By JOHN BOSCHINI
For the second consecutive year, the Carolina Railhawks scored four goals in the return leg against the NSC Minnesota Stars. Only this time, it wasn't enough.
Minnesota advanced to the NASL championship series on penalty kicks despite losing a wild 4-3 game in Cary on Saturday. The Stars carried a 1-0 advantage into the return leg and, unlike in European ties, away goals do not factor into the aggregate score. Lucas Rodriguez calmly slotted the winning penalty past Brad Knighton after Johnny Steele was stoned by Joe Warren in the only miss of the shootout.
The loss technically breaks Minnesota's five-game unbeaten streak after the Stars needed a late surge to even get into the post-season.
For Carolina, an elimination caps off an epic collapse. The Railhawks rattled off a 13-game unbeaten streak in the middle of the season but couldn't recover after coasting into the playoffs on a losing streak. An offense that scored 50 goals in the regular season finally came alive with a hat trick from Pablo Campos but an equally dominant defense abandoned Carolina as the Railhawks failed to keep a clean sheet for sixth-straight game.
The scoring didn't come quickly and Andrei Gotsmanov had to wait until the 40th minute to give Minnesota an early lead. Pablo Campos got a goal back just before halftime to put the Railhawks back in the game by capitalizing on a defensive miscue between Kyle Altman and Warren. The lead was back to two seven minutes in with Rodriguez's left-footed shot. Carolina quickly equalized the series with a Campos penalty in the 60th minute and Etienne Barbara's deft chip three minutes later.
The Stars looked to have the tie wrapped up with Hlvatay converting a penalty in the 67th minute but Campos completed his hat trick with five minutes of stoppage gone to will the game into extra time. The Brazilian avenged his missed penalty in the 88th minute by collecting the ball near the penalty spot and firing past Warren.
No goals came in the 30-minute overtime period, the best chance coming when Simone Bracalello forced a brilliant save from Brad Knighton in the first half. Minnesota stayed calm in the shootout, converting all five penalty kicks.
The Stars can look ahead to the finals on Oct. 22 when they open in Minnesota before they head to Fort Lauderdale for the finale one week later.The Strikers hold the advantage on the season with two wins and two draws against Minnesota.
What did you think of this weekend's results? Surprised with Carolina's collapse?Who do you think wins the NASL title now that the favorites have been eliminated?
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