Stars vs. Rowdies: Second-half goals give Stars big advantage in NASL championship

One goal. The Minnesota Stars would have been happy with one second-half goal, a 1-0 win to take an advantage to Tampa Bay for next week's second leg of the NASL championship finals.

But two goals? It's no wonder that the Stars were positively jubilant at the final whistle.

Amani Walker scored in the 67th minute to give Minnesota the advantage, but Martin Nuñez's goal in second-half stoppage time gave Minnesota an all-important two-goal advantage for next week's second leg in Tampa Bay. It's a two-goal cushion reminiscent of the 2011 championship series, when Minnesota took a 3-1 lead to Fort Lauderdale and won the NASL championship with a 0-0 draw.

The first half had been mostly Rowdies, but some tactical changes gave Minnesota the clear second-half advantage, and the half was just moments old before the Stars began peppering the Rowdies goal. Simone Bracalello danced through the midfield, beating two defenders and driving forward. Jamie Watson ran into space on the right and crossed for Bracalello, but the striker's drive from the edge of the six-yard area was blocked by Rowdies defender Daniel Scott, sliding across to deny what seemed to be a sure goal for the Stars. Two minutes later, it was Amani Walker striding through in space, but his shot from the center of the area was deflected away by keeper Jeff Attinella.

In the 62nd minute, Minnesota once again looked like they couldn't help but score. Miguel Ibarra coralled a loose ball in midfield, beat a defender, and suddenly had two players in support with only one defender in the way. Ibarra pushed the ball to Watson, whose drive was saved by a diving Attinella - but pushed right back into Watson's path. Watson took a touch, and seemed to be set to score - but Attinella appeared from nowhere, diving once again to smother Watson's roller and snuff out the certain chance.

With the certain chances rolling, it was a matter of time before the Stars found the net, and it was Walker who took the chance. Bracalello was once again the provider, his third assist of the playoff, as he eluded a defender on the left touchline and found Walker in space at the top of the area. Walker took one touch, then blasted a shot into the top-left corner of the net, an unsaveable blast that gave Minnesota the 1-0 advantage.

Tampa Bay, so dangerous in the first half, couldn't find a way through the Stars defense in the second half, and as the game wound down, the Rowdies began to throw more and more players forward, looking for an equalizer, and it looked as though Minnesota was happy to try to run out the clock. Trying to keep the ball in the Rowdies' end, the Stars won a corner - and got the all-important second goal. Connor Tobin, rushing forward from central defense, headed Bracalello's corner down across the goal, where Nuñez was waiting at the post. The forward, on as a sub for Walker, got just enough of a touch to push the ball into the goal before it was cleared, touching off a manic celebration from players and fans alike.

One goal good, two goals better - and now, Minnesota is in the driver's seat to repeat as NASL champions.

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