Expectations high as well-backed United FC opens season

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2014 - 12:31 AM

The NASL team has a deep-pockets owner, a new practice facility and fresh talent.

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(left to right) Minnesota United FC's Manny Lagos talked with Jamie Watson during scrimmage at the Savage Sports Dome on 3/28/14.] Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune bbisping@startribune.com Manny Lagos, Jamie Watson/roster.

The local professional soccer “team that nobody wanted” less than two years ago is now fully funded and focused on a championship.

Minnesota United FC begins its spring season Saturday night at San Antonio. This marks the second season the North American Soccer League team has been owned by Bill McGuire, who rose to prominence nationally as the head of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group for more than 15 years.

Coming off a disappointing 2013 season, the team has its work cut out for it.

Team president Nick Rogers said an offseason with months rather than weeks to build a team paid huge dividends. For the first time, KSTC-TV (Ch. 45) will broadcast all home matches, which will be played at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

But the team will move its training center to a new Woodbury facility in late June. And players enjoyed preseason trips to California and England, a six-figure investment Rogers called “a good bedrock for success.”

Veteran midfielder Jamie Watson is impressed with the team’s new energy. Watson returns to Minnesota after reaching the 2012 NASL championship match with the then-Minnesota Stars FC.

The NASL owned the Stars, a scrappy, hardworking bunch in danger of losing their jobs within hours of failing to defend their 2011 title.

The Dark Clouds, ardent supporters of local professional soccer, christened the Stars as “the team that nobody wanted” which, despite its tenuous ownership situation, contended for championships.

“I appreciated how much that team got out of what little it had,” Watson said. “Now, you have all the resources that you could possibly need to succeed. Gone are the days of the excuses like, ‘The budget keeps us from bringing in the players we want,’ or, ‘If we had the means, we could potentially do this.’ Now, everything has been laid out on a silver platter by the ownership group.”

Off the local sports endangered list, Minnesota United FC must now fuse the attitude and grit of its less-funded predecessors with a roster of more talented players. Finding the right mix proved difficult last season. Midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan and forward Pablo Campos contributed. But Bryan Arguez and former NASL MVP Etienne Barbara were traded midseason after clashing with coach Manny Lagos.

Locker room issues and a rash of injuries dropped United FC to sixth out of seven teams in the spring season.

Lagos said the offseason was spent looking for “the right kind of guys to fight and do things for the good of the badge.”

Said Rogers: “I think the front office is better in sync with what’s happening onfield and this year you’ll see less of an identity crisis.”

The fall season saw the team rise to fourth out of eight teams. The New York Cosmos joined the league for the 2013 fall season and won the Soccer Bowl. This year the NASL expands to a 10 teams with the addition of the Indy Eleven and the Ottawa Fury FC.

A new playoff format advances the winner of each season, plus the next two teams with the best overall records from both seasons combined, to the postseason. The NASL semifinals will be played Nov. 8-9, the finals Nov. 15-16.

“There’s a little more pressure [on us] than there probably is on other teams in the NASL to succeed,” Pitchkolan said. “With the resources we have, those expectations should be there.”

Note: United will have its first jersey sponsor this season, Atomic Data, a Minneapolis-based IT solutions company. Atomic Data’s logo will be on the back of the team’s jerseys.

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  • Minnesota United FC preview

    Friday April 11, 2014

    minnesota united fc gameday7:30 p.m. at Toyota Field in San AntonioWatch: Live webstream available at www.mnunitedfc.com for $5 per monthPreview:...

  • TOP: United FC’s Jamie Watson, left, and Kevin Venegas battled for the ball in a scrimmage. BOTTOM: Coach Manny Lagos, left, expects more harmony on this year’s team. He talked with Watson during the scrimmage. Watson said the team has all the resources it needs to win.

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