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 still has a chance for the NASL spring championship - admittedly, a small one, but still a chance.
Carolina drew 1-1 with Atlanta last night, the RailHawks' first dropped points at home all of last year, leaving the door just slightly ajar for one of three other teams to slip through. San Antonio also won, 4-1 at home against Fort Lauderdale, so the standings right now have Carolina with 20 points, Atlanta with 18, and San Antonio with 17.
Minnesota can stay alive with a win today at Edmonton, which would give them 17 points going into the season's final week. If they win today, they would need to beat Atlanta at home next week, and San Antonio would need to beat Carolina at home - which would leave Minnesota, Carolina, and San Antonio all level at 20 points apiece.
The first tiebreaker is goal difference, and United has problems there. Carolina is +6, San Antonio is +2, and Minnesota is at 0 for the season. In other words, Minnesota needs not only two wins, but two fairly comfortable wins; they'll need to score at least five more goals than their opponents, possibly six, to win the title.
It's possible. Maybe not likely, but possible. First things first, though - they have to beat Edmonton today.
Avoiding the "end-of-game chaos"
This week, Minnesota United put out a video tribute to captain Kyle Altman, who is retiring at the end of the spring season and going to medical school. First, though, they have a bigger concern - getting him back on the field.
Altman sprained his foot/ankle during the first half of last week's loss at Carolina, and had to leave the game at halftime. "I tried to gut it out," he said, "but at some point I felt like I hindering my team, and was more of a liability than an asset."
According to the center back, he's been in a walking boot all week, and has been doing work in the pool and by himself to try to get back. He's in the travel squad for this week, but it's up in the air as to whether he'll play.
Head coach Manny Lagos mentioned Altman's absence as a factor that led to two late Carolina goals last week. "I think there was a little bit of disjointedness that happens when you have your center back and captain go out," said Lagos, who said this contributed to the "end-of-game chaos" in the 3-2 loss.
In two games this year, Minnesota allowed three goals to Carolina that came in the final ten minutes of the game, turning two potential wins into a draw and a loss. All three of those goals came from set pieces, and Lagos is as confused as anybody as to why that has happened. “Traditionally, we’ve been pretty darn good at them [defending set pieces], and this year at weird times we haven’t quite got what we needed to see the game out.”
“We do a pretty good job, I think, preparing and making sure [the players] are aware of their assignments,” said Lagos. “In that stress and fervor at the end of games, we have to make sure we’re organized and mentally sharp. Odd plays are going to happen, but we try to limit them, and we try to have that courage and intensity to try to keep from getting scored on.”
Certainly, the team could use Altman back - and certainly, he wants to be in the lineup, especially as his career winds down. "It would take a lot to keep me out of those last two games," he said.
Quietly, it’s Taka time
I haven’t written much about Kentaro Takada in the past few weeks; the central midfielder doesn’t appear often on the scoresheet, or in the highlights. Under the radar, however, he’s played every minute of Minnesota’s last four league games, serving as a defensive midfielder, usually behind Bryan Arguez, who’s a little more adventurous offensively.
What Takada does do, however, is pretty much run from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. Said Lagos of Takada, who is in his fourth year in Minnesota, “You look at Taka, he's consistent not only this year but over the years. He's a really unique individual that has embraced what the club's about. He is a unique person, because he's not from this country, but he just wants to experience this culture and this environment.
“He dedicates himself both on and off the field, to contribute however possible. It's that consistency and that dedication that comes out on the field in terms of the effort you see, in terms of the energy he puts forth to try to help the team win.”
Apart from Altman, the only other players of note who did not travel are center back Connor Tobin, who will be out until the fall season, and central midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan, who returned as a sub last week after a month out, but suffered a setback in midweek training this week. “Even in the game, he was playing through it a little bit,” said Lagos. “He’s a good pro, he was pushing himself.”
Wide midfielder Lucas Rodriguez is with the team in Edmonton this week, and he could return to the lineup as well to give Minnesota more of a two-way player on the wing. “I think we were missing some wide defending in that game [against Carolina],” said Lagos, “and Lucas can provide that.”
Though Lagos didn’t specify a lineup, the assumption might be that Rodriguez could supplant Miguel Ibarra in the lineup, as Ibarra has struggled mightily in his sophomore campaign.
It’s a rare Sunday afternoon game for Minnesota United, as they take on Edmonton at 3pm today. The game can be seen live on nasl.com; for the social among us, the team is holding a watch party at Brit’s Pub on Nicollet Mall, beginning at 2pm.