ST. PETERSBURG — If Minnesota qualifies for the NASL playoffs, it will have goalkeeper Joe Warren to thank.
Minnesota, fighting for its playoff life in sixth place in the league standings entering Saturday's match, salvaged a much-needed point with a 1-1 tie with Tampa Bay in front of a crowd of 3,001 at Al Lang Field.
Tampa Bay was hoping to secure a quarterfinal-round home playoff match with a victory. But a 2-0 Montreal win over Edmonton minutes after the Minnesota-Tampa Bay match ended gave Tampa Bay its first postseason match in St. Petersburg.
Still, Tampa Bay would have preferred earning its reward rather than backing into it.
"(Saturday) was an opportunity to put three points on the board," coach Ricky Hill said. "For whatever reason, we didn't manage to take all three. I'm grateful we've managed to take one, but three would have been much nicer."
Starting in the 27th minute, Tampa Bay (10-8-8) had numerous one-on-one cracks at Warren but failed to convert. Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, David Hayes and Aaron King missed relatively simple scoring chances, either by shooting right at Warren (nine saves) or missing the target.
Minnesota (8-10-9) capitalized on Tampa Bay's shooting woes in the second half. Midfielder Anthony Hamilton sent a cross into the box from the left wing in the 54th minute, and second-half substitute Neil Hlavaty one-timed the ball past goalkeeper Jeff Attinella (two saves).
"They got a nice counterattack … sent a good cross in," Hill said. "Slack marking by us, and we found ourselves 1-nil down."
Tampa Bay responded quickly, however.
In the 59th minute, Mike Ambersley slipped a perfectly weighted through pass to King, who was streaking down the right wing. With the option to shoot or pass as he dribbled toward the goal, King cracked a right-footed shot that eluded the outstretched Warren and tucked the ball inside the far post for his ninth goal of the season.
Tampa Bay is assured of finishing third or fourth in the league. Minnesota remains in sixth place, one point ahead of Montreal. Six of the eight teams make the playoffs; one spot remains up for grabs.
Tampa Bay hosts a one-game quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1.
"Just getting out of our own beds and eating our own food and getting into our own realm at home is huge," King said.