The Minnesota Stars are up 2-0, going into the second leg of the NASL championship against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. They find themselves in the same situation as they were in this time last season, when Minnesota took a two-goal lead to Fort Lauderdale and played out an 0-0 draw to take the title.
So, a nice calm 0-0 tie on the cards again? I wouldn't bet on it, not against a Tampa team that's been dangerous offensively all season.
Defender and assistant coach Kevin Friedland certainly isn't expecting nothing but siege defending all night. "Yes, we're up 2-0, but you can't just sit back and defend the whole game," he said.
"Especially on their field, which is a little bit smaller - we know there are going to be chances at both ends because of that," he said. "It's just a matter of limiting their good chances, and helping Matty [Van Oekel] be able to make some big saves, and making whatever chances they do get as difficult as possible."
Following last Saturday's first leg, Van Oekel had already moved on to thinking about the second leg - and he echoed Friedland's comments about the field. "It's going to be crazy. It's going to be a wild ninety minutes down in Tampa," he said. "They've got a really small, short field. The way they play is very direct, and if they play like that all the time they're going to be dropping the ball into the box the entire game."
Said Rowdies coach Ricky Hill following his team's 2-0 defeat, in what could have been a battle cry for this week: "We've got ninety minutes of football left – anything can happen in football. We're not out of it yet. We're down, but not out, and we'll come back fighting."
Halftime adjustments 101
During the first half of Saturday's game, Tampa Bay seemed to be bearing down on the Minnesota goal almost at will, but the second half was much quieter for Van Oekel and company. Several players and coaches credited the change to a halftime adjustment in the center of midfield, one that Friedland walked me through.
"This game, we went back to Neil [Hlavaty] and Taka [Kentaro Takada] in the midfield, as opposed to the games before that, we were playing Neil by himself, out of a midfield diamond," said Friedland. "That gave us two defensive midfielders, instead of one."
Friedland explained that the dual-defensive-midfielder setup caused confusion between the two about which player was dropping into the hole to sit in front of center backs Kyle Altman and Connor Tobin, which resulted in situations in which the two were two-on-two with the Tampa forwards. At halftime, the team made the simplest adjustment they could - putting Hlavaty into a full-time role defensively, freeing Takada to play more centrally.
Studying the match highlights, you can see the difference between some of the great Rowdies chances in the first half, and their fewer chances in the second half. In the first, both Hlavaty and Takada are five or ten yards in front of the defenders, leaving space for the Rowdies forwards to make one-on-one runs. In the second half, Hlavaty is planted firmly amongst the two center backs, denying space for the Rowdies to move the ball.
Simple, maybe. Effective? Definitely.
Fan appreciation, redefined
If you missed the video, the Stars took time out last Sunday to turn the tables on their fans, as a few players showed up - with full Stars kits for the team - to cheer on some fans in a rec-league championship game. It was a great gesture, and one that came together in less than 24 hours.
"It's an idea that I've been sitting on for about two months and thought I was going to pull off in the off-season," said Friedland. Saturday night, though, he got to talking with a fan, who mentioned the Sunday night game.
Friedland, who in addition to both playing and coaching also serves as the team's jersey designer and jersey maker, saw his opportunity. He called team CEO Djorn Buchholz, who gave the go-ahead, and the project was off and running. "It was a lot of fun," Friedland said. "The guys had a lot of fun doing it."
The secret weapon
Of all the players in the NASL, just two can boast a perfect shooting percentage for the year - one of whom is Friedland. The defender blocked a clearing attempt in the season's final game in San Antonio, which then rebounded off the keeper, off Friedland's hip, off the keeper's hand, and into the net. One shot, one goal. Could we see an offensive surge in Saturday's game as well?
"We'll see how the game goes," laughed Friedland. "I think all players would love to play in a final and get a tally on the board, but at the same time, it's more important to win a trophy."