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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Minnesota United flies to Atlanta today, for their second-to-last road game of the year. Normally in sports, road trips are viewed as a hardship, but United's been just fine out of town; with five road wins in 2013, they're tied with the Silverbacks for the second-best road record in the NASL, and in the fall season, their road record (three wins, two losses) is far ahead of their home mark (one win, two draws, two losses).
Assistant coach / defender Kevin Friedland can't quite explain why the team is better on the road, but thinks that distractions might play a role. "I think it’s a crapshoot," he said. "Going on the road sometimes, I don’t want to say it’s easier, but you get to just focus on the game. You don’t really have any other distractions. All those outside stresses don’t affect you."
United follows a similar schedule on every road trip. The travel squad is announced following training on Thursday; a few of the players in the squad aren't decided until after training, especially the guys who might be injury risks, or might be on the bubble to make the bench. Generally, just the 18 players who will be available for the game make the trip, though occasionally someone who is a late injury possibility will be on the plane as well.
Those in the travel squad meet at the airport Friday, get to the opposing team's city, and get a training session in on Friday night. Saturday morning, they'll have a team stretch - mostly to make sure that everybody's out of bed and accounted for - and a pregame meal before the game.
For those used to the regimented, military-esque planning that goes into road trips in football, for example, Minnesota's hands-off approach on the road might come as a bit of a shock. Dinner Friday night and breakfast Saturday aren't team events. Other than training on Friday, the team stretch, and then the pregame meal that begins around 2:30 or 3:00, players are more or less on their own.
Friedland says that the team wants to let players have their own space. "We do some team meals, but typically we let guys do their own thing," he said. "We don’t do a team dinner the night before the game at home, so on the road it’s kind of the same. It’s about letting the guys have some time and letting them feel comfortable."
Earlier this month, the team's video department posted a retrospective of the team's New York trip. The team buses and meticulous scheduling that are de rigueur in other sports are completely absent; United gets off the plane, grabs their bags from the carousel, and rents a few vans to get to the team hotel. Head coach Manny Lagos drives. It's all very do-it-yourself.
Lagos says that, while it's hard to play on the road, having a veteran team helps. "We’ve got a good approach to the road," he said. "I think we’ve got a good responsible team. The environment we create at home and on the road is pretty similar."
Just about every player who is likely to be in the starting eleven tomorrow in Atlanta is a veteran of the NASL, so they know the drill. Only the team's younger players, or guys like Calum Mallace who are on loan from an MLS team, aren't used to the grind in the NASL - something that certainly contributes to Minnesota playing well on the road.
United has four games left, two of which are on the road. All four are must-win matches; it only remains to be seen whether the team can continue its road form.