The majority of Minnesota United FC's Opening Day lineup was made up of players who were part of the Minnesota Stars' 2012 playoff run, but one player in the middle of the field, Neil Hlavaty, was missing. This Saturday, he'll be back patrolling the center of the Metrodome turf.
It's just that he'll be wearing the other team's colors while he does it.
Hlavaty, 26, was one of the original Minnesota Stars, signing with the club in 2010 after post-college stints in Sweden and Poland. He was a mainstay on the 2011 and 2012 teams, starting almost every game in a defensive role in central midfield, and scoring a handful of goals along the way.
After the season was over, though, he was a free agent, and was drawing interest from a number of teams. Rather than wait out the uncertainty in Minnesota with a new owner coming in, he chose to decide his future early on in the offseason and sign with FC Edmonton, who he said showed interest "directly after the final whistle."
"I just wanted to get my offseason and my next move sorted out right away," he said. "The NASL and soccer in general is a cruel business, and when you spend every offseason not knowing what your next move is... I just wanted to spend a Christmas and my birthday [December 27] with my mind at ease. I haven’t had that in my career a lot, and it’s something I was looking forward to having."
"I knew there were changes ahead. It was around the same time all the negotiations were happening, and I had talked to Manny and I had talked to Carl [United head coach Lagos and assistant coach Craig, respectively], and I expressed to them what I wanted to do, and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen with their side of the management - they didn’t really know that yet. I was at a point, not necessarily at a deadline, but I wanted to enjoy my offseason."
Hlavaty said he had no regrets whatsoever about the move, and is excited about what it can do for his career. "It was difficult moving to a new spot, but I'm settled in nicely now," he said. "The change is good for my game, and doing new things in training and new routines is always good. I don't want to remain comfortable, because any time you're standing still, you're not getting better. I think it's already paid off for me individually at least, and as a team I think we'll start to see results really soon."
The midfielder has also been wearing the captain's armband for the Eddies so far this year while captain Albert Watson is out injured, another thing he thinks is good for his career. "It's changed my game a little bit," he said. "I think I was always a leader on the field, but now it's a bit different off the field, handling some of the younger players, and just trying to teach guys more, and help guys out more in certain situations. I think it helps me remain a little calmer on the field. It's a good step for me."
Edmonton has just one point from its first two matches, and after this Saturday, they'll already be a quarter of the way through the NASL spring season - but Hlavaty isn't worried yet. "We've been playing well and we have been unlucky not to get results - almost getting wins in Carolina and Florida," he said. " I have nothing but positivity heading to Minnesota, and not that there’s pressure to get a win, but we all know that we can do it. "
"A draw is always good away from home. However, coming off a loss and getting zero points - three points will put you back in the top of the table. That's pretty much our main goal. We'll go in and try to handle business, and if it's not three points, we'll be pretty upset. If it's one, we'll take it, but three points is the goal."