NSC Stars veterans Brian Kallman and Brian Cvilikas were not certain to make the team this season. And sporadic playing time in-season had both wondering what to make of their soccer careers.
But both made the most of a second chance late in the season, pushing the Stars past an 0-6-1 slump and into the playoffs. Cvilikas, a forward, scored the eventual game-winning goal in a 2-1 upset at Carolina last week to clinch a playoff spot. And Kallman was named the league's defensive player of the week.
"They were both ready to come in and contribute," Stars coach Manny Lagos said. "They were fit and hungry, and that permeated through the rest of the team. It's given us a new mentality."
And new life. Owners of the sixth and final seed in the North American Soccer League playoffs, the Stars (9-9-10) play a first-round game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Tampa Bay (11-8-9). A victory sends NSC Minnesota into a home-and-home, total-goal series against Carolina beginning at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
Reaching the playoffs redeemed a frustrating season for Cvilikas and Kallman, veterans who came into camp without contracts and were forced to battle for roster spots.
As the season wore on, they received sparse playing time. They have appeared in a combined 17 games this season after seeing action in a combined 41 games a year ago. Kallman, a Woodbury native, chose to persevere rather than pout.
"It's just about being a professional on a day-in, day-out basis," Kallman said. "If you're not in the lineup, you're not doing the team much good if you just come out to practice and go through the motions."
Cvilikas, meanwhile, wondered whether the time to move on to coaching was drawing closer.
"To be honest, it's been a very tough year," said Cvilikas, who has scored all three of his goals in the past five games. "There have been some other opportunities that have come my way that made me look around the corner. But as I told Manny, regardless of which way I go, I'm going to give the team everything I have."
Lagos, a veteran of the Thunder, five Major League Soccer teams and the U.S. national team, said he can relate to players such as Cvilikas who reach a crossroads.
"It becomes, 'Can I get up every day and decide to battle within the team for a position?' " Lagos said. "[Cvilikas] has done a good job of fighting through it and being a good teammate. Those things played a role in him being an influence late in the season."
As for Kallman, Lagos said: "This has been a great year for him because he's climbed a lot of mountains and then saw there is another peak the next day. He's starting to enjoy the challenge of being a competitive player day in and day out."