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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For a large chunk of the spring season, Minnesota United could hardly find eleven healthy players to field a team. Injuries hit every position on the field except fullback, and for several games, the team had to ask for contributions from every corner of the squad.
Four games into the fall season, United has the opposite problem. Not only is virtually everyone healthy, but the team brought in five accomplished players over the summer while only two left the team. Suddenly, there aren't nearly enough spots in the starting lineup to go around.
Said head coach Manny Lagos, "I think a big thing that I try to explain to the guys is that, no matter what our roster, we’re in an unfair business; only eleven guys get to play."
Look down the United bench from last week against Carolina. Brian Kallman has played virtually every game at right back for Minnesota for years. Floyd Franks started every game for Carolina in the spring season while captaining the team. Mike Ambersley led the NASL in assists last year. Miguel Ibarra started almost every game for United for the past season and a half. Those are four guys who have been shoo-ins for the starting eleven in the past, and now find themselves in an unfamiliar role: coming off the bench.
"You approach it the same, because you’re a professional and you have to show up every day and put the work in," said Kallman. "It’s Manny’s decision on who plays at the end of the day, and it’s good to have competition in training and everyone pushing each other. I think we all are working towards the same goals; it might get a little hard at times, but that’s what being professional is about, what’s best for the team. Sometimes you have to put your ego aside."
Lagos says there are three factors that play into his lineup selections. "I really believe at times, a coach believes in certain systems he does well, and he wants the team to have that vision and look to it. I think other times, you have to look at the roster you have and say, how can I put the guys on the field that give us the best chance to win. Other times you look at the roster and say, I need to get these guys on the field, what gives us the best shape to do that. All those things have come into play."
At the beginning of the week, the coach will identify how he wants the team to play that weekend - "both in terms of personnel and systems of play," he said - and the rest of the week will proceed from there. The team's training plan for the week thus is based off the plan for the weekend.
For Franks, while the weekend is the game, the weekday grind is the job - and that's when the team improves. "[The competition for places] definitely helps the team," he said. "It ramps up the competition inside the group and that’s always good and you’re pushing each other."
According to the midfielder, the day-to-day competition doesn't hinder the group spirit, either. "I guess it could, but I think all the guys out here have the right mindset," he said. "If your mind is for the team, then it doesn’t matter that you have to compete with your teammates as well. You always put that first, and I think this group of guys does that really well."
It's a big game for Minnesota this week, something that Lagos reiterated several times. "It’s going to be big this weekend, because I felt like we had a rhythm of a game or two when we did well, but we really struggled in Carolina to really impose ourselves on the game," he said. "Not that we played bad, and I thought there was a nice unity defensively, but I just thought we weren’t quite giving everything we could have, in terms of the organizational shape and structure and attitude about really pressing the game. Again, this week is really for us to regroup, and remind ourselves that we had - in terms of playing - a decent start to the season, and now we have to really build on that. This is a big game for us this weekend, no doubt about it."
This week is also somewhat different than other weeks, in that the team played a scrimmage on Wednesday, against Anoka-Ramsey Community College - something that's likely to give us some insight into the team's setup for the weekend. Most of the team played 45 minutes, but the first team played in the second half, with a little bit different look to it than the first few games. Winger Max Griffin will not travel this week - he will be at his brother's wedding in Los Angeles - and, at least for Wednesday's scrimmage, it sounds like United may their 4-2-1-3 aside. Ambersley played up front alongside Pablo Campos, and Ibarra, Franks, Calum Mallace, and Sinisa Ubiparipovic manned a four-man midfield. (Ibarra, however, picked up an injury Wednesday and did not train Thursday; we'll see if he travels with the team to San Antonio.)
Kevin Venegas also continued to hold down his spot at first-team right back for the scrimmage, something I asked the coach about - given that Kallman has been a stalwart there for years, and appeared to be set to take over as team captain in the fall. Said Lagos, "Sometimes it’s not necessarily black and white; we just think that Venegas has come in and done a really good job. I think Brian just had a baby, and he’s still getting back from [a one-game suspension for a straight red card against Atlanta]. [Also,] he had a little bit of a knock or an injury that maybe people didn’t realize, and that takes time to get back to 100%. I think Brian’s been around long enough that he understands that that stuff happens when you get a little bit of an injury. And certainly he’s also probably thinking, it’s a good job for Kevin Venegas to be ready to play, and now from that, we’ve got two good options at right back that we think are going to help this team get better in the long run."
Regardless of the final starting eleven that takes the field in San Antonio, the one thing that seems certain is that Minnesota will have good players available on the bench. For them, it's certainly an excellent problem to have, not to mention a weapon for the later stages of the game, when Lagos has the luxury of choosing from a number of accomplished substitutes. Still, United is in an interesting situation - too many guys for too few places, rather than the other way around.