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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This Saturday, Minnesota United FC visits San Antonio, their first visit to the Scorpions' new home at Toyota Field. The teams played on opening day this year, drawing 0-0 at the Metrodome.
It's been a strange year for the Scorpions. On the one hand, they opened a new soccer-specific stadium in San Antonio, probably the nicest facility in the NASL. On the other hand, last year's regular-season champions are last in the league at the spring season's halfway point. They've also turned over almost all of their front-office staff and seemingly three-quarters of their roster.
In other words, it's been up and down this year in San Antonio. To find out more, I emailed Chris Hockman, who covers the Scorpions for the San Antonio Soccer Examiner and is a columnist for Soccer Newsday.
1) San Antonio was last year's league champions, but more than halfway through the spring season, they're sitting at the bottom of the NASL table. What's gone wrong in San Antonio?
Where do I start? The club had an awful pre-season, they played two Division 2 Colleges and an NPSL team and that was it. In no way is that preparation for the rigours of NASL play. Communication has really been lacking, while poor pass selection is a trend in NASL - the Scorpions seem to have perfected it this year, often completely bypassing a talented mid-field. They just don't seem to have any passion this year. Whatever spark was there last year that fired this team up, it's gone; they don't seem motivated.
2) I've heard some rumblings about front-office upheaval with the Scorpions this year. What's been going on - and has it hurt the team?
Michael Hitchcock ran the club last year through his PMI company, and was hardly ever in San Antonio. This year they brought in Howard Cornfield and the staff is actually employed by the Scorpions instead of PMI. That's a good thing. But Howard doesn't have the soccer experience and contacts that Hitch had, so that may be hurting a bit - but at least he's not working for Atlanta as well, like Hitch was.
I also think it's been a money thing. There's a lot of speculation that Hitch spent too much money (hard to argue, the club brought in guys like [forward, and all-time MLS regular-season goal-scoring leader] Jeff Cunningham but never used him) and perhaps owner Gordon Hartman is looking to save some money, given all profits from the club go to charity. That's speculation though. I don't get to look at the figures so I don't know, but on the surface that seems to be what's happened. Is it good for the team? Probably in terms of long-term survival - Hitch's management would likely have run the club broke very quickly... but in terms of results and keeping fans happy, probably not.
3) On Twitter on Wednesday, Scorpions coach Tim Hankinson called Minnesota his team's "greatest rival." From the fan's or the media's point of view, is there truth to that?
There's a real rivalry there. It's hard in NASL - as a journalist I don't really feel the heat on any teams, it's hard to hate teams that take you over a day to drive to. But this one is certainly feisty, especially after the playoff games last year and the transfers between the teams. I think Puerto Rico was probably bigger, but given they're out of the league this year, Minnesota is the biggest rival for San Antonio.
Of course, the second a team comes in this league within 500 miles of San Antonio, that will change; it's just hard for the fans to hate any team without the geographical reason there, so it's good to see the Scorpions try and generate one.
4) Now that the stickers have been taken off the Scorpions' new stadium, how does it look? Anything particularly good or bad that other teams can learn from?
I think it's a solid stadium, I really like it and it's great for this level. There are probably not enough restrooms, but that could be said about every stadium. I think the most frustrating thing is that they named some concession stands after David Beckham and Pele. I get that they're big characters, but why not name them after players that have played for this team - at least Pele has played in San Antonio. There's a missing elevator at the media entrance which is a little frustrating (especially given I have a leg injury right now), but on the whole it's great. I'm trying to think of something really positive to point out for teams to imitate but it's just a generally good stadium. I think the locker-room facilities are solid, a second smaller locker-room for the coach to give tactical talks is a cool move and I don't see a ton of that in the US stadiums.
5) San Antonio brought in a handful of new players this offseason. After seven games, who has been the biggest standout among them?
I joke that the Cosmos had more players on their books than the Scorpions did one month out from the season - but it's not far from the truth, this is almost a completely new squad.
Midfielder Bryan Jordan really is a cut above this team and this league; I feel for the guy, he wouldn't be in NASL if he hadn't been with the LA Galaxy, competing for a spot against Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Beckham; no one is going to beat those guys out. In terms of the Eastern Europeans - midfielder Edin Husic has been the most impressive. I looked at some videos of his when he was signed, and the kid has a lethal left boot that we're really starting to see, I think he could be the dominant player in the Spring season if the Scorpions can pull it together.
6) How much does San Antonio miss the players that Minnesota signed for this season?
The fans certainly do. I personally thought Pablo Campos was overrated, much to the frustration of the fans. Daryl Sattler is missed, but Jeremy Vuolo seems to be doing well since he's gotten some starts at goalkeeper. I spoke to Coach Hankinson before the season about it, and he said that he would have liked Campos- but it sounded like he didn't like the Scorpions offer, and I don't know if he's worth what I heard he was asking. Hankinson said Aaron Pitchkolan would only have been a substitute, which surprised me; he seems exactly the kind of player this team could use, and I certainly miss him.
Campos has really been a surprise to me this year. Last year he took 100 shots and scored one-in-ten and would never pass. This year he seems more choosy with his shots and is actually passing the ball! I think it's an easy excuse though. You look at this team on paper and I think they covered well for the three - except for maybe Campos, they didn't really get the striker they needed. But Vuolo was an able replacement for Sattler, and I'd take Phelan for Pitchkolan any day. I think that's what makes this season so disappointing for Hankinson. This squad, on paper, is better than last year's squad, but for whatever readon they just aren't producing.
My thanks go to Chris for explaining everything about the Scorpions.
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