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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One look at the fall NASL standings confirms Minnesota's trouble at home this season. They're the only team in the league yet to win a home game in the fall, and in four tries in Blaine, dating back to July, they've managed just two draws and two losses.
The calendar, though, says September, and historically, that means that it's time for Minnesota to start stringing home wins together.
Since the team moved back to the National Sports Center for the 2008 season, they have played 19 home games, winning 11 and losing just two. After September 15, the effect is even more pronouned; in ten games, Minnesota has seven wins, two draws, and just one loss.
Since the Minnesota Thunder lost 2-3 to the Charleston Battery on September 20, 2009 - the last game, in fact, that the team ever played as the Thunder - Minnesota has gone seven post-September 15 games without a loss (five wins, two draws.)
Defender/coach Kevin Friedland, who has been part of every team since 2004, was a little bit surprised when I read him the numbers. "I didn't realize it was that strong," he said.
Friedland identified a couple of reasons for Minnesota's late surges. For one, come fall, summer camp season ends, allowing the players to focus only on their own games rather than spending their days coaching kids. Comfort level also plays a big role. "It’s the kind of thing where you get more comfortable and you kind of learn your element and how you like to approach a home game, and it could take awhile for you to do that," said the coach.
Perhaps the better explanation, though, is that Minnesota has almost always needed a late run to get into the playoff picture. "I think it was when you’re up against it you really have to get the results, and over the course of the years, we’ve been fortunate to get those results," said Friedland.
In 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012, the Thunder / Stars made late-season runs to squeak into the playoffs.
Said Friedland, "This season, everything’s so short - a twelve-game season, a fourteen-game season, and it’s hard to get in a rhythm or a groove. You compare that to seasons past, we had those bad grooves when we were seven, eight, nine games without a win, then we hit that groove of winning a few games in a row, and that’s what kind of propelled us into the playoffs those years, and then obviously into the championship the last two years."
The caveat this year, of course, is that only the fall-season winner will make the "playoffs." Minnesota won't have the opportunity to finish sixth and make a playoff run, as they did in 2011 and 2012.
The comfort, though, is that Minnesota has four home games left - more than any other team in the league. And since the calendar's already on the verge of turning over to October, Minnesota can take heart in another stat: since the Thunder became a professional team in 1995, near as I can tell, Minnesota's pro soccer teams - whether Thunder, Stars, or now United - have never lost a National Sports Center home game after September 20.