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 FC opens the NASL season tomorrow, with a game in San Antonio. Their home opener is April 26, against Edmonton. Here now, a look at the team, as they attempt to improve from a disappointing 2013.
1. Veterans and Brazilians
United moved for experience and age in the off-season. Central defender Tiago Calvano, midfielder Juliano Vicentini, and attacking midfielder Daniel Mendes will all be 33 this season - and all are Brazilians, thanks in part to the scouting and acquisition work of the team's incumbent Brazilian connection, Pablo Campos and Cristiano Dias. The team also brought in winger Jamie Watson, who is 28 but entering his tenth year in American pro soccer, as yet another veteran to support the team's title chase.
It's a calculated move on Minnesota's part, designed to reduce the time it will take for the team to gel. The NASL season is split into two absurdly unequal "halves" this year, and the spring season is just nine games long. If United can come together quickly and open the season with a good run, they could clinch a playoff berth early.
2. Win now
Last season was a whirlwind for the team's ownership and front-office staff. Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the team early in the spring, and the remainder of the year was a blitz of new names, new management, and new players. Given the change, it's perhaps less than surprising that the result on the field was inconsistent - and ultimately, a failure.
This season, the group in the management suite has a year under its belt, and is expecting much better things. Head coach Manny Lagos is no doubt feeling the pressure; he's one of just four NASL coaches still in place from Opening Day 2013. Another year of mid-table mediocrity will likely lead to changes.
3. Stadiums and MLS
United would prefer to focus on the product that's on the field in Blaine, but hanging over everything is the ongoing discussion of the team's future. No one sees the National Sports Center as the team's long-term home, but any new stadium developments will be difficult in a Twin Cities market that is suffering from serious stadium fatigue. Tied up in the stadium question, though, are the rumors of a future in Major League Soccer; while Minnesota is considered the frontrunner for a franchise, will it be McGuire and United who make the leap, or will it be a Vikings-led group?
While the rumors are exciting for local soccer fans, they place United in the challenging situation of marketing to a fanbase that may be waiting for the big leagues to come to town. A stadium announcement, or an MLS franchise announcement, would clear up the uncertainty - but neither is anywhere near forthcoming.
PLAYER TO WATCH - MIGUEL IBARRA
Last season was the first NASL split season, a split which helped throw Ibarra's Jekyll-and-Hyde year into sharp relief. Awful in the first half, Ibarra recovered enough in the second to be named to the NASL Best XI for the entire year.
His development could be the key to a United attack that, on paper, is less than potent. A likely-season-ending knee injury for Campos means that Minnesota goes into the season without any idea where the offense will come from; first-choice striker Christian Ramirez is untested at this level, and Mendes has yet to prove that he can be the attacking spark that the team needs.
Always quick, Ibarra has yet to find the touch to be either a consistent goal-scorer or a consistent provider. His move back to the wing in the second half of 2013 helped; now he has to prove that he can consistently create opportunities, as well as finishing his own.
Matt Van Oekel returns as the incumbent between the pipes. The 27-year-old lost his starting job for the first six games of 2013, but came back strong and started the remainder of the season, except for the final two games, when he was injured. Mitch Hildebrandt has moved up to the #2 role, and may even push for the starting job; the two split time in the preseason, and either could conceivably start on Saturday.
Aaron Pitchkolan made last year’s league Best XI at center back, but for the moment, it looks like the Brazilian duo of Dias and Calvano will start in the middle of defense, with Pitchkolan moving to a role as a defensive midfielder. Dias played several games out of position at fullback last year, but is more at home in the center, while Calvano has slotted in there from the beginning of preseason. Pitchkolan probably remains the first backup in the center, with Brent Kallman returning as a reserve as well.
On the left, Justin Davis appears set to resume being one of the first names into the starting lineup for every game. Davis struggled early last year, but came back strong, and has been an automatic choice throughout. On the right, Kevin Venegas started every game of the preseason, completing his transformation from wide midfielder to right back. Venegas played most of the second half of last year, supplanting veteran Brian Kallman, who doesn’t have the speed that Venegas has. Kallman will back up on the right, while new signing Tyler Polak - younger brother of striker Nate Polak - provides depth on the left.
If he isn’t playing center back, Pitchkolan is a virtual lock to play defensively in midfield. The rest of the options are up in the air; Juliano Vicentini may start there, simply to see what he can do as a new signing, but Kentaro Takada and Michael Reed both saw significant minutes in a defensive-minded role last year as well. The wonderfully-named Mozzi Gyorio could also see time.
Watson and Ibarra are likely to begin the season on the wing, though Simone Bracelello - who scored seven goals last year from out wide - and Omar Daley are also likely to push for places.
The real question may come from the center of the midfield, where United is still without someone who can take over as a playmaking midfielder. Floyd Franks is a possibility, though he was out of favor during the preseason; Takada, whose best skill is the ability to sprint for 90 straight minutes, may be tried there as well. Mendes is being promoted as a striker by the team, but was listed as a midfielder everywhere else he played; he may end up playing more as an attacking midfielder. The team could also move Watson or Ibarra to the center, and stick with Daley or Bracalello on the wing.
The weight of Campos’s injury falls squarely on Ramirez, who is thrust into a role as the team’s #1 striker. Ramirez showed flashes of talent during the preseason, but he’s yet to prove himself at this high of a level during his career. Backing up is Polak, who joined the team late in 2012 but missed most of 2013 with an injury. Should neither prove effective, United will be reduced to playing various midfielders as strikers, probably starting with Mendes and going down the list from there.
1. Big Four and Little Six?
In the old days of the Big Ten, wags used to refer to the conference as the Big Two and Little Eight, with Michigan and Ohio State dominating the conference. The NASL seems to be splitting along similar lines, with four big-spending teams - New York, Tampa Bay, San Antonio, and Minnesota - distancing themselves from the other six in terms of dollars spent. That said, with the exception of the league-favorite-son Cosmos, money can't always buy titles. Minnesota spent plenty last year, and it didn’t help them at all.
2. Still wobbly
Second-division soccer in the United States has always been a transient thing, and the NASL is no different. Ottawa and Indy join this year, bringing the league up to ten teams, and (for once) all eight teams from last season return this year - a modicum of stability for a league that's seen very little.
Even so, worries remain. Virginia was supposed to begin play this year, but is pushed back at least until 2015, thanks to a combination of ownership and stadium concerns. Oklahoma City, too, was supposed to start next season, but at the moment seems to be bereft of ownership or direction.
The league office isn't exactly rock-solid, either. The league changed its playoff format for the season barely six weeks before the opening kick, adding a layer of confusion to the playoff picture. The winners of each half of the season, plus the two teams with the best record throughout 2014, will make the playoffs - this despite the second "half" being twice as long as the first "half" of the season. Why have halves at all?
3. Three Predictions
Lock: The Cosmos will continue to be the darling of the league. The NASL clearly sees the Cosmos as the best way to promote itself, given the history associated with the Cosmos name - to the point that some have begun calling it the “North American Cosmos League.”
Guess: Indy Eleven, led by indefatigable fan-pleasing president/GM Peter Wilt, will lead the league in attendance this season. More than any other market, the expansion Indianapolis team seems to have embraced being in the second division, and that - combined with Wilt's usual magic in selling soccer - have led to an enormous amoung of excitement among Indianapolis fans.
Wild Guess: Tampa Bay, led by the acquisition of 2013 Golden Boot winner Brian Shriver, will take the league championship.
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