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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Here's a look at what's made news for Minnesota United FC over the last ten days or so.
Spring schedule released
The North American Soccer League released its spring schedule, and it is... confusing. The original plan was for a ten-game spring season in an eleven-team league, but Virginia Cavalry FC - scheduled to join the league in the spring - are at the mercy of private financing for the stadium they'll share with the owner's minor-league baseball team. When the stadium got pushed back, so did Virginia's launch date; they're now aiming for 2015.
If you've spotted the problem here: a ten-team league means that the spring schedule is now just nine games long, which means that half the league gets five home games in the spring, and half gets four - including Minnesota. The expansion teams in Ottawa and Indy, along with league darlings New York Cosmos, get five home games. So too do San Antonio and Tampa Bay. The rest of the league suffers.
Of course, this leaves aside the curious decision to hold such a short spring season in the first case, a decision the league made ostensibly to avoid scheduling games during the World Cup. The winner of the spring season will again host the Soccer Bowl; every game in the spring is magnified, and the teams that get one fewer home game are thus at a considerable disadvantage. United officials refused to comment on the schedule.
Minnesota plays all four of its spring home games in the span of a month, with the first scheduled for April 26 and the last on May 24. Edmonton, Indy, Fort Lauderdale, and Carolina come to Minnesota in the season's first half.
The coaching, and ownership, carousel
In a shocking move, the Atlanta Silverbacks chose to cut head coach Brian Haynes loose, despite Atlanta's spring-season title last season. Neil Morris at Indy Week talked to Haynes, who told Morris that nobody from the club had expressed displeasure with his performance. Given that Atlanta rose from the league cellar to win the spring title, I'm sure Haynes thought that he would be offered a contract. However, the team's minority owners led a group that bought out marketing firm Traffic Sports and assumed control of the Silverbacks, and decided that Haynes didn't need to be part of the team's future.
Fort Lauderdale and San Antonio also fired their head coaches during the season last year, but few expected to see Haynes get the boot. One would think that every coach in the league has to be feeling that his seat is a bit warmer, these days.
In other ownership news, a local businessman bought the Tampa Bay Rowdies and announced some stadium expansion plans - perhaps taking a leaf out of United owner Dr. Bill McGuire's book.
United has made no signings, though I've heard that at least one is in the works. There's also been no word on potential new contracts for free agents Connor Tobin and Mitch Hildebrandt. The two are still in talks with the club, but the holidays have put somewhat of a hold on things; signings will probably pick up in January.
Elsewhere, Tampa Bay announced their contract moves, and there are some interesting names on their list of free agents - including midfielder Luke Mulholland, arguably the best player in the NASL. Mulholland was a key late-season pickup for Minnesota during their championship run in 2011, scoring twice, and I have heard that all that prevented him coming back to Minnesota for 2012 was the uncertainty caused by the team's then-precarious ownership situation. He might be a good fit for United, which is in desperate need of attacking midfielders, Mulholland's main role.
Another potentially interesting name on the list of former Rowdies is defender Andres Arango, who played in Minnesota from 2008-2010 - and married a Minnesota girl, giving him family ties in the area. United has a number of defenders already under contract, but if they can't come to terms with Tobin, it would leave the door open for Arango's return. Again, the team's uncertain ownership played a part in Arango's departure; it'll be interesting to see if Minnesota talks to him about a return.
United announced the details of their spring player combines - basically, a chance for unsigned players to try to impress team management and fingle a contract. They'll hold an open-to-anyone combine for one day, as well as a more-serious, invite-only event that spans four days.
Most famously, the team found Johnny Menyongar this way; the midfielder went on to score 56 goals in his six seasons for the Minnesota Thunder between 2000-2005. Current club veterans Kentaro Takada and Simone Bracalello also came to Minnesota through the combine.
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