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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Give Minnesota United credit: they took care of business over the last two weeks. Faced with a pair of must-win games against the NASL's two bottom teams, they won both - a road win at Edmonton, and a shutout at home against San Antonio.
They ended Edmonton's five-game unbeaten streak. They were the first team in the league to score two goals away against the Eddies this season. And against San Antonio, they closed out a win in Blaine, something they had failed to do all year - by keeping the opponent off the scoreboard, something they had failed to do since April 20.
Add it all up, and the team is back in a tie for second place in the league, four points behind the NASL-leading New York Cosmos - and wouldn't you know it, but the Cosmos are in town on Saturday. New York came from 3-1 down at halftime to beat Tampa Bay 4-3 last Sunday, the Rowdies' first loss of the fall season. It was a win that finally separated one team from the top of the pack, and marked out New York as the team to beat in the league - at least, for this week.
A win this week would pull United within one point of New York with four games to go, with games still remaining against Carolina and Tampa Bay, the two other teams currently nearest to the Cosmos. Minnesota wouldn't exactly be the favorite, but they certainly would be in with as good of a chance as anyone in the league.
Suddenly, the idea of a comeback for the fall championship doesn't seem quite so absurd.
Of course, a loss this week would put Minnesota seven points adrift of the Cosmos, and with four games to go, that gap would seem more or less insurmountable. Even a tie, which would leave Minnesota still four points back, would leave a difficult chasm to cross.
In other words: it's possible that this game, like the previous two, is a must-win for United. At the very least, with the extra spotlight of New York's first trip to Minnesota, it's likely to define the season in one way or another: a famous win, an abysmal loss, even a boring draw could be enough to be remembered as the turning point for the fall season, one way or another.
It's an evening game on Saturday, an October home game in Blaine, a situation in which Minnesota has never lost before. It should feel like a big night at the NSC. The NASL may have gotten rid of the league playoffs, but I suspect a playoff atmosphere will make an appearance this week.
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