Stars enter NASL finals as defending champions

Courtesy San Antonio Scorpions

The Minnesota Stars are the defending NASL champions – but, on paper, are the underdogs in this year's finals, which begin Saturday night in Blaine against Tampa Bay.

On one hand, the Minnesota Stars are the underdogs going into Saturday's NASL finals against Tampa Bay. Minnesota finished sixth in the league this year, while the Rowdies finished second, and Tampa won the season series against the Stars.

On the other hand, Minnesota is the only team that can go into the two-game, total-goals series with the designation of "defending champions." So who's the favorite?

"Good question. I guess I'm not sure," said head coach Manny Lagos.

"We don't like to say that we're the favorite. I don't think there is a favorite," said forward Simone Bracalello.

"We're not the underdogs. I think if you ask Tampa, they'll say the same," said defender Kyle Altman.

Rowdies midfielder Luke Mulholland weighed in, as well. "Based on the regular season, we're the favorites, just because we were more consistent," he said. "Then again, Minnesota proved themselves in the playoffs, so in a way I'd say Minnesota, because they've been there before and they know what to expect. Winning away at San Antonio, that's a hard place to go, they'll definitely be on a high. They're just as good on the road as they are at home. So I'll say Minnesota."

Thanks for clearing that up, everybody.

Said Lagos, "They've got a lot of different styles that they can play, and that's why they're a really good team – they can adapt really well. I expect it to be a great series final."

Mulholland on the other side this time

Mulholland knows all about the Stars' championship run of last season – he was a big part of it, scoring two goals for Minnesota in the playoffs in 2011, including a blinder in the first leg of the finals against Fort Lauderdale.

"It was very enjoyable there," he said. "I've got nothing but good memories of there. I'm over the moon that I went there and was able to help the team."

"Manny does a good job of getting a hundred percent out of all the players. They know if they don't give a hundred percent, they won't be playing the next game, and that's why they're so successful. I think we've got a good feel for them and they've got a good feel for us."

Mulholland has stuck his nose in with his former teammates from afar, as well. In mid-September in the midst of a Stars slide, Altman tweeted, "Nine game winless streak turns into 5 game unbeaten streak with a win tonight." Almost immediately, Mulholland responded, "Is this the point where I come in and save the day again?"

"I've not really heard anything yet, but I'm sure I might hear something when we land in Minnesota," he said. "I'll probably get a phone call."

Said Altman, "Luke and I were pretty good friends last year when he was up here during the playoffs, and so we're just looking forward to a good rivalry. Business comes first – I'm not going to be giving Luke any favors during the game, that's for sure."

Bracalello shoots on sight

Simone Bracalello scored the match-winning goal against San Antonio, a blast from 25 yards out that beat the keeper. What won't make the highlights are some of his other shots, of which there are many, as Bracalello is willing to let loose from almost anywhere. "It's one of my favorite things, shooting," he agreed. "I always practice shooting a lot, and it's something I like to do, because the keepers sometimes don't expect that."

Regarding his Sunday goal, Bracalello was nothing but smiles. "That was a good shot, something maybe he didn't expect. But he couldn't get it anyway."

Lagos likes having that weapon in the lineup. "He has that in his repertoire," he said, "and it's nice for him to feel confident about being able to shoot from distance."

Bracalello echoed that as well. "Manny always gives me confidence. He sees me and tells me, whenever you feel a shot, shoot."

"But obviously if you are sixty yards out, no."

Kyle Altman, the headbuttee

San Antonio forward Pablo Campos made the headlines by getting himself sent off for a headbutt. Altman, however, had to pay the price, as he was the one on the receiving end.

"Pablo and I have played against each other for two years now," said Altman. "We've had our quarrels in the past – we don't really get along, me being a defender and him being a physical attacker."

"I had a welt on my forehead afterwards, and from what I heard from the reporters, he did too, so I think it's a pretty obvious one."

Was the welt worth it? "Of course," said Altman. "If he's going to headbutt me and put his team at risk, I think any player out here would say that they'll take a headbutt for the team to play against ten men."

Gameday

Time: Saturday, 7:30 pm

Location: National Sports Center, Blaine

Details: This is the first leg of the NASL championship; the second will be next Saturday in Tampa Bay. Minnesota, the defending champions, won the first leg 3-1 at home against Fort Lauderdale in 2011.

TV: NASL.com and MNStarsFC.com

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