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.

Email Jon to talk about soccer.

Report: Minnesota United FC secures stadium site, MLS announcement forthcoming

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: March 12, 2015 - 8:14 AM

According to a report by Brian Quarstad and Alex Schieferdecker at Northern Pitch, Minnesota United FC has secured a stadium site, and has Major League Soccer's backing for an MLS franchise. Sources indicate that team owner Dr. Bill McGuire has secured an option to purchase land near the Minneapolis Farmer's Market, near Target Field, and that the league has provided written support for the stadium effort. 

It would appear that the only hurdle remaining is the details of financing the franchise fee and stadium construction, and it's unlikely that United and MLS would move this far along without having at least the framework of a deal in place.

More details are available at Northern Pitch, but the key quote is this: "Multiple sources suggest an announcement of an agreement to bring United into MLS could come within the next month."

A new site for Minnesota soccer fans to check out

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: March 10, 2015 - 10:50 AM

Regular readers of SoccerCentric will be interested in a new local site – Northern Pitch, which will be covering Minnesota soccer as well as soccer throughout North America and beyond. For those familiar with the Star Tribune’s TwinsCentric blog, it’ll be launched under the same umbrella that the TwinsCentric guys live under at Twins Daily.

Minnesota United FC news and coverage will be a central focus of the site; it’ll include Bill MK, Chris RB, Alex Schieferdecker and Wes Burdine from the former Loon Call, who have been providing absolutely top-notch coverage of United. It’ll also include Bruce McGuire, who (with Wes) hosts the du Nord Futbol show; Joe Leyba and Dave Laidig, who run MLS4MN; and Kyle Eliason, who has written a ton of Twins and NCAA coverage and will now be adding his soccer fandom to his writing repertoire. We have also coaxed Brian Quarstad, who once wrote the excellent Inside Minnesota Soccer blog, out of retirement to join the site.  And then there’s me. I talked Twins Daily founder John Bonnes into this, and I’m just glad to be a part of the group.

As an example of what to look forward to from Northern Pitch, we have a couple of excellent stories up today. Brian looks at how the newest interpretation of the offside rule could have changed United’s semifinal loss to Fort Lauderdale, and Alex covers all the bases on the team’s signing of Cameroonian international goalkeeper Sammy N’Djock.

We hope you’ll join us at Northern Pitch, on the forums, and on Twitter (@NorthernPitch) and on Facebook

Players sign bad labor deal to kick off MLS season

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: March 5, 2015 - 9:50 AM

In the end, Major League Soccer players won nothing, basically. Their two achievements in this round of collective bargaining - an extremely limited form of free agency, and miniscule rises in the minimum salary and salary cap - will soon be forgotten. The league's byzantine system of player allocation will (mostly) remain, along with the obscure, closed-door ways it sets its rules. While soccer's growth in America continues to explode, the league's owners will continue to reap most of the benefits, while the vast majority of players limp along behind.

Perhaps the main thing the players can be thankful for is that they managed to only sign up for five more years of this, rather than eight as the owners wanted.

The "free agency" contained in the deal is virtually unrecognizable to fans of other sports. Even those who manage to wait until the cutoff - age 28, with eight years in the league - will only have the luxury of choosing which team to sign with. Their salary increases, moving from one team to another, will still be strictly controlled. Effectively, it's as if collusion - which baseball owners were fined huge sums for three times in the 1980s - had been legalized.

The waiting period for this limited free agency, too, is far more draconian than other sports. The NFL, NBA, and NHL all provide for some form of free agency after 3-4 seasons in the league; even baseball, which doesn't release players to free agency for six years, has an arbitration process provided for players after three years.

Some will argue that MLS is different than the other American pro leagues, and while it's by far the youngest, that's no reason to assume that it should be different, or that free agency would be a death knell. The unfettered free agency in soccer leagues around the world has yet to kill the sport in those places, and even the four-year-old NASL allows player movement at the end of contracts, with no real repercussions.

If anything, I could argue that the MLS owners got an even better deal - the ability to publicly pay lip service to the idea of free agency, while retaining cost control and preventing most players from ever reaching the ability to take advantage of that function.

The players' other achievement - getting more money for the league's lowest-paid players - is helpful, but also not exactly landmark. The league's minimum salary was raised from $36,500 per year to $60,000 per year, and the league's salary cap will go up from $3.1 million to $3.5 million (mostly, it must be said, to accomodate the minimum-salary increase). This is certainly helpful for the 15-20% of the league's players who were making the minimum, who now can live like college graduates instead of K-Mart employees. Given that the league is now charging $100 million for expansion fees, and paying past-their-prime stars like Kaka more than $7 million a season, though, the small change thrown toward the league's rank-and-file seems less like a generous increase and more like table scraps.

The league’s answer to all of this – that things are still tenuous for the league, and that centralized control is still necessary to ensure MLS’s success – does have a certain amount of merit. After all, Chivas USA folded at the end of last season, a fate that hasn’t befallen a franchise in any other North American pro sport for more than 30 years. The league also faces stiff competition from not only other, more traditional North American sports, but from other soccer leagues around the world; MLS trails Liga MX in popularity in America, mostly due to the Mexican diaspora, and arguably remains behind the Premier League and other European powerhouse teams in popularity, as well.

That said, though, this doesn’t make the new CBA any better for the players. And given that the owners didn’t give up much in the negotiation, it’s fair to say that labor is the loser in all of this.

The clear winners, however, are North American soccer fans, who narrowly avoided seeing a work stoppage at a time when soccer’s popularity is exploding. After watching every other North American sport shoot itself in the foot with work-stoppage issues, they have to be thrilled that this weekend’s coverage will be more about returning US national team stars and the debut of clubs in Orlando and New York City, rather than more talk about darkened stadiums.

The season kicks of Friday night. The players aren’t happy – seven teams reportedly voted against the deal – and the owners still fear for the future of the league. But at least the season will start on time.

Watch Minnesota's Calum Mallace make a miracle pass to save Montreal

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: March 4, 2015 - 11:44 AM

The Journal de Montreal's banner sports headline today read (in French, of course): A TRUE MIRACLE. It was referring to the Montreal Impact's win over Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, in which Montreal's Cameron Porter scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time to send the Impact through to the semifinals.

While Porter scored the goal, it was made by Minnesota native Calum Mallace, who created it with some defensive hustle, followed by an astonishingly good 65-yard pass to set Porter up. Watch the goal here:

Mallace, scrambling back on defense as Pachuca tried to kill the game, picked up a loose ball and raced up the center of the field. His pass landed perfectly, hitting Porter in stride but landing far enough that the keeper couldn't come out to clear his lines, and Porter scrambled around the Pachuca right back and poked the ball under the keeper and into the net.

Here's another view, from behind the goal.

That's a heck of a pass.

Major League Soccer CBA negotiations coming down to the wire

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: March 4, 2015 - 8:22 AM

Chicago and Los Angeles are set to kick off the Major League Soccer season on Friday night, but with the opening game just two spaces down on the calendar, and the league's full Saturday slate barely 72 hours away, no deal has been reached in the ongoing CBA talks between the owners and the players' union. The two sides negotiated late into the evening in Washington, D.C. last night, with owners and league officials departing before midnight and the players' side staying past the early morning hours. The players' frustration was evident; one source on their side was quoted as saying, "It's shocking. The owners are almost wanting a work stoppage." by the Washington Post's Steven Goff.

The central issue of the talks appears to be free agency, with the owners unwilling to consider anything like the open competition for players that has become the norm virtually everywhere else in the professional sports world. At one point yesterday, the owners reportedly offered a modified form of free agency that would have offered freedom to only players who had played at least 10 years with their current team - a rule so draconian that exactly one MLS player, Houston midfielder Brad Davis, would have qualified. Later in the day, several sources reported that the owners had nudged this offer to include players who were at least 28 years old, and had spent at least eight years in the league - but that those players, while able to choose their new team, would have their salary increases capped at 10%.

For comparison's sake, NHL players are able to reach unrestricted free agency at age 27, and after seven years in the league - and of course there is no limit on what kind of salary increase the player might make. Players may reach restricted free agency earlier, generally around age 25, in which teams must make qualifying offers to retain a right of refusal on any contract offer the player might sign; otherwise, the player becomes unrestricted. In baseball, age is not a factor; players are effectively indentured servants for three years, then have three years in which they may take contract grievances to an arbitrator, after which they may become unrestricted free agents.

Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that it is only in MLS where teams claim a right to players even after contracts expire. In every other sport, it's taken for granted that once a player's contract is over, and a team has renounced the ability to sign that player, then the player may sign with any team he chooses. In MLS, this isn't true.

The few signs of hope on Wednesday morning, after three fruitless days of negotiating, were simply that the season hadn't yet been delayed. Several sources this morning reported that players still planned to board their scheduled flights for this weekend's games, leaving open the possibility that a deal could still happen. Montreal played its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal as scheduled on Tuesday - with Minnesota native Calum Mallace providing the key assist late in the game to send the Impact through to the semifinals - and there was no indication that DC United planned to skip its own quarterfinal on Wednesday night.

Assuming players do indeed make their scheduled flights, the decision process could be delayed all the way up until Friday afternoon. But with the sides still so far apart on the free agency issue, very few seemed optimistic that a deal was possible - let alone imminent.

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