Tampa Bay wins NASL Championship after penalty shootout

The North American Soccer League Soccer Bowl has a new home. The Tampa Bay Rowdies earned the 2012 NASL crown after a thrilling shootout victory Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium. A 3-1 match erased the Stars’ two-goal lead after the first leg, then prevailed after Jeff Attinella made three saves during penalty kicks after the Rowdies held on through the entire extra time period despite playing a man down.

The Stars knew the Rowdies would be pressing from the start, and they had a storm to weather in the first half. The pressure paid off for Tampa Bay in the 24th minute, as Carl Cort turned home a rebound after Stars goalkeeper Matt VanOekel had done well off his line to block Keith Savage’s shot from 14 yards out. The goal made it 1-0 on the night in Tampa Bay’s favor, but the Stars still led on aggregate.

The Stars were very lucky it stayed that way until halftime. VanOekel had to be alert to turn away a point-blank header off a Luke Mulholland corner kick, and he also recovered well later to make a point-blank save against Mike Ambersley at the back post. Ambersley also helped VanOekel tremendously right before halftime, blocking a Cort header that certainly would have tested VanOekel, if not more.

The Stars best chances came from set pieces, and Simone Bracalello brought a diving save out of Attinella with a driven free kick from 30 yards. The rebound fell to Stars striker Amani Walker, but an awkward bounce forced him into a difficult shot that came to nothing.

The second half started with the same pressure from the Rowdies, and they got the equalizing goal right away. From another Mulholland corner kick, former Stars back Andres Arango nodded a header down, which Keith Savage turned in at the back post to send the crowd of 6,208 into a frenzy.

A minute later, it was quiet. Miguel Ibarra carried a ball from the right wing through the central channel, before laying a perfectly weighted through ball to substitute Lucas Rodriguez who hammered his first touch past Attinella into the side netting, lifting the Stars into a 3-2 aggregate lead despite the 2-1 deficit on the night. It was a perfect moment for Rodriguez to score his first goal of the season, making him the first player to score in multiple NASL Championships after his goal in last season’s triumph over Fort Lauderdale.

The Rowdies wouldn’t go away, though, and leading scorer Daniel Antoniuk came off the bench to snatch an 85th minute goal that brought the series level on aggregate. Ambersley beat VanOekel to a ball bouncing in the penalty area and looped the ball over the Stars goalkeeper for Antoniuk to tap in.

Ibarra could have ended things moments later and put an exclamation mark on his rookie season, Attinella was the hero for the Rowdies after Rodriguez played Ibarra through with a ball over the top. The Stars rookie winger hit a powerful right footed shot, but the Rowdies goalkeeper dove to his right to save, and the Stars couldn’t find a way to get a shot off on the rebound.

As the game neared 30 minutes of extra time, the Stars were handed a man-advantage after Tampa midfielder Shane Hill’s reckless challenge on Bracalello. Bracalello controlled a ball on the wing and cut away from Hill, who continued at full speed into the challenge, taking Bracalello out and earning a straight red card.

The Stars couldn’t make the numerical advantage count in the extra period, though, and the match moved to a shootout to determine the 2012 NASL Champions. Attinella—as he was all season en route to an NASL Best XI selection—was the hero again, making a save to his right on Devin Del Do’s shot before going left to save from Kyle Altman and Rodriguez.

Tampa Bay’s 3-2 PK shootout victory came as Attinella made three saves in five attempts on the Stats. Del Do, Altman and Rodriguez were all stoppped by Attinella, while Matt Van Oekel made a lone save for Minnesota on Carl Cort’s attempt.