By TRAVIS CLARK
After a tumultuous and uncertain offseason, professional soccer returned to Minnesota over the weekend.
Between the Thunder going out of business and the USL-NASL struggle for power, the future of pro soccer in Minnesota looked bleak — until the NSC stepped in and put together a team that won their home opener in front of a crowd of 2,310 Saturday night.
A LeiLei Gao penalty kick in the 34th minute was all the Stars needed, winning 1-0 over fellow expansion club Tampa Bay Rowdies. Making the victory even more impressive was the short turnaround Minnesota faced after flying to Puerto Rico last Wednesday night. It was evident in Tampa's advantage in the run of play, but Joe Warren and Minnesota's defense held fast for the shutout.
Here's a look at the rest of this weekend's D2 action:
AUSTIN STREAK ENDS AGAINST ROCHESTER
Rochester's long opening road trip hit Austin over the weekend, and the Rhinos responded with their first win of the season, dropping the Aztex 2-1. Andrew Hoxie's 10th-minute penalty gave the visitors the lead, though it would be short lived, with Austin responding through Leonard Griffin under 10 minutes later. Rochester took back the lead, this time for good, in the 65th minute as Aaron Pitchkolan set up Anthony Hamilton's game winner. The Rhinos had to hold on for the win with 10 men after Tyler Bellamy earned a second yellow in the game's dying minutes. The victory is a vital one for a Rhinos team still one road game away from playing its home opener on May 1.
PORTLAND TIES IN MONTREAL
Ryan Pore's hot start to 2010 continued against the Montreal Impact at Saputo Stadium. The midfielder grabbed his fourth goal of the season, as Portland played a second game in just four days. The Timbers ensured it would be a drab home opener for their hosts, as Pore knifed between the Impact defense and beat goalie Matt Jordan in the 67th minute. Nevio Pizzolitto's 81st-minute penalty equalized as the game finished tied 1-1, leaving Montreal winless on the year.
PUERTO RICO SEES OFF CRYSTAL PALACE BALTIMORE
The last club to kick off 2010 has done so in style, scoring six goals and conceding two, while winning both games. Granted, Puerto Rico hasn't faced the fiercest opposition, and a brace from Josh Hansen keyed a 3-1 win on the road against Crystal Palace Baltimore. It's a bright start for Puerto Rico, who seemed to have plenty of questions surrounding the club prior to the season opener. A road ahead is long, but two wins in two is getting off on the right foot. Meanwhile, Crystal Palace has now lost two home games in a row — quite the opposite of what coach Jim Cherneski had in mind.
VANCOUVER SENDS ST. LOUIS TO FOURTH STRAIGHT LOSS
Another tight defensive performance from Vancouver sent A.C. St. Louis home still in search of a first win. The Whitecaps, trying to cope with a number of injuries, lacked offensive firepower, but Mouloud Akloul's 19th-minute goal was enough as Vancouver's Jay Nolly earned a third straight clean sheet. St. Louis continues to search for answers, losing a fourth game in a row and still waiting on a healthy Steve Ralston to return.
What did you think of this week's matches? Who impressed you the most? Any players looking like good bets to be MLS signings soon?
Share your thoughts below.