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 beat the Des Moines Menace 1-0 on Wednesday, thus advancing to the fourth round of the US Open Cup, where they will travel to Sporting Kansas City on June 18. It will be the team's first US Open Cup match against an MLS side since 2012, when the team - then the Minnesota Stars - destroyed Real Salt Lake 3-1 in the third round, before falling 1-0 to San Jose in the fourth round.
It’s worth remembering that, this time last year, United was bottoming out. They lost two league games in a row, putting them back in the pack in the spring-season race - then lost 1-0 to Des Moines in the Cup, at home, in the rain, in one of the more dismal soccer games any of the thousand fans in attendance could ever hope to see. Head coach Manny Lagos started his postgame interview by apologizing to all of the team’s fans. Team president Nick Rogers sent his apology out on Twitter.
Fast-forward a year, and Minnesota is riding high. They're on the way to Kansas City. They have the biggest friendly in Minnesota soccer history scheduled for July 19, when Swansea City visits. They procured a decent July 4 game, with a visit from Mexico's under-21 side that's sure to be attractive to the area Mexican population - a constituency that the team wants to reach. They're playing at TCF Bank Stadium, following the Manchester City - Olympiakos game that matches the Premier League champions against the team that wins the Greek league virtually every year. And to top it all off, they're three points on top of the league with two games to play in the spring championship, and can clinch as soon as tonight, if they beat Atlanta and other results around the league go their way..
Throw in the continued forward momentum in the front office, with the franchise setting up one of the league's best operations, and it has to be said that everything is looking up for United.
Tonight, Minnesota takes on Atlanta, last season’s spring champions. The Silverbacks’ big news this season is that they are now managed by former US National team star Eric Wynalda, who is splitting time between being Atlanta’s coach and being an analyst for FOX Soccer. Both ownership and Wynalda insist that the team doesn’t need the coach on site at all times; after seven games, Atlanta is in seventh and has the league’s worst goal differential, so at best the jury is still out on the arrangement.
The Silverbacks are led by forward Jamie Chavez, who has scored twice already this week - once in Atlanta’s win at Edmonton last Saturday, once in their midweek US Open Cup win against FC Chattanooga. Salvadoran midfielder Junior Burgos also scored twice in midweek; he began the season coming off the bench, but has made two May starts and may be in line for another tonight.
Meanwhile, United’s defense is limping - in some cases quite literally. Center back Cristiano Dias is suspended after being sent off last Saturday against Carolina, and goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel is missing as well with an ankle injury. With center back Tiago Calvano also a doubt, owing to a hamstring injury suffered last week, and right back Kevin Venegas still missing with a broken jaw, United could be playing three backup defenders and a backup goalkeeper this week. Aaron Pitchkolan will likely slide back to center back to replace Dias, and if Calvano can't go, Brent Kallman could make his second NASL start.
Minnesota's big squad news is that Australian attacker Richard Garcia - who signed a month ago, but had his arrival delayed by US Customs - is in Atlanta and with the team. Garcia's arrival brings the squad up to 19, with only 18 players allowed in the gameday squad, so it remains to be seen whether United will throw him directly in with the team, or whether he'll have only next Saturday's game as a chance to make an impact.
Mitch Hildebrandt will again start in goal, and will be backed up by Andrew Fontein, who was the reserve on Wedensday against Des Moines, as well. The 24-year-old started three games for Tampa Bay last year, and made a substitute appearance in Minnesota's wild 6-4 season-ending win in Tampa.
Last season, Atlanta clinched the spring championship at the National Sports Center, and celebrated wildly on United's field - something that incensed a number of Minnesota players. One can assume that, should United clinch tonight, celebrations at Silverbacks Park will be rather unrestrained.
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