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 center back Kyle Altman retired over the summer break, leaving the team with a hole to fill in central defense. Many, including me, wondered if they might try to sign a defender before the fall season started, but instead the team went with a far simpler solution, and moved defensive midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan to center back.
It's not the square-peg situation you might think; Pitchkolan is a vastly experienced center back, including four years with FC Dallas in the top division spent almost entirely in defense. He was injured for most of the first half's final month and for much of the summer break, but when he finally returned to full strength the second week of the fall, he slotted in right beside Connor Tobin, and so far doesn't look like moving.
For Tobin, the transition has been pretty effortless. "You got a guy that has 70-odd games of MLS experience at center back, it’s pretty good," he said. "We spend a lot of time communicating. That’s something that he’s really good at, it makes it a lot easier when you’re trying to form a partnership."
Asked to compare Altman and Pitchkolan, Tobin sees two similar leaders, if not necessarily two guys who play the same way on the field. "I think they’re similar in the fact that they both want to lead the game," he said. " I felt like Kyle might have had a little bit more bite as far as wanting to get into the midfield; you know, Kyle was a center midfielder converted to a center back, so I ended up giving a little bit more of the cover. Me and Pitch tend to be a little bit more side by side. Kyle tended to want to drive his line a little bit higher, [with Pitchkolan], we’ll drop off a little more. "
Dealing with the RailHawks threat
Carolina boasts the league's top scorer in Brian Shriver, as well as a number of other attacking threats, but for head coach Manny Lagos, the most worrying thing is that tonight's game is on the RailHawks's home field. "I think we look at Carolina, we really acknowledge the run they’ve had at home, and how good they’ve been at home. They’ve really won in different ways at home, whether it be their good offensive attack or their work defensively."
The RailHawks have played eleven games at home in 2013 in all competitions, winning ten and drawing the other - by far the best home record of any team. In contrast, they have yet to win a road game, with five draws and three losses on their travels.
Pitchkolan is less worried about trying to neutralize specific Carolina threats, and more about continuing the team's run of solid defending. "It’s not so much who we’re playing or individuals on the other team, we just try to keep our shape and focus on what we’re doing, and we’ll do just fine."
New blood for Carolina
The RailHawks officially announced two loan signings this week, both from the LA Galaxy. Defender Bryan Gaul and midfielder Kenney Walker had been on loan to Fort Lauderdale, but were recalled by Los Angeles, then re-loaned to Carolina - possibly, I suppose, to keep them away from the Strikers, who have struggled mightily this season.
Both players have trained with Carolina this week, and may be available tonight. Walker in particular will likely step into Bryan Arguez's place in the squad; Arguez, the former United midfielder traded to the RailHawks during the summer break, was released by mutual consent, with no further explanation from either player or team.
Leaving on a jet plane
There aren't too many surprises on the travel list for Minnesota; the team is more of less 100% healthy, allowing Lagos the luxury of picking and choosing his squad. Midfielders Kentaro Takada and Lucas Rodriguez miss out, as well as defenders Kevin Freidland and Brent Kallman. Edi Buro, who started the first game of the fall season, also will not feature this week.
Tonight's game is a 6pm start, at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. You can watch online at the league's official website, or head out to either the team's official watch party (at Brit's Pub in downtown Minneapolis, 5pm) or the Dark Clouds supporters group's gathering (the Nomad World Pub in Cedar-Riverside, pretty much whenever you want to show up before the game.)
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