When Gunter Kronsteiner took over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the summer of 2013, the team was in last place in the league, had won only two of 12 matches, and players doubted themselves every time they stepped on the field.
The Austrian coach made several major lineup changes, infused the team with confidence, and the Strikers now find themselves in San Antonio, in the NASL Championship Final — the Soccer Bowl — against the Scorpions at 8:30p.m. Saturday.
They are on an eight-game unbeaten streak, with four wins and four ties, and won the semifinal in a penalty-kick shootout last weekend on the road over top-seeded Minnesota United FC.
That victory was especially gratifying for the Strikers because Minnesota was advertising the championship final at its stadium that day, as if its team had already clinched a spot. Kronsteiner said he used that as fodder for his pregame pep talk.
“This is so special, to be in the final, because all odds are against us,’’ said Kronsteiner. “We are the outsiders, the fourth seed. We beat No. 1 last week on the road, and now we get No. 2 on the road. Nobody thought we’d be here. It would make me so happy for our guys if they win because this was the team of players nobody wanted, a melting pot of guys who weren’t getting playing time somewhere else.
“We are proving it’s not a question of money, it’s about having the right mentality.’’
Strikers midfielder Mark Anderson agreed that the mood in the locker room now is completely different from a year ago.
“The team was looking for new ownership, our budget was being cut, we had no idea what was going to happen to the team,” Anderson said.
“If you had told me even at the start of this season that we’d be in the championship game, I wouldn’t have believed it. But as the season progressed, we started to believe that we could do something big. Our dream was to make the playoffs, now we want to bring the trophy home.’’
The Strikers and Scorpions have played three times this season. The Strikers won once. The Scorpions won once. And they tied once.
One Scorpion the Strikers are very familiar with is former All-NASL midfielder Walter Restrepo, who played for the Strikers from 2011 to 2013. The Colombian-American playmaker landed in San Antonio after a most unusual trade. The Strikers traded him in exchange for hotel accommodations and transportation during the team’s trip to San Antonio earlier this year.
▪ Watch parties: Strikers fans can watch the match at Stout in Fort Lauderdale (3419 N. Andrews Ave.) or at Fritz and Franz Bierhaus in Coral Gables (60 Merrick Way). The match will be shown on ESPN3 and can be heard on SoFloRadio.com.