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 yet to name a permanent captain to replace the now-retired Kyle Altman - but, as far as vice-captain Brian Kallman is concerned, replacing that leadership won't be the work of one man. "It's hard for one person to step in and fill that role," said the 29-year-old defender. "It's like the old saying: it takes a village to raise a village."
Earlier this week, Kallman sat down with five other senior players on the team - goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel, defenders Connor Tobin and Kevin Friedland, midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan, and striker Pablo Campos - to try to assemble a leadership committee of sorts, in the hopes of filling that vacuum.
"Between the six of us, we can kind of reach out to the whole team," said Kallman. "Maybe some of the guys won't listen to me, but they will listen to Connor, or maybe some of the guys will listen to me but not to Matt. If I wear the armband on game days, so be it; if not, I’m not going to care. Whether I wear the armband or not, I’m still going to be a leader, I’m still going to work hard and set the tone at training."
Over the past couple of years, United has depended on a close-knit locker room to give themselves an extra boost, and that team togetherness was a big reason that the club had two successful playoff runs. This year, Minnesota brought in a bunch of new players, and Kallman admits that the atmosphere in the locker room was "similar," not the same. "I think there were some locker room issues that were resolved with the trade," he said, referring to the deal that sent Bryan Arguez to Carolina.
"We had a lot of people on board who were willing to buy in," said Kallman. "We’re trying to get it back to where it has been, and I don’t think it’ll be too hard, because most of the guys on the team are going to buy into what we want to do and buy into that locker room culture. If the older guys all hold each other accountable, and hold the team accountable, then I think we’ll be able to manage it. "
It might just be a matter of adding the right players to the squad, and Minnesota has three new ones for the fall - and Kallman is excited about all three. "Sinisa [Ubiparipovic] is as old as I am. He’s played professional soccer for eight years. Calum Mallace is a Minnesota guy, he’s happy to be back here. Floyd Franks is another one, he’s my age as well; he’s been around a long time. He’s very professional. I talked to him yesterday - we were doing fitness, and I was like, 'Man, I don’t ever get to play against you because you’re a center midfielder and I’m an outside back, but I never realized how fast you are.'"
Ubiparipovic, who played one game on loan for the Minnesota Thunder in 2007, might be just as well-placed as the vice-captain to see the changes in the club. Said Kallman, "The club is so much different than it was then. It’s so much more professional. The quality of players is so much higher than we’ve ever had. I don’t even know what our official roster size is, whether it’s 25 or 26 guys; you look around the locker room, and you’re like, any of these guys can play on a given day. Now we just need to figure out how we can get the most out of everyone on the team, and keep pushing each other. Whether you’re a consistent starter, or you haven’t played a minute all season, we just need to make sure we train at a high level. That’s one of the reasons the older veterans got together and were talking on Monday."
For Kallman, the biggest area of improvement for the team can come from playing hard for all 90 minutes - and not switching off in crucial moments, like the first five or last five minutes of a half, or the five minutes after a goal. "If you look at all the games in the first season, we didn’t play horribly," he said. "During games, we were awesome, but all of a sudden we’d hit a five- or a ten-minute period where maybe little bounces weren’t going our way, or we couldn’t keep possession, and then we’d end up giving up a goal. Or [we'd make] a silly mistake at a crucial time. There were times, like in Carolina at the end of the game, we’d give up a goal to tie it up, and instead of being like, hey, listen, it’s going to be a tie now, or we have to push for a win, in five minutes we’re giving up a goal and we’re losing in the last four minutes of a game."
United's first chance to right the ship comes on Saturday against Atlanta. Whether Kallman or one of the other senior players wears the captain's armband matters less; what matters more is that someone - maybe all six - steps up to lead the team.