The 1999 A-League champion Minnesota Thunder opened defense of their title in style Saturday with a 7-0 opening-round playoff victory over the Indiana Blast in front of 2,957 at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
Top seed Minnesota (21-4-4) advances to meet the fifth-seeded Vancouver 86ers (15-11-3) in a two-game Western Conference semifinal series that begins at 9 p.m. (CT) Wednesday in Vancouver, B.C. The series finale is scheduled for 7:35 p.m. Saturday in Blaine.
While Vancouver needed penalty kicks to eliminate the host San Diego Flash 2-1 late Saturday night, Minnesota jumped on top of Indiana (9-16-4) early and never let the Blast breathe. Midfielder Brian Winters, an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team, scored the first of his two goals with a blistering 20-yard shot in the 2nd minute, and the first of midfielder Morgan Zeba's two goals extended Minnesota's 2-0 halftime lead less than 2 minutes after the intermission.
"It's funny how you worry about goal production and suddenly you have an abundance of goals," said Thunder coach Buzz Lagos. "Sometimes you'd like to spread them out over more games, but we'll take them whenever we get them."
Minnesota's third seven-goal eruption of the season came after the Thunder scored just six goals during a five-game mini-slump (2-3) to close the regular season. Lagos attempted to rekindle Minnesota's offensive spark by giving forward Chugger Adair his first home start, and the former San Diego striker responded with his first Thunder goal in the 27th minute and an assist on Zeba's second in the 63rd.
Leading scorer Johnny "The Tiny Ticket" Menyongar scored from defender John Sylvester in the 53rd minute and set up Winters' second strike in the 61st, and substitute forward Paul Schneider scored his ninth goal in nine games - from goalkeeper John Swallen, no less - in the 80th minute. Midfielder Mike Gentile's assist on Zeba's first goal was his first since the season opener on May 5, and midfielder Stoian Mladenov set up Winters' opening goal for his first assist since July 4.
In addition to notching the first assist of his 11-year Thunder career, Swallen saved an 89th-minute penalty kick by Indiana's Peter Baah to preserve his fourth shutout in the past seven playoff games.
"Things were aligned just perfectly for us," said Lagos. "Everyone was clicking on all cylinders."
Saturday's game against Vancouver will be Jersey Night. All fans ages 19 and younger who wear their soccer jersey will receive a $1 discount off their $7 youth ticket. Adult tickets are $15 for VIP and $10 for general admission. Information: (763) 785-3668 or www.mnthunder.com.
MINNESOTA THUNDER 7, INDIANA BLAST 0. Goals: Brian Winters (Stoian Mladenov) 2, Chugger Adair (Brian Winters) 27, Morgan Zeba (Mike Gentile) 47, Johnny Menyongar (John Sylvester) 53, Brian Winters (Johnny Menyongar) 61, Morgan Zeba (Chugger Adair) 63, Paul Schneider (John Swallen) 80.
MINNESOTA -- John Swallen, John Sylvester (Mark Schulte, 73), John Coughlin (Ronald Valderrama, 77), Eric Otto, Don Gramenz, Mike Gentile, Brian Winters, Morgan Zeba, Stoian Mladenov (Nate Winkel, 78), Johnny Menyongar (Aaron Leventhal, 75), Chugger Adair (Paul Schneider, 70).
INDIANA -- Fred Denton, Mark Allen, Jon Pickup, Peter Baah, Tim Foster, Andy McDermott, Dustin Ottesen (Justin Pratt, 66), Matt Caution, Andy Parrish (Ryan Eernisse, 81), Christian Broadhurst (Matt Ogden, 55), David Proctor (Jeff Dresser, 58).
SHOTS -- Minnesota 16, Indiana 5. SAVES -- Swallen (MIN) 2, Denton (IND) 3.
FOULS -- Minnesota 12, Indiana 9. OFFSIDES -- Minnesota 6, Indiana 0. CORNER
KICKS -- Minnesota 4, Indiana 1. CAUTIONS -- None. EJECTIONS -- None.
ATTENDANCE -- 2,957. OFFICIALS -- Kelly Ross, Mishaun Ahmad, Bob Petersen, Jeff Filipek.