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 FC has given up a number of late goals this year - against Carolina twice, against Tampa Bay at home, even against Des Moines at home in the US Open Cup - and even central defender and team captain Kyle Altman is confused as to why. "It's both baffling and beweildering at the same time," he said. "I think it's a little bit baffling right now why we haven't been able to get consistent results, considering that we think we have a very talented team."
United endured perhaps its most painful loss of the season last Saturday, giving up two late goals in two minutes to come away with no points in a game they led 2-0 after ten minutes. Perhaps the only other contender in that category was the aforementioned loss to Des Moines, and Altman identified one commonality between that and the two games against Carolina: giving up goals from set pieces.
Said Altman, "All three of the goals we gave up against Carolina this past weekend - one was a penalty, another one was a free kick that got cleared and we didn’t track the runners, and a third was off a corner kick. If you look at the two goals we conceded the time before that against Carolina, they were both from short corners. For some reason, this year more than any other year, set pieces have been an Achilles' heel for us - that and giving up late goals.
"I think a lot of that comes down to mentality and focus, and not necessarily just with defending, because we were defending a lot in that second half. I think a lot of is has to do with how we close out games, not just in defending but how we can keep the ball, how we can possess, how we can give them something to worry about, so we can finish games more successfully. "
As captain, Altman's a team leader - but he says that, at times like this, changing the team's results starts with introspectiveness, not with ranting and raving in the locker room. Said Altman, "The first thing you have to do is look at yourself, and look at what you can do better, and that’s the same recommendation that I would give to all the guys on the team: Look at yourself first, and try to figure out what you need to do to help the team."
With two weeks to go, then, United's between a rock and a hard place. They need two wins for a shot at the spring championship - anything else will leave them short - and to get some help from other results around the league. According to Altman, though, the team has yet to degenerate into finger-pointing or negative moods. "There’s a lot of positive energy, actually, because guys really want to figure this out," he said. "I think guys really want to get out there and put two really good performances to finish out the season.
"We have to focus on what we can control - and that's to pick up six points."