Jeremy Olson, DigitalGopher.net
A bruising, physical encounter on a cold night in Blaine ended with neither team on the scoresheet, and both looking forward to next Sunday's second leg.
By the end of the first leg of the NASL semifinals, the smoke from the road flares lit off by the Minnesota Stars supporters to mark the opening kickoff had died away. The temperature had fallen to 37 degrees. Fingers were frozen and the hatless were suffering - and neither team had found the back of the net.
The Stars and the San Antonio Scorpions thus ended the first leg of their two-leg semifinal matchup where they began it - tied at 0-0. Both teams came ready to defend on Saturday night, and the result was a match with no goals, few outstanding chances, and plenty of pushing and shoving in the midfield. Each team effectively dug a trench on the edge of their penalty area, and neither the Scorpions' attempts at passing through the area, nor the Stars' tries to shoot from beyond it, proved fruitful.
The teams began by exchanging some modest chances. In the sixth minute, a Stars corner flashed through the area without a touch and went harmlessly past the far post. Moments later, Stars keeper Matt Van Oekel had to travel 25 yards out of his own goal to clear a too-soft back-pass that nearly created a chance for Scorpions striker Hans Denissen.
Six minutes later, it was Denissen again troubling the Stars keeper, this time from a free kick given away by Minnesota on the edge of their own area. Denissen brought the ball around the wall and had it heading for the top corner, but the shot was a little too soft, and gave Van Oekel - who read the shot well - plenty of time to collect.
Both teams had good passages of play following the chances in the first half, but they were ultimately shut down by the respective defenses. San Antonio had plenty of the ball in their own offensive half, but couldn't find the last pass or opening to give themselves a chance to score.
Meanwhile, Minnesota repeatedly settled for shots from distance, as they were unable to find a way through the Scorpions in the final third. Miguel Ibarra danced through several defenders, but again settled for a shot from outside the area that flew over the bar. Right on the edge of halftime, Simone Bracalello did the same, choosing to shoot rather than find a way through for Ibarra or Jamie Watson.
With the teams deadlocked, a bit of choppiness introduced itself into the match. Justin Davis broke up a potential Scorpions counter-attack with a hard sliding tackle on Walter Ramirez, who took offense and got up from the ground in a mood for some shoving. Ramirez would later enter the fray with defender Kyle Altman as well, part of a chippy match that saw contention from either side.
The second half started much the same way as the first, with Scorpions midfielder Jonathan Greenfield bulling his way through to the end line but failing to find the final cross to set up San Antonio for a goal. The Scorpions were hounded all night by their desire to find that last perfect pass, or the perfect final ball, to set up an easy goal.
In the 62nd minute, Minnesota - increasingly relying in the counter-attack - broke with Bracalello getting forward. He cut inside onto his left foot at the edge of the penalty area, but his shot was a tame one, rolling straight at Scorpions keeper Daryl Sattler. Ten minutes later, it was Lucas Rodriguez's turn for a Stars chance. The midfielder had a chance for a half-volley just inside the penalty area from the left-hand side, but his shot flew wide of goal.
The only fireworks, besides the opening-kickoff road flares, were then left for the final ten minutes, as the teams quickly traded their best chances of the match. Stars defender Brian Kallman made a darting run through the midfield and slid the ball through for Amani Walker, who'd previously been unable to get untracked against the San Antonio defense. Walker took a touch but could not clip the ball wide of Sattler. San Antonio responded by playing the ball to Denissen at the halfway line, who freed Pablo Campos for the first time in the match with a ball through the center, but Campos too could not poke the ball wide of the keeper at the moment of truth.
Honors even at the National Sports Center, then, and everything to play for next Sunday, as the two teams meet for the right to move on to the NASL finals.
It's certain to be less cold. It remains to be seen if it'll be less attritional.