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.
The Minnesota United FC season opener is Saturday night, 7pm vs. the San Antonio Scorpions.
If you didn't know that already, there's a pretty good chance you're just joining us. Not to worry; I'm here to bring you up to speed. Here's the ten things you need to know before Saturday night, from most basic to most specific:
1. You might have heard of the Minnesota Thunder, or the Minnesota Stars. United is the same franchise (basically); as always, they're still in the second division of American soccer, now called the North American Soccer League. The team took on the moniker "Minnesota United FC" earlier this year, in part to erase the "Stars" reference that most of us still associate with hockey, in part because "United" is unequivocally the name of a soccer team and the team is taking itself seriously.
2. United's new logo has a loon on it, so some of the team's supporters are referring to the team as the "Loons."
3. The NASL has split its schedule into two halves this year. The winners of each half of the season will meet for the league title, the Soccer Bowl, in November. If one team wins both seasons, they'll play the team with the second-most points over the full season.
4. United will play its first five home games in the Metrodome in the spring season, then move outside to the National Sports Center in Blaine for the remaining home game of the spring, and for all seven fall home games. The team is hoping to approach and surpass last year's Metrodome home opener crowd, which was 8,600 fans, during its stint in the Dome this year.
5. United, which was owned by the league in 2011 and 2012, was purchased by local businessman Bill McGuire this spring, and for the first time in years, has some financial backing. The most apparent sign of this was an offseason filled with player signings, including 2011 NASL MVP Etienne Barbara and 2012 NASL MVP Pablo Campos, a forward pairing unrivaled in the league. The team also signed Daryl Sattler, who was the starting goalkeeper for San Antonio in 2012, a year in which the Scorpions won the regular-season title; Aaron Pitchkolan, a defensive midfielder who some thought was the key on that same San Antonio team; Max Griffin, the league Rookie of the Year in 2010 in midfield; and Bryan Arguez, an attacking midfielder who has represented the United States at the U-17, U-20, and U-23 levels.
6. Minnesota's strength in 2012 was its defense - and the whole unit returns intact in 2013. Keeper Matt Van Oekel and the back four of Justin Davis, Connor Tobin, Kyle Altman, and Brian Kallman were a key factor in Minnesota's run to the league title game, and center back Cristiano Dias and jack-of-all-trades defender Kevin Friedland return in support. Midfielder Kevin Venegas has also impressed as a backup fullback in the preseason, giving United a wealth of options in defense.
7. Apart from the new signings mentioned earlier, the team brought back Miguel Ibarra in midfield, a budding star with incredibly quick feet who never stops running. Lucas Rodriguez returns as well, ostensibly to fill his usual role on the left side of midfield, along with Simone Bracalello, who can play either up front or in in an attacking role as a midfielder. 25-year-old central midfielder Michael Reed has also impressed in preseason training, and could see significant minutes.
8. In addition to the league competition, United will compete in the US Open Cup, a knockout tournament for all American soccer teams. Last year, Minnesota beat Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake, and the team's players - most of whom want to play someday in MLS - are desperate for another chance to make a name for themselves by knocking off additional MLS teams. United enters the competition on May 21.
9. Expectations, both from the club and from the fans, are very high. Every team talks about winning championships this time of year, but from the people I've talked to, anything less for Minnesota will be seen as a failure. Barbara and Campos are expected to address the team's biggest struggle from last year, which was scoring goals, and overall United has the deepest squad we've seen in years.
10. And finally: I think there may be the perception among Minnesota soccer fans that United is on par with the St. Paul Saints in baseball - a fun day out, but not something to be taken entirely seriously. If that's your idea, please disabuse yourself of that notion. It's true that NASL teams don't have the same resources and facilities of MLS, but the gulf between the talent in the two leagues has never been narrower. Minnesota beat the Chicago Fire last Friday, 1-0 away, and though the Fire may be terrible, they played their first team. It's good soccer in the NASL, and it's worth your attention - not just as mild entertainment while you sit in the stands with a beverage, but as something to be taken seriously.
If you're interested in doing that, you'll find coverage of the team here at SoccerCentric. But if you still need to be convinced, just go to a game - maybe even the one on Saturday night.
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