Puerto Rico is a long way from Minnesota - in distance, in culture, in language, and lately, in soccer. The Minnesota Stars lost 2-0 in Puerto Rico just two weeks ago, and now have to return Sunday for the first round of the playoffs knowing not only that they struggled recently, but that they haven't won a game in Puerto Rico in the three-year history of the franchise.
Granted, the Stars also beat Puerto Rico 4-0 at home twice this season, though in the second of those games - the week prior to the 2-0 loss - Puerto Rico was missing nearly a dozen players who were on international team duty. But the Stars know that, down on the island, the Islanders are an entirely different team.
"It's going to be even harder, because it's a different environment down there than in the States, and it's a tough place to play," said coach Manny Lagos. "It's an odd one because we actually did very well against Puerto Rico up here."
The second of those 4-0 home wins served as a coming-out party for loan signing Jamie Watson, who spend the season with Orlando in USL PRO, but signed with Minnesota for the remainder of the season and immediately had an impact in the team's attack. Watson was injured in the warm-ups for the game the following week in Puerto Rico, and thus is in the unique position of playing in the win but observing the loss from the sidelines.
"Up here, we had a lot more dynamic runs going forward, a lot of things that would be unpredictable," he said. "I think we were caught being a little too rigid, playing down there. I think we were too stagnant. We went into a bit of a shell and didn't express ourselves going forward. We have to try to take the game to them instead of waiting for it to come to us, because they don't give you a lot down there."
"Hopefully one of us can take the game by the scruff of the neck and make a mark on it and be a bit special, because it's going to take something a bit special to beat them down there."
Captain Kyle Altman tried to say that this Sunday will be just like any other game, but even he admitted that playing on the road in the playoffs is a different animal. "It's a different level. The intensity's different, the feel's different, the pressure's different. You have to take the same joy and execute the exact same way. I just try to remind guys that it's just another game of soccer. We just have to take it like any other game."
Ultimately, Watson - who is healthy this week - is the most philosophical about the game. "You wait 89 minutes to get one chance in this game - can you put it in? I'd like to think that I can take that pressure. I've been in enough of these games at a high level that I know what's going to happen, and I'm prepared for it."
"I think a lot of us are going to find ourselves in those situations this weekend. And those are the moments that will define the team that goes on to the next round."
- Lagos hinted that the team will make some tactical changes this week. "I don't want to show my hand too early, but we're going to try to have a few new quirks so that we can definitely be more competitive than we were last time we were down there, and hopefully get a result."
- Midfielder Kevin Venegas will miss out on the trip, as he's suspended after receiving his fifth yellow card of the season last week. "He's a rookie who's played a lot of minutes for us," said Lagos. "He's obviously disappointed to miss out."