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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Following Minnesota United's 3-0 loss to Atlanta on Thursday night, defender Justin Davis rated his frustration at 11 on a ten-point scale. "It [the team's morale] can only go up, I guess," he said. "I think this is pretty much rock bottom, with [Atlanta] winning the league right here."
Head coach Manny Lagos was equally frustrated. "It’s easy to say that the team hasn’t been good enough and the unit hasn’t been good enough to win games in this league," he said. "There’s no doubt that we haven’t been pulling ourselves in the right direction as a unit. There’s no doubt we’ve given up a lot of goals defensively, and have been pretty predictable offensively. That’s definitely going the wrong direction."
The only saving grace for Minnesota is that the first half of the NASL season is now old news. The team that collapsed down the stretch in the first half is history; now they can begin what is effectively their second preseason.
"A lot of it’s probably a little bit mental, a little bit on the field," said defender / assistant coach Kevin Friedland. " We’ve got a lot of new players and it takes time, we’ve got to figure everything out. If you look at the history of our club, we’re a team that’s gelled later in the season, and I think that’s due to getting more familiar with each other. And I think with a lot of the injuries – I don’t want to make excuses, but a lot of the injuries we’ve had and the roster turnover we’ve had, we’re trying to find our identity."
When it comes to the very end of the season, Friedland is right on the money; the team finished both 2011 and 2012 with extended playoff runs. However, according to some numbers that local soccer guru Brian Quarstad sent along, when it comes to the season itself, Friedland's not completely correct.
In 2011, Minnesota had 22 points and had lost only three times at the midway point of the year (14 games); in 2012, they had 23 points, and had lost just twice. In both years, they had a positive goal difference in the first half. This year, in 12 games, United managed just 14 points, lost half their matches, and allowed five more goals than they scored.
The worrying thing is that in both years, Minnesota faded down the stretch. In 2011, they took 14 points from 14 games; in 2012, they got just 12, also in 14 games. In both years, playoff runs covered up some cracks - but that's a luxury they don't have this year.
Defender and vice-captain Brian Kallman had perhaps the best plan for how to turn things around. "We just have to come back and put the work in at practice every day to try to be the best player on the field any given day. We have to put the work in, so that the player next to you works just as hard, if not harder. That’s how you build a good strong team: everyone on the team competing for a starting spot, every day - like it's for our job, which it is."
For the moment, the team has stepped away from soccer. Beginning Thursday, they'll return, with Wednesday the 17th, the first exhibition of the second preseason, marked on their calendars.
It's the team's first step towards August 3, the beginning of the fall season. By the time Thursday rolls around, Minnesota needs to clear the first-half cobwebs from their heads, and set their sights on the only thing that can make this year anything other than a disappointment: a second-half title and a place in the championship.