Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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Minnesota United goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel doesn't seem too bothered about having to once again compete for his starting spot. After all, it's hardly the first time he's had to do so - and it's hardly the first time the breaks haven't gone his way.
He signed out of Rutgers for the Minnesota Thunder as a backup in 2008, and backed up Nic Platter in 2009 - but then the team folded. He re-signed with the new NSC Minnesota Stars in 2010 - but by that time, the team already had legendary Minnesota keeper Joe Warren in the fold.
Van Oekel finally got his chance in 2012, and he was one of the NASL's best, playing all but a handful of minutes for the Stars. The team's response? Signing Daryl Sattler, who'd established himself as another one of the NASL's best in San Antonio.
Despite all this, Van Oekel - who signed a new two-year deal in the offseason - seems ready to compete again. "Obviously I was hoping to outright have the number one job again this year, after I thought I had a quite successful season," he said. "But you look at the Yankees; they bring in as many good players as they possibly can, and I think that’s what Minnesota’s trying to do as well now. That way your roster’s deep, and there’s always a level of competition at training, which I think will push us throughout the season."
He also downplays any talk of locker-room rifts, despite the new faces - some of whom, like striker Pablo Campos, have been somewhat infamous in Minnesota, prior to this season. Said Van Oekel, "There’s always concern when you bring in new guys that we’ve had big rivalries with, but they’ve come in and it’s like they’ve been here for years already. It’s probably one of the most close-knit group of guys that I’ve seen in the locker room so far."
So far in the preseason, at least, United's sign-every-goalkeeper method has been paying off. "We've renamed the traiing room as Keeper's Corner," said Van Oekel. Sattler missed a week with a hamstring problem, but came back just in time to spell Van Oekel, who's out with ankle tendinitis until next week. And backup Mitch Hildebrant has even more problems - he has a broken foot, and will be out until at least the end of April. Forget talk of a Yankees-style superteam - right now Minnesota just is reaping the benefits of having a deeper squad than usual.
Van Oekel, who spent a month with DC United in the preseason as a trial player, just wants a chance to show off again, and get another chance to catch on with an MLS team. He says he's hoping that the team makes another deep US Open Cup run, one that gives him a chance to play against some more MLS opposition. "That way, hopefully some MLS teams remember my name a little more," he said.
If they do, I'd hate to be an established MLS goalkeeper. After all, Van Oekel's got the advantage; he's never had a chance to be complacent about being the number one guy.