before the hour mark, the Stars brought on Martin Nuñez, who had an immediate impact, first creating a chance for a header from Walker that was straight at the keeper, then taking his own shot, which Sattler had to deflect skyward to keep out.
By the time Nuñez came on, the match had effectively become a one-way proposition, with the Stars controlling possession and San Antonio defending as deeply as possible. It was left to Minnesota to throw everyone forward for a half-hour in an attempt to get the equalizer - and in the 75th minute, they found that goal. Neil Hlavaty and Bracalello worked the ball down the left-hand side, freeing Hlavaty for a cross to the back post. San Antonio defender Wagner, attempting to turn the ball away, instead poked the ball into his own goal, evening the score at 1.
Seven minutes later, Bracalello's brilliance put the Stars in front. The Scorpions took a throw-in in their own half, but immediately gave the ball away to Watson, who poked it to the onrushing Bracalello. The striker didn't hesitate, blazing a low, curling shot past Sattler's outstretched hand and into the bottom-right corner of the net, giving Minnesota the 2-1 lead.
With less than ten minutes to go, San Antonio had to try to restart their attack with one fewer man, but couldn't find their way through for a decent chance to equalize.
The win puts Minnesota into the NASL finals for the second straight year. The Stars will host the Tampa Bay Rowdies next Saturday in the first leg of the finals, with the second leg in Tampa Bay the following week.
Somehow, the Manny Lagos playoff magic always seems to find a way. This time, it was one sudden crazy action from an opponent that opened the door.