Jeff Attinella of FC Tampa Bay snags a pass in NASL playoff action against the NSC Minnesota Stars. (Photo courtesy of North American Soccer League)
The first round of the North American Soccer League playoffs took place Saturday with the NSC Minnesota Stars scoring an upset victory in Tampa Bay and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers demolishing expansion FC Edmonton in a single-match first round.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers 5 [Shriver 45+1' 54' Thompson 46' 62' 77'] - 0 FC Edmonton
You may not believe it, but the Fort Lauderdale Strikers' 5-0 win over expansion club FC Edmonton was a one-sided affair.
From the opening kickoff the Strikers pinned Edmonton back and didn't let up. The Edmonton midfield was utterly overwhelmed with only NASL all-star team choice Shaun Saiko looking even remotely competitive. Edmonton's defense managed to fend off a few chances but for the most part it was down to 39-year-old goalkeeper Rein Baart to keep Edmonton alive. Throughout most of the first half he made a number of agile stops before his inconsistency showed; Baart allowed a frankly ugly Brian Shriver in first half stoppage time. In the second half, Edmonton showed only glimpses of quality and mostly let Fort Lauderdale do as they pleased, resulting in four more goals and a 5-0 romp.
After a reasonably promising season and good results against Fort Lauderdale in particular the Eddies crumpled like a cheap hatchback at fifteen miles an hour. Fort Lauderdale, not known for attacking prowess, was virtually toying with the Edmonton defense. It's hard to nail down a single cause for Edmonton's spectacularly ill-timed worst game of the season: when an entire team simply collapses on the most important night of the year it goes beyond easy analysis.
Credit is due to Fort Lauderdale, who recognized their advantage and ruthlessly exploited it. After Baart's weak goal the Strikers kept up the attack in the second half; Shriver banged in another and Abe Thompson bagged a hat trick as Baart flailed helplessly. The taunts of the Fort Lauderdale fans to the defeated Eddies came in loud and clear and the referee blowing his whistle had the air of a mercy killing.
For Edmonton, this means that the Eddies choked away their three biggest games (a 3-0 loss to Toronto FC in their home opener for the Voyageurs Cup, a 5-0 loss to the Montreal Impact in their regular season home opener, and this shambles). They're a young team with a squad bolstered by Canadian university players that have talent but little experience; presumably they'll improve with time. But it was a horrifying end to an encouraging season from a first-year team.
As for Fort Lauderdale, their commentators triumphantly declared that the Strikers had put the NASL "on notice" as to their title aspirations. But the Puerto Rico Islanders are unlikely to be such easy marks for Thompson and Shriver. Fort Lauderdale is obviously dangerous but any observer worth their salt already knew that: their trouncing decomposing Edmonton doesn't make them favourites in what will be a tough second-round series.
FC Tampa Bay 0 - 1 NSC Minnesota Stars [Mulholland 27']
If any team in the NASL playoffs this year was a weak sister, it was the NSC Minnesota Stars. But this was an even league all season and anybody who bet their mortgage on Tampa Bay was taking an awful risk... as Minnesota proved with an upset 1-0 win in Tampa.
The game see-sawed back and forth and neither team deserved to lose a strong contest. Tampa Bay goalkeeper Jeff Attinella was making his first appearance as a starter in a professional playoff series while Minnesota veteran Joe Warren is about a hundred years old but both were on magnificent form. The difference came in the twenty-seventh minute, when English forward Luke Mulholland took a free kick that was deflected past Atinella to give Mulholland his first goal as an NSC Minnesota Star and the team a 1-0 lead.
Minnesota's wins all year came thanks to stingy defense and they managed to shut down Tampa's two-headed attack of Mike Ambersley and Aaron King. The game was a physical one, like most Stars games, and while Tampa's midfield enjoyed quality spells of possession their relatively slight forwards struggled for room against a quality defense anchored by captain Kyle Altman. In the second half Minnesota's offense diminished, although they showed occasional glimpses on the counter, and the question became whether Tampa would break down Minnesota in time to equalize.
Late in the match, Tampa attempted a last-ditch flurry to save their season but the Stars defense still held on. Warren made a few dandy saves and as such the NSC Minnesota Stars, who few thought would even survive to play the 2011 season, will advance to the NASL semi-finals against the first-place Carolina Railhawks. It's an advertisement for the parity of the NASL and Carolina's forwards will have to be tougher than Tampa's if they're going to break through the Minnesotan wall.