Minnesota Stars FC forward Simone Bracalello has factored into three of his team's four playoff goals, making him a marked man heading into the North American Soccer League finals.
Bracalello scored the game-winning goal as defending NASL champion Minnesota upset top seed San Antonio 2-1 last week. The added attention he has earned starts in his own locker room.
"He's the big X factor," Stars forward Jamie Watson said. "It's a huge responsibility that fairly or unfairly has been put on him for the final, but if there is a player that's got broad enough shoulders to do it, it's Simone."
Bracalello and the Stars open the two-game, total-goal series at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the National Sports Center in Blaine against Tampa Bay. Game 2 will be Oct. 27 in Tampa Bay.
The Stars started strong at home in last season's finals, posting a 3-1 victory Fort Lauderdale could not overcome.
Getting ahead of Tampa Bay starts with Bracalello, who ranks first in Stars career scoring with 20 goals.
"There's a lot of pressure as a forward to make a difference," Bracalello said. "Right now everything is going well. The team is working hard for me, and that makes it easier to make a difference for them."
Bracalello's playoff surge took root in a late-season slump. Unable to bury goals, he worked with coach Manny Lagos to make adjustments.
"I told him he can control more of his play through being mentally and physically stronger," Lagos said. "He had to push his limits."
Bracalello responded with assists on both goals at Puerto Rico. His goal against San Antonio came on a blast from 25 yards out that beat the NASL's stingiest goalkeeper.
"There are moments when the goal seems 50 feet wide and you don't even see the keeper," said Watson, a former all-star who possesses a good scoring touch. "Fortunately for us, that's where he is at the moment."