Hello there, soccer reader, and welcome to the SoccerCentric blog! I'm your host, Jon Marthaler. You might know me from Saturdays at RandBall, or from one of my other online sportswriting ventures, but I'm here on startribune.com to write about soccer.
A word about this blog: I'm going to be focusing on pro soccer in Minnesota, with only occasional forays to soccer locations further afield. I know that many of you may be fans of the US national teams or the Premier League or La Liga or Major League Soccer, and while I am too, there's simply too much ground to cover there. So until Zygi Wilf buys himself a MLS team or an English team, I'm going to be focused mostly on the hometown eleven, otherwise known as the Minnesota Stars of the North American Soccer League.
It's been a big offseason for the Stars. After two years of being league-owned, the team has a new local owner in retired UnitedHealth Group CEO Bill McGuire. For the first time in years, then, the franchise has money to spend, and this has led to more new things at the club - not least, a raft of new players, including 2012 NASL Player of the Year Pablo Campos and 2011 NASL Player of the Year Etienne Barbara.
"The team that nobody wanted" finally has an owner, and now, the Stars have constructed what one former NASL player referred to as "the NASL version of the Miami Heat." But just like the Heat, the team's new look is giving them something they haven't had in past years: high expectations.
The Stars have been wildly successful in the playoffs in both the last two years, winning the league championship in 2011 and coming within a couple of minutes of a second title last year, but both of these editions of the Stars struggled mightily during the regular season. In 2011, the Stars went nine matches in August and September without a win. In 2012, the Stars went from mid-July to mid-September without a win, an eight-match stretch in which the team netted just four goals.
In both seasons, the Stars finished sixth in the eight-team standings, but used head coach Manny Lagos's particular brand of playoff magic to make post-season title runs. In 2013, though, that possibility is out the window, thanks to a new split-season NASL format. To make it into November's league championship game, the Stars will have to win either the spring (April through June) or fall (August through October) title.
There's no time this year for a summer swoon. It's win half of the season, or watch the playoffs - shortened as they are - from home. And it's clear from the investment of the new ownership that winning is now an expectation, not a pleasant surprise.
Just two players in the NASL's two-year history have scored 20 goals in a season, and the Stars now have both. Barbara and Campos played together for the Carolina Railhawks in 2011, a strike partnership that led to 20 goals for Barbara and 12 for Campos. Barbara endured an injury-ravaged season with Vancouver in Major League Soccer last year, but Campos stayed in the NASL with San Antonio and took over the top of the scoring chart, netting 20 times himself for the Scorpions.
Minnesota also added former USA Under-20 Team midfielder Bryan Arguez, who made 13 appearances last season for FC Edmonton in the NASL while on loan from Montreal of MLS. Arguez, still just 24, has spent most of his career in the MLS and in the German top division, but is searching for consistent performances to get himself back on track.
In addition to Campos, Minnesota also raided 2012 regular-season champions San Antonio to sign defensive midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan and goalkeeper Daryl Sattler. Sattler, 32, led all regular keepers in the NASL last year with a 0.79 goals-against average. And while Campos was leading the scoresheet and Sattler was leading the keepers, Pitchkolan was quietly anchoring the Scorpions in their own half. At least one San Antonio insider has referred to Pitchkolan as perhaps the biggest loss for the Scoripions, going into 2013.
The Stars will also have a new home in 2013, at least for some of their matches. Minnesota will play five of their six spring-season home games in the Metrodome, rather than at their traditional home at the National Sports Center in Blaine. In part, the team is moving indoors to avoid the early-season cold, but they also hope to attract more fans to the downtown location - fans that might then follow the team to Blaine later in the year.
The Stars' biggest home crowd of the year in 2012 was for a season-opening game at the Dome, as 8,600 people saw the team draw with Carolina. The front office is certainly hoping to exceed that number this spring, especially given that they now have expanded resources which which to promote the team.
Later in the year, Minnesota will also have a new opponent, one that is drawing international interest given its links to soccer's American past. The New York Cosmos will debut as part of the NASL for the fall season, something that's even garnered the attention of a publication like The Economist. And though the reborn Cosmos haven't yet kicked a ball, they've already announced plans for a 25,000-seat stadium in Nassau County.
Put it all together, then, and it's been an exciting offseason for Stars fans. But for the first time, the team now has expectations. Minnesota will likely begin the season as favorites for the spring title, and I can't imagine that the new ownership will tolerate struggling for very long, not after the investment they've made in the team.
The "little team that could" has now become the "big team that should." And it should make for a fascinating 2013 season.