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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If for no other reason than nostalgia, Minnesota's game Saturday against the New York Cosmos was always going to be one of the biggest games of the fall. It's something that Michael Rand played up in his (video included) interview with Manny Lagos that ran in today's paper; the Cosmos drove the original incarnation of the NASL, which was the league that got a certain generation of players and fans interested in the game of soccer.
Even if you could ignore that Kicks-Cosmos history, though, Saturday's game would still be perhaps the biggest game of the year for United. New York is in first place and Minnesota is tied for second, making it another must-win for United. Throw in the atmosphere at the National Sports Center, where the combination of cold and dark in the fall always makes games feel somehow more important, and even Lagos - who likes to have his team in a one-game-at-a-time mentality - couldn't deny the game's importance.
"If you’re talking about competitively, I think it’s the biggest game this year," he said. "If you’re talking about a game that’s both competitively important, and that nostalgically connects some of the dots about a great legacy of soccer here in Minnesota and an amazing Cosmos legacy that is trying to reinvigorate itself, I think yes, from that standpoint it’s an exciting weekend."
It was just three weeks ago that the two teams last met, with the Cosmos winning 1-0 in New York. Sebastien Guenzatti scored the game's only goal, less than fifteen minutes from the end of the match, and though Cosmos defender Hunter Freeman was sent off three minutes later, United couldn't find a way through to tie the match.
For Lagos, three weeks seems far in the distant past. "It feels like a long time ago because we’ve had a couple of big games in between that we’ve done well," he said. "We’ve had a good record of late, we’re 3-1-1 in our last five games and our only loss was to the Cosmos. I think there are some things that we could have done better in New York, there are some things that made that result a little bit harsh for us because I thought we played pretty well."
Minnesota has won twice since that loss, but so has New York, with a 2-0 away win at Fort Lauderdale, and a 4-3 win at home against Tampa Bay, in a game the Cosmos trailed 3-1 at halftime. New York has thus won three in a row, and hasn't lost since mid-August; they should be flying tomorrow night, and Lagos has to prepare his team to deal with that.
"The big thing for us looking at them, and particularly [looking at] the energy they have coming off a comeback win at home, is to make sure that we possess the ball in good spots on the field," said United's coach. "They tend to pressure high on the field, and we have to make sure that we deal with that the right way, in that sometimes we have to play out of it through possession to get our chances, and sometimes we have to be compact defensively and win second balls and go from there. I think the big thing for us is to make sure that we’re organized and keep our shape defensively, and when we go forward, we do it with the energy required to make them feel the stress."
That defensive presence is something Minnesota has done particularly well, as of late. United kept its first clean sheet since the spring season's second game last week, and hasn't given up more than one goal in a game for a month. Set pieces, which were for so long the defense's Achilles heel, have stopped being a problem; it would appear that the defense is coming together.
Speaking about last week's win against San Antonio, Lagos said, "I thought defensively once again we were very good; they had a few chances, but they weren’t consistent chances where there were waves of attacks. For the last month I’ve been really pleased with how we’re playing defensively. It also was an example of us not playing our best game at home, but getting a result - and making sure guys worked on that part of the game was massively important, because we have played better at home and haven’t got the results. That learning curve, and guys continuing to grow and get better and see a game out, is important."
For the moment, at least, the momentum is with Minnesota. If United can slow the hot streak that the Cosmos is on, then this weekend could not only make us all reminisce about big Kicks wins over the Cosmos in the 1970s - but also make us think about the possibility for another Soccer Bowl appearance for the current squad.