As nearly 8,000 fans packed Toyota Field Saturday, they knew the hometown team was on the verge of something monumental.
The North American Soccer League (NASL) record crowd saw more than the two most prolific offenses this season in the San Antonio Scorpions and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. They also witnessed the staunch defense that made these two teams fight for first place most of the season.
“We led the league in fewest goals conceded, but at the same time, we were second in the league in most goals scored. So we have a very dynamic offense,” said Scorpions Head Coach Alen Marcina.
That potent goal scoring was most evident in the combined 16 matches played by the two teams coming into Saturday's championship final. The total losses between the two sides numbered only one. Yet it was defense that was the calling card early in the contest.
Possession time was virtually even for most of the game, but it was the Strikers who were confident early. While they threatened to break the 0-0 stalemate, they would only amass five total shots on goal the entire match.
Fort Lauderdale’s best opportunity came in the 64th minute as a foul led to a penalty kick by right back Martin Nuñez that sailed high, keeping Scorpion hopes alive. From then on, the home field advantage went into overdrive.
“We’re fortunate enough that this is our house, so our fans have been supportive all year long. Our supporter groups have been behind us since day one,” Marcina said.
Not until the 69th minute did center midfielder, Rafael Castillo, ignite the crowd with a bicycle kick that got past the Striker goalkeeper to make it 1-0. Just six minutes later, Castillo found left midfielder Billy Forbes for a direct shot on goal, making it 2-0.
The scoring barrage didn’t stop there. The 79th minute saw Strikers midfielder and former Scorpion Walter Ramirez get past goalkeeper Josh Saunders to make it 2-1.
With that, it was all but over as San Antonio claimed the Soccer Bowl Trophy for the 2014 season.
“When we got into this, the NASL was very much in its infancy. What has happened is that it’s continued to get stronger. It’s been a blessing that (the league and our team) has exceeded the expectations we set forth,” said Gordon Hartman, Scorpions team owner.
Yet the San Antonio Scorpions and Soccer for a Cause are inseparable. While this victory points to a bright future for the NASL and perhaps local Major League Soccer (MLS), it also brings awareness to the special needs community.
That commitment is on display daily. The Scorpion's Toyota Field is located right next to Morgan’s Wonderland, The Monarch Academy, and the Children's Rehabilitation Institute for Teletón (CRIT) USA. All facilities are dedicated to the well-being, happiness, and education of children with disabilities, and the latter is a highly-advanced medical therapy facility.
“Being in the championship game has brought incredible awareness to the special needs community. So by winning it all, it’s just going to multiply that and bring awareness to the cause,” Hartman said.
Proceeds from the San Antonio Scorpions help fund expansive projects like the one-of-a-kind Morgan’s Wonderland — a park specially designed for special-needs individuals.
With the success of this charitable business model, interest has come pouring in from across the nation and world as to how to implement it elsewhere.
For NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson, teams being involved in the community is part of why his league is seeing unprecedented growth.
“The key is to stick to the basics of building a business. Our teams are very strong on and off the field, and it’s important they stay relevant in their communities. We have to stay on that plan even as we grow,” Peterson said.
Even with the recent visit from MLS officials to the Alamo city, Peterson is optimistic that the future is bright for professional soccer. With a number of new teams starting NASL teams to play in the seasons to come, there seem to be only more possibilities for growth in the sport and the charitable causes teams champion.
“We’re just closing the fourth season this league has been together, and to have the level of talent we have and to have our players being successful for their national teams, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that,” Peterson said.
*Featured/top image: Members of the NASL Champion San Antonio Scorpions hoist the Soccer Bowl Trophy following their 2-1 victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Photo by Kristian Jaime.