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.
Email Jon to talk about soccer.
This winter, the Minnesota Twins signed Jeff Clement, a 29-year-old first baseman, formerly of Seattle and Pittsburgh. Clement, who has spent much of his career in the minor leagues, did not make the big-league roster in spring training, and will instead go to the Twins' Triple-A affiliate in Rochester.
It's a cruel system for Clement, but from his perspective, at least he's still in the Twins' system. If he has a couple of hot weeks, or if the Twins have a couple of injuries, he could well be back in the major leagues at any moment.
It's not so easy for soccer players. Many, like Minnesota United goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel and defender Justin Davis, spent a big part of their off-season training with Major League Soccer teams. They aren't under contract with those teams - they're "on trial," in the parlance of soccer, and if they don't come out of the experience as part of the team, it's back to their old clubs, or onto something different.
"I think it's very tough to make that jump," said Davis, who went on trials with Seattle, Salt Lake, and Toronto this offseason. "They clubs have youth players they're looking at, and guys from overseas that are interested in coming over to MLS, so you've really got to stand out."
For Van Oekel, who spent more than a month with DC United at their camp in Florida before returning to Minnesota, it was an entirely different experience with an MLS club. "This was my first time," he said. "The amount of staff and personnel they had taking care of us was incredible. They had three athletic trainers, three or four equipment personnel, a team administrator, and then the strength and conditioning coach, three coaches for the team itself. The organization of how everything was put together, that was incredible, I thought."
Said Davis, "The higher level you go, it always gets a little faster. There's a speed increase, all the players are top-level players. The competition is there every day, so every day you're competing. That's not to say that NASL is not competitive, and there's not good players in the league. But obviously you jump a level and the overall quality is just a little bit more up there."
"I have a lot of sympathy for guys who are on trial. It's tough, you don't know the teams you're with, you're not familiar with all the players, it's hard to get in a groove in a week. It's a tough spot to be in."
Despite the difficulties, the players believe that it improves their games, too. Van Oekel still is enthusiastic about the experience. "I had two goalkeeper coaches while on my time there with them, it's the first time I've had a keeper coach in quite some time. It was great to get some actual goalkeeper coaching in while I was down there."
It's not like the players are disappointed to be back in Minnesota, either. Said Van Oekel, "I love it here in Minnesota. I like the team that's here this year. I'm not disappointed at all."
Said Davis, "I've had a lot of success here in Minnesota. I appreciate what [head coach] Manny [Lagos] and [assistant coach] Carl [Craig] have done for me - they gave me an opportunity to start my career here and they helped me out a ton. And with the new owners and everybody coming in, there's a lot of excitement going around the team. I think if there is an NASL team to be involved with right now, it's definitely got to be Minnesota, so I can't complain about that."
And ultimately, Davis is philosophical about his career - whether in Minnesota or elsewhere. "I was actually talking to my college coach a couple of weeks ago, and he was stressing to his players, pro soccer is pro soccer. You're getting paid to play a game. And a lot of people don't get that opportunity in life and I've been fortunate enough to be here for a couple of years. I'm thankful for it, so I think you can't be too upset, when you're on a successful team and you get to play a game for a career."
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