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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It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to say it, but with half the season left, Minnesota United has run out of time.
They can't continue to struggle. They can't continue to put in good performances but fail to get results, or put in indifferent performances and come away with nothing. Even though they're technically only four points out of first place, there are four teams in between them and the league-leading New York Cosmos - all four of which are capable themselves of putting together a title-winning run.
It's a good bet that, to win the fall season, Minnesota will have to get to at least 23 or 24 points in the standings. With seven games to go, they only have eight points; in order to leapfrog all the teams in front of them, they'll need at least four or five wins in those seven games.
It's hard to be optimistic about that, given that they've won just six of their 19 games so far this year, and that they haven't kept a clean sheet defensively since April 20, and that they've won by more than one goal just twice all year.
The effort from the team has been there, and for much of every game, Minnesota has controlled the field. United will go through stretches where the other team can't get near the ball, and the field appears titlted towards the opponent's goal.
Rarely, though, does the team manage to convert the chances they generate into goals - and, at least once in every game, they suffer some kind of defensive lapse to allow the opponent onto the scoreboard. It can't continue, not if United still has designs on playing Atlanta in the Soccer Bowl.
The next two weeks will define Minnesota's chances for the fall title. This week, they travel to Edmonton, who are tied for sixth with United. Next week, San Antonio - one-point-this-fall San Antonio, completely-in-shambles San Antonio - visits Blaine.
Anything less than six points, against those two teams, and you can just about count United out of the running for the fall championship.
Edmonton, this week's opponent, will be the tougher of the two matches. The Montons are currently in the midst of an astonishing run; they have played five consecutive 1-1 draws, which must surely be a record of some kind. The betting would have to be on a low-scoring game; Edmonton has scored more than one goal at home just twice all season, and has yet to allow an opponent to score more than once in those same games.
Part of that has to be ascribed to their home field. Edmonton plays its home games at Clarke Stadium, a remodeled Canadian football field, with artificial turf that appears to be little more than painted concrete and a football gridiron criss-crossing the pitch. Occasionally, as with last week's game against Fort Lauderdale, gale-force winds blow from one end of the field or the other. It is, in short, not the nicest place in North America to play a soccer game (or watch one - something reflected in the Edmonton crowds, which have averaged just shy of 2,400 this fall).
An odd field such as Clarke, though, does tend to give an advantage to the team that's used to playing there. Minnesota hasn't won in Edmonton since April of last year, an epic 4-3 victory that included a player from both sides getting sent off and Devin Del Do scoring the winner from a long Brian Kallman throw in second-half stoppage time.
Edmonton is likely to play a similar lineup to the team that drew 1-1 in Minnesota two weeks ago. Daryl Fordyce and Corey Hertzog have started the past two games up front, with central midfielders Neil Hlavaty and Chris Nurse (last month's league Player of the Month) slotting in behind and Robert Garrett and Gagan Dosanjh on the wings. The back line is headlined by the captain, center back Albert Watson, and goalkeeper Lance Parker, who is semi-famous (semi-infamous?) for modeling men's undergarments in his spare time.
This is the challenge that thus awaits Minnesota. But they're out of time to wait on addressing that challenge head-on.
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