Playoff spot clinched, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers now seek better positioning as the North American Soccer League regular season enters its final two weeks.
The Strikers qualified for the post-season after a 1-1 draw against the Puerto Rico Islanders on Saturday night at Lockhart Stadium.
“Did we qualify? I had no idea,” surprised Strikers defender and captain Toni Stahl said. “It was our No. 1 goal going into the season. We’re going to go all in now that we’ve qualified.”
Six teams earn playoff berths and Fort Lauderdale (9-8-9, 35 points) can finish no worse than sixth. But the Strikers, currently fifth, will attempt to finish in the top four and earn a first-round playoff home match.
“Home games are crucial that’s what put us in the position of where we are now,” Strikers forward Mark Anderson said. “The next two games are vital. We want to get wins.”
The Strikers, who reached the league championship series last season, will play their final two regular season games at Atlanta and Edmonton, which are currently seventh and eighth, respectively, in the eight-team NASL table.
A win against Puerto Rico would have placed the Strikers above the third place Islanders (10-7-8, 37 points). The Strikers pressed for the tie-breaking goal as late as second-half stoppage time, when Puerto Rico goalkeeper Richard Martin stopped Stahl’s header off Lance Laing’s cross near the 6-yard box.
“I was a bit far from the goal and I couldn’t get much power on it,” Stahl said. “Lance put me in a good spot. Next time I have to finish it better. I should have finished it.”
In the 88th minute, the Strikers argued that a penalty should have been called on Puerto Rico defender Osei Telsford after he pulled Andy Herron’s jersey as Herron attempted a shot deep inside the large area. But match referee Elle Aguilar did not give a foul, much to the displeasure of Strikers head coach Daryl Shore.
“One hundred percent a penalty, but that’s all I can say about it,” Shore said. “I’m not allowed to talk about referees. I was warned not to.”
Herron agreed with Shore.
“If he doesn’t grab my shirt, I’m able to get a solid shot,” Herron said. “I don’t know how the linesmen didn’t see that.”
The Islanders stunned the Strikers with Nick Addlery’s goal three minutes into the match. Addlery’s shot from 40 yards caught flat footed Strikers goalie Matt Glaeser by surprise as it bounced off the left post and rolled into the back of the net.
Fort Lauderdale nearly came through a minute later when Martin stopped Hosman Ramos’ shot inside the 6-yard box.
But the Strikers were not deterred by the near-miss and continued attacking the Puerto Rico goal area. The pressure paid off in the eighth minute on Pecka’s game-tying goal. Pecka received Ramos’ centering pass and blasted a 15-yard shot that caromed off the crossbar and into the net.
Although both teams had repeated runs on goal the rest of the half, they couldn’t finalize shots common of the offensive outbursts in the first 10 minutes.
“We created chances we just weren’t good enough in the [penalty] box to finish,” Shore said. “Overall, it was a good effort by the team after the first minute of the game.”
Glaeser kept the match a draw with his diving stop of Jonathan Fanas’ 20-yard shot in the 35th minute.
During a halftime ceremony, the Strikers honored the original version of the franchise, which played in the first NASL from 1977 to 1983. Original Strikers players Ray Hudson, Arnie Mausser, Branko Segota and Nico Bodonczy participated in the ceremony.