Mid-January is prime time for discovering new American soccer talent. Various combines take place in Florida this time of year, highlighted by the MLS combine, which serves as the ramp-up to next Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft.
New Minnesota United head coach Carl Craig is usually part of the Minnesota delegation at the combines, and for the first time he’s viewing the talent as the team’s manager.
Craig is looking for more youth and speed for the 2016 roster. “If we can get some young lads into the squad, that be great because we’re getting old, and we’re not as quick as I’d like us to be,” he said.
The manager noted that his team, as currently constituted, is thin — such as at goalkeeper, where the team lost backup Mitch Hildebrandt, or along the back four, where the squad is down to two center backs and two wide defenders. He also mentioned his search for someone to play the “No. 10” role, an attacking midfielder tasked with creating chances for an offense that’s now headlined by NASL Best XI honorees Christian Ramirez, Stefano Pinho and Lance Laing.
More quickness and more depth would allow Craig to tweak Minnesota’s style.
“We need to increase our ability to play a higher tempo,” he said. “We need to get a little bit more pace at the back, to allow us to press higher up the field. When we got undone last year, it was often just a simple ball over the defense and then a footrace.”
This week, though, Craig’s role is mostly to see and meet as many players as possible. For the coach, finding someone who has the right mental makeup is as important as finding someone with the talent to play at a higher level. “My own perspective is, if I can get in front of a guy and have a half-hour conversation with him, that’s as important as seeing him play football down here right now,” he said. “If the personality is not right and he doesn’t click with me, it’s just not going to work. It’s essential.”
While most of the players at the MLS combine hope to make MLS squads, any number of players might be drafted and then released, or might go undrafted — and Minnesota, with its MLS future, would be an attractive destination. “The chances of us stealing a guy away from MLS are pretty slim — at least in the past they have been,” said Craig. “It might be a little different now.”
Craig will be on the lookout for players who have what he calls the “Midwest work ethic, what we’re all about.” He’ll be thinking about his 2016 squad this week, and hoping to supplement his team for the NASL grind. At the same time, he’ll also be meeting players with an eye toward 2017 and beyond.
Carl Craig is looking to finalize his Minnesota United FC coaching staff this week and is meeting with an assistant with MLS coaching experience whom he wouldn’t identify. Peter Rivard, who coached United’s reserve team last year, will also assist Craig, and Paul O’Connor will return as goalkeeper coach.
Woodbury native Eric Miller earned his first call-up to the senior U.S. men’s national team and will be hoping to earn his first cap on Jan. 31 against Iceland or Feb. 5 against Canada.
Miller started six games for Montreal in 2015, during the Impact’s best year to date. Jackson Yueill of Bloomington was also tapped once again for the U-20 team camp.
Real Madrid fired manager Rafa Benitez after just four months, replacing him with Zinedane Zidane — the latest in a string of hair-trigger management moves made by club President Florentino Perez.
Benitez’s technical demeanor and cautious defensive style never won over some of the team’s high-strung players, especially those still loyal to former coach Carlo Ancelotti. The real problem, though, is Perez, who fired Ancelotti in the first place.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
La Liga: Deportivo at Real Madrid, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, beIN Sports: Zinedane Zidane’s foray into big-time coaching begins with a visit from Deportivo, which is in seventh place but has only three losses all year.
Zidane was a legend as a player; managing the egos on his team might require another legendary performance.
Liga MX: Puebla at América, 5 p.m. Saturday, Univision: América crashed to a sixth-place finish in the fall season and endured an embarrassing performance at the FIFA Club World Cup. Manager Nacho Ambriz is still in charge of the big Mexico City club, but anything less than a fast spring-season start might spell doom.
FA Cup: Scunthorpe United at Chelsea, 8 a.m. Sunday, FS1: Scunthorpe, in 15th place in the third division, was drawn against the London giants — the magic of the FA Cup in action. Chelsea looks like its struggles are over; watch for the minuscule chance that Scunthorpe pulls the upset of the year.
FA Cup: Leicester City at Tottenham, 10 a.m. Sunday, FS1. Leicester has been the Premier League’s surprise team, but Tottenham has quietly cruised to a solid fourth place.
Both have an unlikely chance at the Premier League trophy, but the FA Cup may be the best chance for either team to win a championship in 2016.