ST. PETERSBURG — In the week leading up to the final game of the NASL final, Rowdies coach Ricky Hill was adamant that whichever team scored first at Al Lang Field on Saturday night would have a decided advantage in the championship series.
And if the Rowdies were the first to score that opening goal against Minnesota?
"Game on," Hill said.
To win the championship, which would be decided by total goals in the two matches, Tampa Bay had to overcome a two-goal deficit, the result of a 2-0 loss to Minnesota a week earlier on the road.
Hill got his wish Saturday in the 24th minute when forward Carl Cort shot into an open goal for the game's first score. By the 51st minute, the Rowdies had made up the deficit.
What followed was the most intense, back-and-forth action of the season in front of 6,208 at Al Lang Field. And when it was over, the Rowdies had won the title in penalty kicks.
"What can you say about this group of players," Hill said. "Resilience all year long, resilience (Saturday) … there's no quit in this team.
"Even if we had lost, I couldn't have been any prouder of them than I am now."
The penalty kicks came after regulation ended with a 3-1 Rowdies win and aggregate goals tied at three, and two 15-minute overtimes ended scoreless. With league-best goalkeeper Jeff Attinella in net, the Rowdies had the advantage.
Attinella stopped two of the Stars' first three penalty kicks and punched away the final attempt from Lucas Rodriguez to secure the title.
Luke Mulholland, Raphael Cox and Fafa Picault made their penalties for Tampa Bay.
"We came out from the first whistle and were all over them," said Attinella, a Clearwater native who played at USF.
"Minnesota didn't want to play (Saturday). They wanted to sit back and try to collect the win. We didn't let them get away with it."
The Rowdies led the game 2-1 late but were trailing 3-2 on aggregate goals when substitute forward Daniel Antoniuk provided a much-needed lifeline.
Mike Ambersley had a shot close in on goal blocked by Stars keeper Matt VanOekel in the 86th minute, but the rebound bounced to Antoniuk, who calmly scored his team-high ninth goal of the season.
"(Antoniuk's) done it all season long," Hill said. "When I've called upon him, he's been the man for all seasons. … Every time he's come on, he's impacted."
The Rowdies struck first when Cort, a former English Premier League player, blasted a rebound past VanOekel after the keeper initially stopped Keith Savage.
Savage put the Rowdies up 2-0 and tied the aggregate score in the 51st minute when he put a rebound of his shot past VanOekel.
But Minnesota answered shortly after, Rodriguez catching the Rowdies defense unaware, getting behind it and beating Attinella.
After Antoniuk's goal, Tampa Bay was forced to play the extra sessions with 10 players after Shane Hill received a red card in the 90th minute.
But the team persevered to win a second NASL title for the Rowdies franchise.
The original Rowdies won in 1975 in their inaugural NASL season.
"It wasn't the way I envisioned it," Hill said. "But I couldn't be a happier coach."