Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: NASL top scorer Pinho fuels Strikers’ playoff push

Stefano Pinho, bottom right, of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers attempts to score during a game against the Cosmos in April.
Stefano Pinho, bottom right, of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers attempts to score during a game against the Cosmos in April. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

It’s early September and the once-written-off Fort Lauderdale Strikers are surging. Coach Gunther Kronsteiner has his team playing its best soccer when it counts most.

Sound familiar?

A year after going from last place to the NASL championship game, the Strikers are again making headlines on Labor Day weekend. They are on a four-game unbeaten streak and up to fourth place in the standings, thanks largely to Brazilian import Stefano Pinho, who has scored six goals over the past five matches.

Pinho, who goes by “Stefano,” was named NASL Player of the Month for August. The 24-year-old is the league’s leading scorer with 12 goals following a hat trick in a 7-1 win over Indy Eleven. Pinho is on loan from Brazilian club Fluminense, and his flashy style has made him a crowd favorite.

If the season ended today, the Strikers would get the fourth and final playoff spot.

“I’m very happy to be named NASL Player of the Month, and although I didn’t expect this recognition, I’m honored to have been chosen,” Pinho said. “Most importantly, the team has had a good run of results to go along with my goal-scoring streak, which I hope continues right through the playoffs.”

Pinho is two goals ahead of San Antonio’s Omar Cummings in the NASL Golden Boot race for the league’s top scorer.

“Besides the fact that I am his coach, I really have to admit that Stefano is truly an outstanding player,” Kronsteiner said. “He proves this not only by scoring goals but also through his work ethic.

“When you look at him in practice, you know exactly why he is where he is now, because he works extremely hard. He is a role model for a lot of players in this way, and I think this honor is more than deserved.”

The Strikers hit the road to face league-leading Ottawa Fury FC on Saturday and are back home Sept. 16 against Jacksonville. Tickets are available at www.strikers.com.

▪ Dutch iced: Hard to believe, but the two hottest teams in the 2016 European Championship qualifiers are Iceland and Wales.

Yes, Iceland and Wales.

Iceland beat the Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam last week and previously beat the Dutch 2-0 to take the lead in its group. The Icelanders have never reached any major championship, so this is huge news. More than 3,000 Iceland fans traveled to the Netherlands for the match.

“We are all flying now,” Iceland co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said. “This is the biggest achievement in our football history.”

Iceland can guarantee its place at Euro 2016 with a home win over Kazakhstan on Sunday.

The Czech Republic is in second place. The Netherlands sits eight points behind Iceland and six behind the Czechs. Only the top two in each group advance, and the third-place teams enter a playoff.

The Dutch were semifinalists at the 2014 World Cup and finalists in 2010, but they finished last in their group in the 2012 Euros and things are looking bleak right now. They play Turkey at noon Sunday (ESPN2).

The 1-0 loss to Iceland spoiled the debut of Dutch national team coach Danny Blind, who replaced Guus Hiddink last month. He has three games to turn things around.

Meanwhile, Welsh fans are going bonkers as their team is within three points of qualifying after beating Cyprus 1-0. The lone goal was scored by Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, who has scored six of the team’s nine goals in qualifying. Wales plays at home Sunday against Israel, and a win will lock up a spot in Euro 2016. It has been 58 years since Wales qualified for a major tournament. Coincidentally, it beat Israel in 1958 to earn a World Cup berth.

Who’s leading

Major League Soccer: East — D.C. (44), N.Y. (42), Columbus (41). West — L.A. (46), Vancouver (45), Dallas (41).

NASL (Fall standings): Ottawa (21), N.Y. Cosmos (19), Minnesota and Atlanta (18), Fort Lauderdale (16). Strikers are in fourth place in overall spring-fall standings.

English Premier League: Manchester City (12), Crystal Palace (9), Liecester City and Swansea City (8), Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool (7).

On the Tube: Sunday — Netherlands vs. Turkey (noon, ESPN2), Palmeiras vs. Corinthians (3 p.m., GOL-TV), Columbus vs. Dallas (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

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