By FRANCO PANIZO
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – NSC Minnesota Stars just could not beat the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers during the regular season, losing twice and tying twice in four matches.
Unfortunately for the Strikers, that trend didn't continue in the NASL Championship Series.
The Stars lifted the NASL championship trophy in front of 6,849 fans on a rainy Saturday night at Lockhart Stadium, winning the series 3-1 on aggregate following a scoreless draw in the second leg.
"It's such a moment for the (players)," said Stars head coach Manny Lagos, who danced and sang with his team and a dozen traveling fans in the southwest corner of the field after the game. "I wanted to share with them because they've been so amazing this year, credit to them."
Minnesota, which entered the playoffs as the sixth and final seed, was able to hold tight defensively against a Strikers side that dominated possession from the opening whistle but could not translate that into clear chances.
Looking to erase a two-goal deficit, the Strikers were limited to just one shot on goal in the game. The Stars' strategy of clogging the middle of the field and forcing the hosts down the flanks worked, as a plethora of crosses resulted in no threatening opportunities.
"I think we could've been playing all night and we still wouldn't have scored," said Strikers defender Martyn Lancaster. "Credit to Minnesota, they defended like lions tonight, made it really difficult for us and we just couldn't get a break."
The gameplan worked so well for Minnesota that the visitors could have put the series away earlier. The Stars had a handful of chances to add to its aggregate lead because of sloppy passing on the wet field, but Lancaster, Toni Stahl and Bryan Arguez put out several potential fires.
Offensively, though, the Strikers could not figure out how to break down the Stars' stingy defense and that allowed for frustration to settle in.
"Certainly, we were cognisant of they have some players that are very good in the middle of the field, that are very skilled, that can get the ball, get penetrating passes," said Lagos. "They've got some guys who make good darting runs, so we wanted to make sure that we kept our shape so that when they (penetrated), we had guys to deal with those good players."
Ft. Lauderdale found some life when it inserted midfielder Yoximar Granado and forward Abe Thompson in the second half. That was too little too late, however, for a team that deployed two smaller forwards in Brian Shriver and Martin Nunez to start the game. Shriver and Nunez actively looked for the ball in the game, but their height disadvantage against defenders Cristiano Dias and Brian Kallman was apparent as the Strikers sent in cross after cross with no success.
"When you have a two-goal lead, you can put numbers behind the ball and they didn't really care about scoring tonight and they didn't have to," said Ft. Lauderdale head coach Daryl Shore. "Had we got the first goal, maybe it would've opened them up. We put ourselves in a hole in the first game, and just a tough night for us to play."
The defeat ended the Strikers' first season back as a franchise on a sour note, but it also capped the improvement that Minnesota's players demonstrated in the tail end of the season.
"I'm happy for them because it's very rare to win championships," said Lagos, "and they are champions."