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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Correspondent Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) made it out to Minnesota United training on Wednesday, and checked in with the following report. In return, I demand that you listen to Wes and Bruce McGuire on the du Nord Futbol Show podcast, which is one of the best and deserves your ear time. Wes?
Minnesota United FC spent the day training at Parade Park in downtown Minneapolis to prepare for Saturday’s away game against the New York Cosmos. The team played an 8v8 scrimmage for a little while, in order to practice playing under pressure, then turned to a full sided practice to practice putting the opposition under pressure. It’s a safe bet that there will be pressure both ways on Saturday.
The team seems to have settled into their 4-2-3-1 formation and don’t look likely to stray. I would bet that the midfield two will be Aaron Pitchkolan pairing with either Floyd Franks or Juliano Vicentini. My full interview with head coach Manny Lagos is available on Youtube; he talks more about last week’s win over Indy 11.
New York Cosmos – struggling, but still dangerous
Looking at the table, the only pressure seems to be on the Cosmos, who apparently haven’t yet discovered that the fall season has begun. They have a paltry 8 points from 7 matches, having won just twice all fall.
However, the Cosmos have proven the bogeyman for the Loons since their reboot in fall of 2013. The two teams have met three times, each game ending in a 1-0 victory for New York.
Loons’ Head coach Manny Lagos said he was well aware of the Cosmos’ threat. After training, Lagos said, “We acknowledge that they’ve had the better of us in close games.” He added that they were looking forward to testing themselves against a team that needs results.
Parade Park serves as home base
The team practiced today at Parade Park, which - side note - is absolute torture for someone who dreams of a downtown stadium location. It was a beautiful day and the city skyline loomed above us. Just beautiful. But I digress.
The Cosmos play on turf at the James M. Shuart stadium at Hofstra University. Lagos wanted to prepare for that game with a day’s training on turf. The team will be back up at the National Sports Center in Blaine for the remainder of the week. Lagos pointed out that “you mentally have to prepare” for games on turf, and that the team will need to adjust to that surface quickly.
Juliano returns to training
Midfielder Juliano put in a full session of training Wednesday, as he recovered from the injury he sustained in the 54th minute of the 3-2 win over FC Edmonton on August 9. He trained at three-quarters speed on Tuesday, and will be available for selection on Saturday.
Rafael Burgos nears full fitness
Fans have still not seen new striker Rafael Burgos in action. Burgos signed at the end of July, on loan for Austrian side SV Ried, but has yet to see any action for the team. Burgos is still working up his fitness - but also suffered a separated shoulder in training last week, as setback as he tries to catch up to United’s mid-season fitness level.
Burgos was fully training with the team on Wednesday, despite the shoulder, and is fit enough that he’s in consideration for Saturday’s match.
The striker also has potential international duty ahead of him. El Salvador named Burgos to their preliminary 40-man roster for the Copa Centroamericana, to be played from September 3-13. The final 23-man roster will be announced September 1; if Burgos makes the team, he would then miss matches against Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale.
Pedro Mendes ready to go
The Loons’ newest addition, striker Pedro Mendes, was in the 18-man squad for last Saturday’s match up against Indy, his former club. He looks to be ready to play. Lagos said that Indy made it known that Pedro was available, and the coach thought the striker could continue to add depth to Minnesota’s attack. I was struck by Pedro’s imposing size during training. At an even six feet, he is not remarkably tall, but he has the sort of battering ram’s build that could be helpful if the team is chasing a game.
Minnesota United extended its unbeaten streak to ten games with a dominant 5-1 win over Indy Eleven last night. Aaron Pitchkolan, playing in midfield with Juliano Vicentini out injured, opened the scoring after 25 minutes, and Christian Ramirez and Daniel Mendes added goals before halftime to take the game out of reach at the halfway mark. In the second half, Jamie Watson added a fourth and Ramirez a fifth before the hour mark. Kleberson scored a consolation for Indy, 20 minutes from the end of the match.
I tell you all that so that I can tell you this: all anyone can talk about is Ramirez's first goal, which came from a bicycle kick in the Indy area. You can see it below, beginning at about the 2:30 mark.
The win takes United, at least for the moment, to the top of the fall-season table. San Antonio plays at Ottawa later today, but after six games for both teams, United has 16 points and the Scorpions 15.
Ramirez's two goals extended his lead atop the NASL scoring race; the young striker now has 12 goals in 15 games this year. To put that in perspective, only two players scored more than 12 goals in all of 2013, and only four players have ever tallied more in the three previous NASL seasons. And keep in mind that Ramirez has a dozen games to go this fall.
We all wondered how United could cope this year without injured striker Pablo Campos, who scored at least 12 goals in each of the three years of the NASL. It's safe to say that Ramirez has filled those shoes admirably.
Saturday's results in the NASL had a familiar ring to them. Minnesota, won. San Antonio, won. New York, won.
While the NASL season was split this year into two ridiculously unequal "halves," Saturday's 3-2 win over Edmonton was the midpoint of Minnesota United's 27-game league schedule. With the season half gone, it's become clear that the Loons, the Scorpions, and the Cosmos are the teams to beat.
The league's imbalance was on full display last year, as the relentlessly-promoted Cosmos won the league title despite having participated in just half the season. Coming into 2014, though, there were whispers that both Minnesota and San Antonio had ambitions - and finances - to match their New York brethren. And while the Cosmos have struggled slightly, while also seeing a major dip at the ticket counter, the other two have blown right by.
Minnesota has lost just once all year and has a nine-game unbeaten streak. San Antonio has won eight of its last 11 matches. United has 33 points on the year, the Scorpions 32 (with one more game played than Minnesota) - and then comes a major drop-off. New York, with 27 points, is the only other team near the top two. Fort Lauderdale, in fourth place, is eleven points adrift of San Antonio - nearly a point per match.
Combine that with the box office, where Minnesota and San Antonio top the season attendance list (apart from Indy's incredible numbers), and the obvious ambitions of both to eventually play at the top level of American soccer, and you begin to sense the difference. New York has had trouble scoring goals and drawing fans, it's true, but they're rumored to be trying to spend nearly $5 million to buy striker Roque Santa Cruz from Malaga - more than the annual salary budget for every team in the league (possibly more than all of them combined - they aren't public). And their other plan appears to be to sign Spanish legend Raul to play in front of countryman Marcos Senna.
It's all representative of a sea change in how the NASL runs itself. For years, second-division soccer was mostly a competition between evenly-matched teams. In 2012, San Antonio won the league championship with 1.67 points per match; in the spring of 2013, Atlanta took the first-half title with 1.75. As long as a team won slightly more than they lost, and didn't draw too often, they had a chance at the league title.
In the fall of last year, though, New York came in and blew everyone away, winning nine times and losing only once on the way to 31 points in 14 games - 2.21 per match. United had to repeat that number to edge San Antonio in the spring, and currently leads the fall standings with four wins and one draw in five games - 2.6 points per match.
Four teams will make the playoffs this season, and anything can happen in the playoffs - something Minnesota fans well know, having seen their team finish sixth but reach the league final in both 2011 and 2012. That may paper over the cracks a little bit, especially if one of the league's weaker teams manages to pull an upset in the playoffs. But right now it looks virtually certain that the top three seeds in the playoffs will be the three big, ambitious, financially-well-set teams.
Tampa Bay has also shown a willingness to spend, without much to show for it, and if Indy can reinvest the funds from their outstanding gate receipts into the team, they may become a force as well. But right now, it would appear that it's a three-team race in the NASL - and as long as the finances and the ambitions stay in place, it may be that way for awhile.
For the fifth time this year, Minnesota United scored three goals in a game, this time in beating FC Edmonton 3-2. Christian Ramirez put away a first-half penalty, and Daniel Mendes scored twice in eleven minutes in the second half, a neat near-post flick and a blast from near the penalty spot.
It'll make for a good highlight reel, but the United video team could equally put together a reel of Minnesota defensive blunders. There was the wayward Juliano Vicentini pass that led directly to the game's first goal, by Edmonton's Lance Laing; there was a similar wayward pass in the second half from Aaron Pitchkolan that loosed Eddies striker Frank Jonke alone on goal, forcing goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt to come out and commit the foul that got him sent off. Perhaps most shockingly, there was the innocuous-looking ball that bounced to Hildebrandt that defender Tiago Calvano chose to chest past his own keeper, off the post, then tantalizingly along the goal line, where Calvano cleared it - though a subsequent TV replay indicated that the ball may have crossed the line.
It's no wonder that head coach Manny Lagos looked distinctly unhappy, even after his team had closed out the win one man short. "This is an imperfect game and you have imperfect moments," he said. "Tonight, to walk off the field having played some good soccer, but at times having showed some shockingly poor concentration, is disappointing. We started out sluggish, and we had to get back into it and we exerted a lot of energy and got back into it - and seemingly thought we were controlling it. Our concentration kind of let us down and made it a tough night.
"We just made some poor mistakes. We’ve got good quality guys in the locker room that would put their hands up and say it should have been better. As a group, as a team, we’d be stupid not to acknowledge those mistakes."
Team captain Aaron Pitchkolan acknowledged the mistakes - and hoped that the team had got them all out of its collective system. "There’s really no rhyme or reason for it, they came all at once," he said. "We’ll learn from them and move forward. Manny and [assistant coach] Carl [Craig] and the coaching staff, they won’t let us be complacent. We know what we’re up against."
Lagos was happy, though, that the team handled the adversity of giving up an early goal and a late red card. "There were some great moments in the second half and some great goals. I certainly was proud how we changed how we started from the first half in the second half, and I thought that was the difference in the game."
Mendes scores twice more
Mendes is on a bit of a hot streak; two goals tonight brings his tally to four in five fall-season games. More notable, perhaps, was the fact that he scored both goals in the center of the field from open play. Given that United generally plays with its wide midfielders starting very wide, it's not always normal to see a winger in the penalty area.
As it turns out, it's all part of Minnesota's plan to get its fullbacks forward into the attack, and get as many potential goalscorers in the penalty area as possible. "I try to go inside to give the space to Viva [Kevin Venegas]," said Mendes. "We train a lot of that - give him space. I get more involved in the game when I get inside, and we created some good play in the wide part of the field. The coach wants the wide players to cut inside and give the space for the fullbacks to come up."
Venegas did have plenty of space - some of that probably due to Edmonton's relative exhaustion. The Eddies were playing their third game in seven days, and eight of the team's starting eleven played all three. Once United went down to ten men, the Eddies showed an offensive spark, but were otherwise mostly passive - not surprising, as there were likely a few dead legs on the field.
Juliano limps off
Vicentini limped off the field ten minutes into the second half, grimacing after a challenge left him down on the field. Postgame, Lagos said that it appeared to be a groin injury, but that the team wouldn't know more about the severity for a day or two.
Should Vicentini miss next week's game against Indy, the team would likely be left with two choices - either play Greg Jordan alongside Floyd Franks in midfield, or bring Pitchkolan forward into the midfield alongside one of the two and slot Cristiano Dias back into the defense.
SoccerCentric correspondent Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) was at Minnesota United FC training today. We're always happy to hear from Wes, especially when he can cover training for the blog. Wes?
Ahead of their their Saturday meeting with FC Edmonton, Minnesota United FC started training at the National Sports Center with finishing drills, and ended with two short full-sided scrimmages, matching their standard formation against the 4-3-3 lineup that the 'Montons almost always employ. The training pitch at NSC makes it difficult to play on the ground, and there were quite a few long balls.
You gotta have heart
Assistant Coach Carl Craig said that the team has been using heart rate monitors for training ever since their preseason tour to England. During the tour, the English Football Association lent the team a monitoring system, and the Loons have been using their own system in training ever since.
New signing Burgos participates
The Loons’ newest signing, Rafael Burgos, was on the pitch for the faux-Monton side, alternating in a wide and auxiliary-forward role. Having not played since the end of the European season, he is not yet up to the rest of the team’s fitness. At this point, it’s still unclear if he’ll play a role in Saturday’s game, but if he does, it will surely be off the bench.
Still stuck in Blaine
United is hopeful they can begin training at the brand-new Bielenberg training facility in Woodbury in September. However, since the team originally hoped to start there in July, we can only wait and see on an actual start date. A team spokesman wouldn’t elaborate on the delayed opening, beyond citing regular construction delays.
Currently, there are three unsigned players training with the team: Tyler Pasher, Ishmaila Jome, and Gerald Ben. All three are local products; Jome, who played for Prairie Seeds Academy and is set to be a sophomore for the powerhouse UC-Santa Barbara squad this year, has trained with the team in the past.
The team seemed to be at full strength aside from the long-term absence of Pablo Campos. Campos returns from Brazil this week, where he has been continuing his recovery.
Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt did ake a ball in his, uh, lower abdomen during training, but after laying on the ground for a long spell, he seemed to have recovered. “Oooh ahhh Hildebrandt”, indeed.
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