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 begins pre-season training this week, with trips to Arizona and Brazil planned for summer-like soccer activity. Forget about the advent of spring training and baseball being in the air – soccer’s already going again. Heck, Montreal and D.C. are just two weeks away from each’s first quarterfinal games in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Minnesota won’t start quite that quickly – their first NASL game isn’t until April 11 – but that doesn’t mean that the team won’t be busy. Here’s a quick primer about what has happened with United this offseason – and what to look for in 2015.
Another pivotal year in store for Miguel Ibarra
Ibarra, who will turn 25 in March and thus can no longer properly be called a “youngster,” had virtually his best possible season in 2014, being named league MVP and earning a surprise call-up to the USA national team. His stock has only risen during the offseason, thanks to his inclusion in the January national team training camp, in which he was one of a very few American players praised by USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. After making his first start for the national side in a 2-0 USA victory over Panama, it’s fair to say that Ibarra was one of the breakout stars of the two January friendlies, alongside LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes.
Expectations couldn’t be much higher now for Ibarra, who will be at the forefront of virtually anything you see this year from the United marketing department. Can he handle the pressure of being the only US national team player in the NASL, and the face of the Minnesota franchise to boot?
New arrivals, few departures
United has retained virtually the entire core of last year’s team, and added two players to the mix, as well. The team added Northern Ireland international midfielder Jonny Steele, a veteran of both MLS and the second division, as well as attacking midfielder / forward JC Banks from the USL ranks.
Steele, who like center back Tiago Calvano comes to Minnesota via Australia's A-League, is probably best known in America for his year in Salt Lake City and his two in New York, where he made a total of 77 MLS appearances over three years. Prior to his first-division stint, though, he was one of the second divison's stalwarts, spending five years with some of Minnesota's rivals, like Carolina and Tampa Bay. He's an attacking midfielder, often deployed on the wing but also capable of playing a more central role - and despite a decade in America, is still just 29 years old.
Banks, who like Ibarra is 25, is a Milwaukee native who jumped at the chance to return to the Midwest after four years with Rochester, where he'd become the face of the Rhinos franchise. He too is an attacking player, who can play on the wing or as a striker; he'll likely begin the season by providing depth at both places.
Questions between the pipes
Erstwhile keeper Matt Van Oekel departed in the offseason for Edmonton, leaving only Mitch Hildebrandt as an experienced option in goal for United. While backup Andrew Fontein has promise, Hildebrandt would be the clear #1 choice.
In both of the past two seasons, United has lived with constant competition – and change – at goalkeeper. In 2013, Daryl Sattler began the season as first choice, before a series of gaffes, and then a hip injury that kept him out for the remainder of the year, derailed his season and handed the starting shirt back to Van Oekel. Last season, Van Oekel battled both injuries and inconsistency, giving Hildebrandt a chance to show off his own skills.
Hildebrandt will be looking to establish himself, but given Manny Lagos's history of competition in goal, it'd be a surprise if the team didn't sign at least one more keeper. Cameroonian international keeper Sammy N'Djock is currently on trial with the club, meaning that United could have at least one more available option.
Club looking for depth in the preseason
United is awash in forwards and attacking midfielders, but still needs to fill a few depth roles. Lagos will remember that just two years ago, his team had so many injuries in the spring that he was fielding semi-serious queries about whether he would be ready to play if needed.
The team lost five midfielders in the offseason, as Simone Bracallelo, Floyd Franks, Michael Reed, Omar Daley, and Kentaro Takada all left for other teams. All except Takada and Reed made double-digit appearances last year, with Franks and Daley both starting in a third of the team's games. Bracalello and Daley's prowess on the wings has probably been replaced, but the team has yet to bring in any central midfield depth.
Expectations are high
United is expected to be one of the NASL's top teams again in 2015. They are favorites to again finish with the league's top record, and to once again compete with New York, San Antonio, and possibly Tampa Bay for league honors. Anything less would be a major disappointment for everyone involved with the club.
With weeks to go, much is still likely to happen in terms of player signings, and as the team starts to play friendly matches we'll start to get a better idea of Lagos's thinking in terms of lineups and formations. Minnesota will play Seattle on February 19th and Kansas City on February 28th as part of their Arizona trip, our first two chances to get a sense of how things are looking for United this season - and the first chance of excitement for soccer fans who've endured the short soccer winter.
The Major League Soccer season kicks off March 6 - well, that's what the schedule says, at any rate. At the moment, it seems far more likely that some sort of work stoppage, whether player's striker or owner's lockout, will force a postponement or cancellation of opening day. The league's collective bargaining agreement with the player's union expired on January 31, and at the moment, the sides seem much too far apart to reach an agreement before taking the field in March.
The main sticking point in the negotiations is the league's free-agent policy, which is remarkably backwards for this day and age. Even after a veteran player's contract is up, said player can't choose which MLS team he's going to play for; instead, he has to go through the league's "re-entry" draft. For those who know the whole history of American sports and the reserve clause and Curt Flood, it's all very old-school; even with this re-entry draft, Major League Soccer is effectively nearly fifty years behind the times.
If you know about Flood, you know that baseball fought free agency, lost, and then later was slapped down in the 1980s for collusion among the owners to reduce the price of free agents. Yet MLS is able to do effectively the same thing, because of the league's curious structure. Technically, every MLS team is owned by the league and each MLS player signs a contract with the league instead of with a team, a setup that has come to be known as "single entity." In 2002, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the league, as a quasi-single entity, technically could not conspire with itself and so was able to take collective action with regard to players.
The court, though, deliberately remained vague about whether MLS actually was a true single entity. And since the decision 13 years ago, the league has increasingly started to look like an NFL-style collection of "distinct economic actors," as they were called by the Supreme Court in its landmark ruling in the American Needle vs. NFL case. Teams have begun signing their own Designated Players, a rule introduced in 2007 to allow teams to sign star players to larger contracts - and compete independently for their services, just as any other team would. Read the Toronto Sun's account of Toronto FC capturing Italian international Sebastian Giovinco - it certainly makes Toronto owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment sound a lot more like a distinct economic actor, not part of a single entity.
The battle for free agency isn't really about free agency, then. At its heart is really a battle over the single entity. To grant the players free agency would be to set the teams up to compete over not only superstar players but over MLS veterans, and would call into question every one of MLS's confusing structures - like the allocation order, a priority ranking for deciding which team returning US Men's National Team players will sign with, or the "discovery claims" process, an absurd mechanism in which teams can submit secret claims on potential MLS players that they might want to sign, or at least call dibs on.
The players, for their part, appear to have had enough of the current system. Before 2010, they didn't even have the small consolation of the re-entry draft - they had to re-sign or leave the league for other pastures. It's worth noting, too, that the sums being offered for any players are still remarkably small - the league's salary cap was $3.1 million last year, and though that doesn't include Designated Players or a few other minor categories, most teams still are paying their entire squad about the average salary of one major-league baseball player. MLS has just signed a new television contract; it just gave the now-defunct Chivas USA franchise to a group of investors for a $100 million pseudo-expansion fee; and its teams are increasingly spending huge amounts of money to build stadiums. Is it any wonder that the players aren't buying the league's claims of financial difficulty, and are ready to demand a fairer slice of the ever-expanding pie?
For their part, the teams still fear the failure of the league above all else. Chivas USA's folding, at the end of last year, was a sign that even after twenty years, and despite rampant expansion, all is not right with MLS. The offseason has seen a number of league-wide embarrassments, not least the signs that NYC FC - yet to even begin play at Yankee Stadium - appeared to be nothing but a farm team for Manchester City, a distinctive echo of the problems that plagued Chivas on the opposite coast.
All reports indicate that the sides are so far apart on the question of free agency that they're not even bothering to talk about it. The players say they won't play without it. The league dismisses the mere idea as completely out of the question. It's hard to see how this gets worked out. Last time, the sides needed the help of a mediator, and even with that help, we were within a week of opening day before a deal was signed. This time, it looks like that deadline will come and go before anything is decided.
In contrast to the Minnesota Vikings' very public push for a Major League Soccer franchise, the group being led by Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire has conducted its bid for a franchise almost entirely out of the public view. Where United has tread softly, the Vikings have paraded; while McGuire and United team president Nick Rogers have offered little comment, Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley and other Vikings officials have been frank.
While the Vikings unveiled renderings of a system to curtain off the new Downtown East stadium for soccer, even the merest suggestion of a stadium for the United bid met with uproar, at least in the Star Tribune comments section. Bagley, and the rest of the Vikings publicity team, aren't shy about stating their team's desire for MLS; meanwhile, Rogers was quoted in the City Pages suggesting that his team "wasn't itching" to get a deal done.
We've seen pictures. We've heard stories. Because of this, it's natural to feel that we know a lot more about the Vikings bid, led by team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, than we do about McGuire's. But it's worth remembering that there is more to a successful first-division soccer franchise than just a stadium. It's also worth remembering that Major League Soccer is the only group that has a vote in this process, and that the league will consider much more than just stadiums in the process. And so, in some ways, it's United's bid we know the most about.
For one thing, we know a lot better how a United-led franchise would manage a soccer team. It's one of the biggest open questions about the Vikings' bid - would they do well as an MLS owner? It's been a problem for a number of MLS teams recently, from the "worst owners in the league" in New England, to Seattle, where the Sounders ended their association with the Seahawks ten years earlier than scheduled. Last week, an article by Mike Kaszuba in the Star Tribune confirmed that the Wilfs passed on a chance to buy United, before McGuire purchased the team. While the Vikings' decision may have been understandable - as Bagley has stated, the team was engaged fully in stadium design at the time - it also would have been a chance to learn the soccer business on the ground, managing the day-to-day operations of a team.
At the time, late in 2012, the three most recent MLS expansion franchises - Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal - were teams that had made the jump from the second division to the first. Stadium project or no, it's impossible to believe that the Vikings didn't at least consider that the best way to prove themselves to MLS was to own a second-division team. Even ignoring the NASL route, Atlanta - which will join MLS in 2017 under the aegis of the NFL Falcons - managed to both design a stadium and discuss soccer at the same time, which is why Falcons owner Arthur Blank already has an expansion franchise, with tens of thousands of season ticket deposits placed.
As I've said before, the Vikings deserve credit for their efforts to turn around public perceptions, and they're making a strong push to convince both the league, and local soccer fans, that they'd do well owning a soccer team. But their past doesn't speak well for them. And United doesn't need a public-relations push to convince us of their credentials, given that they've now been proving things on the field and in the front office for two years.
While the Vikings have held press conferences and unveiled renderings, United has sold tickets, built relationships, and won soccer games. They were the NASL's best team in 2014, finishing with a first-half title and the league's best record overall. They regularly drew more than 5,000 fans all the way to Blaine for home games, far and away the best regular attendance for pro soccer in Minnesota since the days of the Minnesota Kicks at Met Stadium. Though some might have a perception they haven't reached out to the local community, they have a partnership with the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, one that's close enough for Rogers to have been the keynote speaker at the group's fall Recognition Banquet. They've developed international relationships, as well, one that led the team to do their preseason training in England, and later bring Swansea City of the English Premier League to town for a friendly match that drew nearly 10,000 people.
We don't need United to show off a PowerPoint presentation to know about that part of their bid.
As for stadiums, it's worth mentioning that financing aside, two key considerations make the Downtown East stadium less attractive. For one, the Vikings' comments indicate that they would be aiming a field that's the MLS-minimum 70 yards wide. Most soccer fans like the field to be as wide as possible, which allows for a more free-flowing matchup - part of the reason that FIFA mandates a field that's at least 75 yards wide.
Second, the field surface is a key consideration in a league whose 2014 MVP, Robbie Keane, was quoted as saying, " If this league wants to progress, turf has to go. It's very simple. Very, very simple. It's not good enough. In this day and age, playing on turf, it's not good enough." While ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told us that certain turf fields in the league have gotten better, we also know that recently-retired superstar Thierry Henry simply refused to play on the artificial fields - a silent endorsement of grass.
While the new Downtown East stadium would be able to accommodate a 75-yard-wide field for a FIFA event, thanks to the movable north stands, the turf makes it unlikely we'd see a FIFA event or a national team match for the foreseeable future. Recent experiments to lay sod fields over artificial turf have been almost uniformly disastrous, including the event at TCF Bank Stadium last summer; it's unlikely that either US Soccer or FIFA would want to take a chance with the new stadium, not when there are so many proven alternatives available around the country.
There are many discussions to be had about stadium financing, of course, and the battles will continue to rage here and elsewhere. Given that, it's no wonder that United has been keeping their stadium plans quiet. As for the remainder of their bid, though, it's not a secret by any means. It's not hiding. It's there for everyone - including Major League Soccer - to see.
The Minnesota Vikings have long been accused of not taking soccer seriously. Though the team had the foresight to insert some questionable Major League Soccer-specific language in stadium-related legislation, until earlier this year, the franchise was simply intent on planning the gleaming new building - first getting it passed at the Legislature, then getting it designed and kicking off construction. By that point, they'd managed to infuriate a large number of local soccer supporters, mostly for what appeared to be a resolute desire to ignore questions and pleas from the ever-burgeoning cadre of fans, many of who had concerns that the stadium wouldn't be fit for soccer.
With planning now mostly complete, and the new park shooting out of the ground, the Vikings are finally circling back to their stated MLS desires. To that end, last Tuesday evening the team hosted an event to bring together soccer and community leaders, giving the assemblage a chance to see the team's new soccer-focused stadium renderings, and listen to ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman.
It's all part of the team's latest press for MLS, focused on righting the past's perceived wrongs. The Vikings have tapped local PR and marketing firm One Simple Plan to help lead the push and the firm has run a number of events to try to connect with the area's soccer fans - especially those who regularly gather to watch Premier League matches.
While Vikings VP of Public Affairs Lester Bagley is aware of the criticisms of the team, he asks for understanding, given the demands of the ever-rising stadium at the east end of downtown. Said Bagley, "I think some of the frustration came after the legislation passed, and we had to design and build a billion-dollar stadium, and we were spread thin and we did not have the bandwidth to put an organized effort together. Me personally, I thought after 12 years at the Capitol, that we were going to put it on cruise control and that we were going to build a great stadium and that the hard part was done. But [we found] out that it’s a major undertaking, it’s the biggest construction project in the history of Minnesota, and it’s complicated and our team is full-time on it. So that’s part of it too. I think some of the frustration we’ve heard in the community is, where were you [on soccer] when you passed the legislation?"
To that end, the team released renderings, showing a soccer-themed curtaining system that would drop vertical curtains to block off the stadium's upper deck. Vikings CFO Steve Poppen noted that this system will cost between 3 and 5 million dollars, much of that to add reinforcement to the roof to hold the curtain; obviously, the team would like an MLS decision to be made as soon as possible, so that they know if they can delete this feature from the stadium design if a team is awarded elsewhere.
For Poppen, the curtain is more proof that MLS has always been in the team's plans. "We’ve been working hard from day one to design this for MLS," he said. "The MLS has been part of our process from day one. I personally don’t believe that we’re late to the game on this. We’re trying to attract an expansion franchise to Minnesota, and we’ve been having discussions with MLS about it for years now."
I had a chance to ask about field width, another concern that's been on the minds of soccer lovers. FIFA's recommendations state, "It is strongly recommended that new stadiums have a 105m x 68m playing field" - that's about 115 yards by 74 yards. Most Major League Soccer fields are 74 or 75 yards wide, though both Houston's field and the pitch that's being shoehorned into Yankee Stadium for NYC FC next year are just 70 yards wide - the league's minimum width.
Said Poppen, "The minimum for MLS is 70 [yards] wide. FIFA plays at 75. We have the ability to go out there. If you remember, the north side of the stadium retracts. As part of that development, we were able to design in that ability to expand the facility as well."
This does, however, bring up the question: if the stadium was truly "soccer-specific," a term the Vikings repeatedly used throughout the night, why is moving the stands to get to 75 yards wide even necessary? Why wouldn't the field have been wide enough already? It's a question that simply adds more fuel to the arguments that the Vikings do not understand soccer - a charge that's been leveled at virtually every NFL owner that has dipped a toe into the MLS waters. Earlier this year, Boston Magazine famously accused New England Revolution and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft of being the worst owner in the league. While the Revolution reached this year's MLS Cup Final, other NFL-affiliated teams, like Colorado and Dallas, have been mostly uninspiring through the years.
Tellingly, earlier this season, the Seattle Sounders - long twinned with the Seattle Seahawks, and fellow tenants of CenturyLink Field - ended their working relationship with the NFL team, ten years earlier than scheduled. While the team spun this as a move to refocus their organization on soccer, rumors were rampant that it was a move made to get away from an NFL team that did not care about the Sounders or the sport of soccer.
The Vikings, though, are still trying to win over soccer die-hards. They've promised plenty to fans in the new stadium - including offering to subsidize tailgating costs and bar tabs for supporters' groups. They're also promising to give fans input on the team's name and badge design, something that other clubs in MLS have done as well. ("Vikings FC" is probably unlikely, I would think.)
Some fans have the perception that the Vikings don't care about soccer, but they deserve credit - they may not have been experts in the sport, or in MLS, all along, but they are trying. They're meeting with other MLS franchises. They're bringing Twellman to town, to learn from him. They're in contact with fans, they're in contact with local soccer folks; at the moment, they're certainly not ignoring the sport. They deserve a fair hearing - if for no other reason than they're actually talking to people. Said former Kicks star Alan Merrick, who introduced Twellman at the event, of the competing bid from Minnesota United: "They haven't reached out, as far as I can see, to anybody in the soccer world." While United's work is behind the scenes, the Vikings have been very public - in part, to try to right the perception from the past.
A number of local soccer stakeholders, from Minnesota Youth Soccer Association representatives to fans to those involved with local clubs, were in attendance on Monday. While the Vikings' presentation can only have gone to convince people that there's a chance that the Vikings could be successful where previous NFL / MLS partnerships have failed, most in attendance expressed a desire simply to see the area get Major League Soccer - regardless of the whether the team is owned by the Vikings or by Minnesota United FC. Apart from some very fervent fans of the Loons, "I just want an MLS team" seems to be the opinion of most local soccer fans.
And so: MLS has announced that an expansion decision is likely in the first half of 2015. All signs point to Minneapolis being a front-runner for a team in MLS. The Vikings may have been late in making their push for that franchise, but are coming on strong now. They would have to fight an uphill battle to make soccer workable in a stadium designed for an NFL team, and if they can make joint NFL/MLS ownership viable, they would be the first to do so. But ruling out the Vikings as potential owners, based solely on past perception, is foolish.
ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman doesn't remember the days of the Minnesota Kicks, or being born in Minnesota in 1980 - but, after talking to his dad Tim's teammates with the Kicks, he's ready to count himself as a native. "Now that I’m in the world of soccer, I hear all of these ex-Kicks stories," he said. "I feel like I lived here for 20 years of my life. I see the glow on my mom’s face when she talks about Minnesota and the time, the fun they had here. It’s amazing."
With that in mind, there might have been no one better for the Minnesota Vikings to bring to town to enthuse about the possibility of the area getting MLS. Twellman was careful to note that he has no horse in the race between the Vikings bid and the competing bid that's being led by the Minnesota United owners, but his enthusiasm for the league placing a franchise in Minnesota was palpable.
Said Twellman, "I’m asked constantly, if you had to expand Major League Soccer, where would you go? My first answer, for the last five years of my life, is Minneapolis. The knowledge and the enthusiasm of the fan base here is second to none. Soccer is a no-brainer here."
The analyst, who recently signed an eight-year contract with ESPN to be the network's lead analyst for soccer, was bullish on the potential for Minnesota in MLS during the span of his deal. "I fully expect Minnesota to be a part of that," he said. "[The potential team] will challenge the Twins, the Wolves, and the Wild. This sport is here to say, and if Minnesota does this right, and treats it on the same level as the Vikings, Twins, Wolves, and Wild, and not as the ugly stepchild - and there’s many examples of it in the early days of the league - I can promise you that this will be one of the top five cities for Major League Soccer."
Twellman also noted that there's a good market for fans in Minnesota. "The truth is, there’s a hipster market in Minnesota," he said. "Bikers, downtown - that’s where this needs to go. Soccer moms and club moms, they’re invited, but the supporter groups, that kind of stuff - that’s drinking beer and knowing how to tailgate. I’ve been to a University of Minnesota tailgate in my life. It’s one of the more fun tailgates I’ve ever been to. They know what they’re doing. Minnesota sports fans, they get it."
With that in mind, though, Twellman also offered a pair of caveats, one that might apply to the Vikings-led bid, and one that might apply to the United-led bid. He admitted some trepidation on his part of seeing another MLS side that is owned by an NFL team - exemplified by the disaster in Boston, where the New England Revolution have long been considered second-rate, compared to the NFL, by their own ownership group. "It scares me, no doubt about it," he said. "It’s got to be treated the same. Everyone says, why’d Seattle work? It’s because, on Opening Day, Pete Carroll and Sigi Schmid were on the same pecking order. The Sounders front office and the Seahawks front office were treated the same. Obafemi Martins is treated the same as Marshawn Lynch. That’s where it sends the message to the fans. As a fan, why do you want to be treated as an ugly stepchild, when you’re not? If you’re getting 20,000 people and ESPN’s paying $75 million a year for your broadcast, it’s got to be treated on the same level. I told them that today when I met with the Vikings. If you get it, you have to make sure it’s not the ugly stepchild, and from everything I’ve heard, it won’t be."
Meanwhile, for United - which as yet has no approved or even public stadium plan - he offered some words of caution from recent league expansion experiences. "The struggles for stadiums in MLS - NYCFC, the debacle of what’s going on in Miami with the stadium - if Minnesota’s getting [a franchise], which I believe it is, the stadium’s first and foremost," he said. "There are no ideas of stadiums. You need to have a stadium, it needs to be approved, it needs to be ready to rock, for a market like this to work."
Ultimately, though, the former Revolution and US Men's National team star can't stop enthusing about the situation in Minnesota. "If you had told me ten years ago that there’d be two legitimate offers, two bids in Minnesota, I’d have told you that you were out of your mind," he said. "I don’t technically need to sell MLS on Minnesota. The fact that there’s two bids with real money and stadiums - how many other markets have two real money groups going after the same thing?"
About that turf...
Artificial turf was in the news anyway, as LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane called for it to be outlawed for soccer on Monday, and with the Vikings unveiling renderings of how MLS might look on the artificial turf at their new stadium, the topic was naturally going to come up.
"I’m vocal about it. I hate turf. I hated playing on it," said Twellman. "However, something’s changed over the past two years, because of what Portland’s brought in. You never hear a player complain about Portland. Whatever they’ve done there should be replicated, if the game of soccer is going to be played [on turf]. Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, they’ve both told me straight to my face that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that field. That’s turf.
"Now, Robbie Keane comes out today and says that turf should be outlawed in the game of soccer. That’s because [he's referring to] Seattle. I’ve walked on that field. It’s one of the worst fields I’ve ever walked on. Seattle I like, they’ve got a great stadium, great ambience, great players; the game’s crap. The game’s crap, because if the turf’s crap, it kills the game. And that’s what Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry are talking about. But Henry told a couple of people at ESPN that New England’s turf turned the corner. They replaced it six months ago with what Portland had. As vocal as I am about turf, I listen to players currently playing - because I’m done, my life’s over - and their experiences are a little bit different now."
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