TWENTY-two-year-old Amani Walker scored his ninth goal from 25 matches to give defending champions Minnesota Stars the upper hand in the return-leg final of the National American Soccer League (NASL) Championship Series.
The Jamaican's right-footed shot in the 67th minute and his substitute Martín Núñez, who scored in time added, ensured the Minnesota Stars 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies Saturday night in the first leg final at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota in front of 4,462 spectators.
The decider will take place on Saturday, October 27 at the Progress Energy Park in St Petersburg, Florida, starting at 6:30 pm.
"I thought we really had them in the first 10, 15 minutes and maybe should have had a goal or two, then they should have had a goal or two, and in the second half, the guys really stepped up for a special night," Stars head coach, Manny Lagos told reporters.
The first half ended goalless with both goalkeepers keeping things level.
Walker looped a header off the crossbar after only six minutes and along with Simone Bracalello pressed the attack in the first 15 minutes, accompanied by late runs from wingers Jamie Watson and Miguel Ibarra.
By midway the first-half, Stars' keeper Matt Vanekel stepped up, forcing diving saves from Tampa Bay's Keith Savage and Luke Mulholland.
Neither side dominated the half's final 15 minutes, as Miguel Ibarra and Tampa Bay captain Frankie Sanfilippo both sent chances wide.
The second half, however, brought the best out of the Stars, who nearly took the lead just two minutes in. Jamie Watson eluded two defenders before crossing to Bracalello, whose volley from six yards was cut short by a sprawling Daniel Scott.
Two minutes later, Tampa Bay's keeper Jeff Attinella himself made the save as Watson played Walker through, but the Stars' leading goalscorer directed his shot right at the Tampa Bay goalkeeper.
Walker finally came up with a special in the 67th minute when Bracalello squared the ball into the top of the penalty area. The Jamaican made the ball roll across his body before blasting a one-timer under the crossbar and out of the reach of Attinella.
In two minutes of time added, Connor Tobin headed Bracalello's cross goalward, and Núñez tapped it in from the doorstep.
Starting in 20 of his 25 matches, Walker has scored three of his nine goals from headers. He is the leading scorer for the Stars, the same as that of countryman Nicholas Addlery, who scored his goals in the regular season as the Puerto Rico Islanders failed to advance to the play-offs.