Minnesota Stars FC goalkeeper Matt VanOekel enjoyed a memorable debut in the North American Soccer League finals.
The Stars grabbed a 2-0 lead against Tampa Bay in the first leg of the two-game, total goals series Saturday before an announced crowd of 4,642 spectators at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
They take a desired cushion into next Saturday's game at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, one VanOekel made possible with a strong first half.
A fast, fluid first half saw Minnesota muster few quality chances while the Rowdies peppered VanOekel with tough shots.
Mike Ambersley blasted a near-post shot, Keith Savage got most of a ball to VanOekel's left and followed up with a heavier shot a few minutes later.
"He smacked that ball," VanOekel said. "I'm glad I held onto that ball because I felt like I got a little bit of a late jump."
But no shots got through. The teams went to halftime scoreless.
"Matty has been huge all year long," forward Amani Walker said. "In my opinion, he's the best keeper in the league. He's big and quick and doesn't get beat easy."
Said VanOekel: "It was my first finals but it felt right -- everything was clicking."
Minnesota's best first-half chance came on Simone Bracalello's low shot in the 11th minute that forced Rowdies goalkeeper Jeff Attinella to dive for the ball. From there, the Stars shots were off the mark or lacking velocity.
The Stars turned up the pressure less than a minute into the second half as Bracalello, who scored to clinch the Stars' spot in the finals, fired a shot from close range that a sliding defender Daniel Scott knocked away.
It was Attinella's turn to make athletic saves in the 62nd minute as he dived to his right to stop Jamie Watson's initial chance and rebound.
The defending champion Stars' improved second-half offensive showing culminated with Walker's goal in the 67th minute, which he tucked under the crossbar from about 18 yards away. Bracalello picked up his third postseason assist on the play.
Bracalello later set the game's second goal in motion. His corner kick resulted in a scrum and a goal by Martin Nunez, who entered the game off the bench in the 77th minute. Nunez's goal three minutes into second-half stoppage time stunned the Rowdies.
But a two-game, total series means the first game, however uplifting, is only halftime. Tampa Bay only lost once at home in league play (7-1-7) this season.
"That second goal was absolutely enormous for us going down to Tampa, because they play extremely well at home," VanOekel said. "We know they are going to be coming after us the next 90 minutes."