The Minnesota Stars won the 2011 league championship by becoming a completely different team in the playoffs, going from a struggling side that was the low seed in the NASL playoff bracket, to a confident, clinical side in the playoffs.
After their first game in the 2012 playoffs - again the low seed, again as a struggling side - it's worth wondering if coach Manny Lagos has some kind of playoff magic that he only uses once the big games begin.
Amani Walker and Miguel Ibarra scored first-half goals for Minnesota, and the Stars hung on in the second half to win in Puerto Rico for the first time in team history, 2-1 over the Islanders. The Stars will move on to the league semifinals against league regular-season winners San Antonio, with the first leg of the two-leg match at home next weekend.
The teams exchanged chances early. Simone Bracalello, making his return to the lineup after several weeks out of favor, crossed just too high for Walker to head down. On the other end, Nicholas Addlery found himself in sudden space, and his shot nearly caught Stars goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel flat-footed at the near post, with the keeper just barely getting down low to push the shot behind for a corner.
After nine minutes, the Stars were in front. Bracalello dashed down the right side on the counterattack, and his cross found Walker, who'd lost his marker at the back post. Walker headed the ball back across the keeper and into the far corner for the 1-0 lead.
The closest the Islanders came to troubling the keeper for most of the remainder of the half was in the 29th minute, as winger David Foley got loose down the left-hand side. Jonathan Faña was on the end of the cross, but he could only shin his shot wide of the post, with Van Oekel struggling to get across.
In the 40th minute, it was Miguel Ibarra's turn to get on the scoresheet, in what was a replay of the first goal. Bracalello controlled the ball on the counterattack, then sent in a cross from near the halfway line which found Ibarra by himself. Ibarra took a touch, stepped inside his defender, and beat Puerto Rico keeper Richard Martin to make it 2-0 Minnesota.
Bracalello was very much the key to the win, if for no other reason than the two inch-perfect crosses that set up the two goals. As the first half came to a close, Van Oekel had to get back into the action, as Faña turned at the top of the area in space, but could only drive his shot directly at the Stars keeper.
The Stars began the second half in much the same way as the first, and in the 50th minute, Jamie Watson just missed sealing the game, as his unmarked header from a corner glanced just wide of the post.
In the 58h minute, however, Puerto Rico finally seemed to come unstuck. Josh Hansen, on as a substitute, had two chances within three minutes of each other, but Van Oekel was equal to both headers.
Thereafter, it was Puerto Rico that had the best chances, but once again in the second half, their touch let them down in the final third. And in the 76th minute, it was Watson again who just missed killing off the game, as the winger blasted a shot off the post at the top of the area.
In the 79th minute, though, Puerto Rico pulled a goal back, as Hansen's shot was directed into the path of David Foley making a run behind the Stars defense, and the substitute poked the ball home from close range to halve the lead, and give Minnesota some desperate defending to do.
Six minutes later, the Islanders should have tied the score. Hector Ramos beat the keeper, and all Addlery had to do was touch the ball and let it roll into the net. Instead, Addlery somehow seemed to trip over the ball, barely changing its direction towards goal, and Kyle Altman was able to clear the ball off the line. It was truly an unbelievable miss from Addlery, who should have sent the match to extra time.
Nate Polak should have finished the match two minutes from time, but couldn't beat keeper Martin. As the clock struck 90, Puerto Rico had one more chance, but Hansen's drive from outside the area was well held by Matt Van Oekel - and Minnesota held on for the 2-1 win.