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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It would have been reasonable to expect Minnesota United, the NASL leaders, to dominate a game in which they had a man advantage for virtually the entire match. Instead, United were run off the field by the New York Cosmos, and were lucky to escape New York with a 1-1 draw.
Christian Ramirez scored from the penalty spot just eight minutes into the game, after Cosmos keeper Joe Maurer took down the onrushing Daniel Mendes in the penalty area. Maurer was sent off for the challenge, and Ramirez slotted home his 13th goal of the season.
Thereafter, though, Minnesota was nothing short of terrible, even given the lead and the man advantage. Mads Stokkelien finally scored for the Cosmos to knot the game in the 74th minute, but by then, United should have already been a goal or two down. Andres Flores should have scored just 20 minutes in to the game, when a bounce beat United defender Justin Davis, and keeper Matt Van Oekel had to parry away a close-range shot from Flores. Van Oekel was on display again, twice in two minutes in the early second half, denying both Hagop Chirisian and Stefan Dimitrov from close range after both had found their way through the floundering Minnesota defense.
As the second half wore on, the Cosmos grew stronger and United flailed even harder. Cosmos right back Hunter Freeman should have scored from a header, with the net wide open in front of him, but mistimed his leap. On the other end, Ramirez pulled a shot just wide - in what was really Minnesota's only chance of the game, a sad statement of just how punchless their offense was.
After Stokkelien had turned home the cross, Minnesota collapsed completely. Davis ran over Flores in the Minnesota area, a fairly clear penalty that was somehow ignored by the referee. One minute later, Van Oekel had to come rushing out to clear a long ball that had escaped the inert Minnesota defense, and his sliding clearance rebounded to Freeman, who was unlucky to see his long-range blast rebound off the post.
In the end, United was more than lucky to escape with a draw. The end of the game saw a sight that perhaps has never before been seen on a soccer field - Giovanni Savarese, the coach of the team that was down to ten men, berating the officials for not adding more time onto the end of the game.
It's difficult to describe how hapless United's performance was. Somehow, even though the Cosmos had one fewer player on the field, they were able to outnumber Minnesota on both ends of the field. United were neither able to control possession nor press the Cosmos defense; their only tactic was to attempt long balls over the New York defense. Penalty aside, Minnesota's super attack was completely neutralized - not the result that United wanted to see, in what was a preview of a potential playoff matchup.
Somehow, the Cosmos had the freedom to run wherever they wanted on the flanks. Somehow, they were able to break up every United passing play in the middle of the field - and even turn them into counterattacks. Somehow, New York was first to every loose ball and highest for every header.
Minnesota can justly be proud of their spring-season title, and will point to their current eleven-game unbeaten run. It's worth mentioning, though, that they've been comprehensively outplayed by the Cosmos twice this season, and though they beat San Antonio on the season's opening day, they've yet to play the Scorpions in the fall.
For the moment, United remains atop the standings. But if it's a championship they're after, they'll have to win it against San Antonio and New York, the other teams ahead of the NASL pack. After their performance tonight, it would seem that against those teams, even an extra player isn't enough to make them the favorite.
We are always interested in the doings of former Minnesota soccer executive Djorn Buchholz, and he is on the move again. Louisville City FC, which will start play in USL Pro next year as an affiliate of new MLS side Orlando City, will announce today that Buchholz is the team's new president.
"I just can't stay in one spot," he said, jokingly. "You've got to go where the opportunities are, you know?"
Last year, Buchholz left Minnesota to take a job as Director of Fan Experience with Sporting Kansas City, which gave us an opportunity to look back at his Minnesota career. In summary: Buchholz was the Minnesota Thunder's general manager until the team folded, left for a year to run the Austin Aztex, then returned to take over the Minnesota Stars, when they were owned by the NASL and unable to find an owner. It is due in no small part to his effort that Minnesota has a pro soccer team today.
Now, he's headed back to the lower divisions of American soccer - and he's back in charge of an organization, perhaps where he's most comfortable. "It seems like the right move," he said. "I think this club has got aspirations to go to MLS. Building a team from scratch is something I've never done before; I’ve helped resurrect a team, and taken over a team, but this seems like a challenging opportunity for me. Long term, I want to be potentially running an MLS team. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Kansas City, and I’ve learned a ton, and what an amazing organization to work for - but there’s a lot of things I’ve missed that I’ve been able to do in my previous career."
The move takes him back to the organization that hired him in 2010, when he was the Austin CEO. The Aztex moved to Florida to become Orlando City in 2011, and with the start of the new MLS franchise next year, will move again to Louisville, with Orlando minority owner Wayne Estopinal owning the team.
The club will play in Louisville Slugger Field, the home of the AAA Louisville Bats, and while playing in another team's baseball stadium presents a set of challenges, Buchholz is looking on the positive side. "The stadium is right downtown, which is something we always wanted in Minnesota," he said. "I think you’ve got advantages like that. You’re walking into a market where there isn’t an expectation for what pro soccer is. There’s no preconceived expectations, so being able to create an experience for people that they didn’t expect and that goes above and beyond what they were expecting to experience, that’s one of the most exciting things about Louisville."
As much as anything, it's that opportunity to create a culture - like in Minnesota - that Buchholz couldn't pass up. "When I came back [to Minnesota] the second time in 2011, we created a soccer culture in and around that venue," he said. "There was a buzz, and that was done without a lot of resources. Well, there’s some resources in Louisville. I’m excited to walk in and have the resources that we need to create a club that’s going to be top-notch."
Buchholz helped save Minnesota soccer on a shoestring. It'll be very interesting to see what he can build - with actual resources, this time - in Louisville.
To recap, Fort Lauderdale coaches Gunter Kronsteiner and Ricardo Lopes were ejected from Sunday's game in Edmonton for arguing with the referee. The two had to be escorted off the field by the cops, and then things got weird, as they went up to the stands, plopped down amongst the Edmonton supporters, and continued to coach by sending messages to - and in one case calling on the phone - their own bench.
Watch the video below; it is sublime, up to and including the point that the coaches are arguing with the police in the stands of a big-league professional soccer match.
There's no word yet on what punishment, if any, will be meted out for this particular outburst from the coaches; the NASL is being typically tight-lipped about the whole thing.
The shame, I suppose, is that Fort Lauderdale - after being the worst team in the spring season by a mile - had turned things around in the fall, and currently sits just one point out of first. The last thing the Strikers need is a distraction like this, especially with the New York Cosmos coming to town this weekend.
Minnesota United FC still has a chance for the NASL spring championship - admittedly, a small one, but still a chance.
Carolina drew 1-1 with Atlanta last night, the RailHawks' first dropped points at home all of last year, leaving the door just slightly ajar for one of three other teams to slip through. San Antonio also won, 4-1 at home against Fort Lauderdale, so the standings right now have Carolina with 20 points, Atlanta with 18, and San Antonio with 17.
Minnesota can stay alive with a win today at Edmonton, which would give them 17 points going into the season's final week. If they win today, they would need to beat Atlanta at home next week, and San Antonio would need to beat Carolina at home - which would leave Minnesota, Carolina, and San Antonio all level at 20 points apiece.
The first tiebreaker is goal difference, and United has problems there. Carolina is +6, San Antonio is +2, and Minnesota is at 0 for the season. In other words, Minnesota needs not only two wins, but two fairly comfortable wins; they'll need to score at least five more goals than their opponents, possibly six, to win the title.
It's possible. Maybe not likely, but possible. First things first, though - they have to beat Edmonton today.
Avoiding the "end-of-game chaos"
This week, Minnesota United put out a video tribute to captain Kyle Altman, who is retiring at the end of the spring season and going to medical school. First, though, they have a bigger concern - getting him back on the field.
Altman sprained his foot/ankle during the first half of last week's loss at Carolina, and had to leave the game at halftime. "I tried to gut it out," he said, "but at some point I felt like I hindering my team, and was more of a liability than an asset."
According to the center back, he's been in a walking boot all week, and has been doing work in the pool and by himself to try to get back. He's in the travel squad for this week, but it's up in the air as to whether he'll play.
Head coach Manny Lagos mentioned Altman's absence as a factor that led to two late Carolina goals last week. "I think there was a little bit of disjointedness that happens when you have your center back and captain go out," said Lagos, who said this contributed to the "end-of-game chaos" in the 3-2 loss.
In two games this year, Minnesota allowed three goals to Carolina that came in the final ten minutes of the game, turning two potential wins into a draw and a loss. All three of those goals came from set pieces, and Lagos is as confused as anybody as to why that has happened. “Traditionally, we’ve been pretty darn good at them [defending set pieces], and this year at weird times we haven’t quite got what we needed to see the game out.”
“We do a pretty good job, I think, preparing and making sure [the players] are aware of their assignments,” said Lagos. “In that stress and fervor at the end of games, we have to make sure we’re organized and mentally sharp. Odd plays are going to happen, but we try to limit them, and we try to have that courage and intensity to try to keep from getting scored on.”
Certainly, the team could use Altman back - and certainly, he wants to be in the lineup, especially as his career winds down. "It would take a lot to keep me out of those last two games," he said.
Quietly, it’s Taka time
I haven’t written much about Kentaro Takada in the past few weeks; the central midfielder doesn’t appear often on the scoresheet, or in the highlights. Under the radar, however, he’s played every minute of Minnesota’s last four league games, serving as a defensive midfielder, usually behind Bryan Arguez, who’s a little more adventurous offensively.
What Takada does do, however, is pretty much run from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. Said Lagos of Takada, who is in his fourth year in Minnesota, “You look at Taka, he's consistent not only this year but over the years. He's a really unique individual that has embraced what the club's about. He is a unique person, because he's not from this country, but he just wants to experience this culture and this environment.
“He dedicates himself both on and off the field, to contribute however possible. It's that consistency and that dedication that comes out on the field in terms of the effort you see, in terms of the energy he puts forth to try to help the team win.”
Apart from Altman, the only other players of note who did not travel are center back Connor Tobin, who will be out until the fall season, and central midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan, who returned as a sub last week after a month out, but suffered a setback in midweek training this week. “Even in the game, he was playing through it a little bit,” said Lagos. “He’s a good pro, he was pushing himself.”
Wide midfielder Lucas Rodriguez is with the team in Edmonton this week, and he could return to the lineup as well to give Minnesota more of a two-way player on the wing. “I think we were missing some wide defending in that game [against Carolina],” said Lagos, “and Lucas can provide that.”
Though Lagos didn’t specify a lineup, the assumption might be that Rodriguez could supplant Miguel Ibarra in the lineup, as Ibarra has struggled mightily in his sophomore campaign.
It’s a rare Sunday afternoon game for Minnesota United, as they take on Edmonton at 3pm today. The game can be seen live on nasl.com; for the social among us, the team is holding a watch party at Brit’s Pub on Nicollet Mall, beginning at 2pm.
Minnesota United took to the turf at the Augsburg Dome on Friday, playing Chicago's Bridges FC (about which more here) in a pair of 70-minute practice matches. The team's second string won its match 3-0, but the first team - which drew 0-0 and only created a few chances - showed that United still isn't quite ready for the season to begin.
This was the first chance for United's vaunted free-agent forward attack to play together in the preseason, but both Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara looked far too static. Campos did get the ball in the net in the first half, though he was offside, and Barbara forced a save from the keeper in the first half, but otherwise neither really threatened the defense at all. Barbara in particular looked as if his fitness is way off the mark - he appeared to be nowhere near ready to play 90 minutes at NASL speeds.
Head coach Manny Lagos used the term "sluggish" to describe the first team's play, especially in the opening 35 minutes. "It maybe wasn't as sharp as I would have expected at this point of the preseason, in terms of finishing and taking advantage," said Lagos. "I thought as a group, it was just okay. I don't think there was anyone who’d walk off the field in the first scrimmage and say, 'I had a really really good day.' I wouldn’t say anyone stood out, but I don’t think there were a lot of negatives either."
Connor Tobin and Ernest Tchoupe started in central defense, and made their share of errors. At the moment, central defense might be the team's weakest area, as the back line struggles to rebuild without mainstay Kyle Altman - which is to be expected, given that the guys at that position simply haven't had that much time together. That said, goalkeeper Daryl Sattler, making his first appearance for United, might have been the team's best player in the scrimmage, standing tall to stop a couple of shots from Bridges FC.
As for the team's fitness, Lagos said he was happy overall, but did say that there were a couple of individuals who had work to do. "This sport's a crazy sport," he said. "You just have one guy who isn't quite as fit he needs to be, and you can't quite move as much as you want."
The second unit provoked far more enthusiasm from the head coach. Luis Heitor-Piffer, Anthony "Sausage" Salciccia, and Travis Wall scored for the second unit in a 3-0 win. "I thought the entire group really came on and played some fun soccer," said Lagos. "You could see they were working hard for each other. It was fun to see."
Kevin Venegas at right back was particularly impressive, and I also was impressed with triallist Brent Kallman, who played 70 minutes at center back. Michael Reed in midfield, and Wall, up front, played quite well, too.
Ultimately, a day like this might be necessary as part of the preseason. It'll serve as a signpost for United - showing them just how far they have left to go.
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