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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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.
March in Minnesota does not lend itself to soccer matches. Minnesota United's only home match of the preseaon is Friday, when they play a 10am match over at Augsburg against Bridges FC - a team from Chicago that may well be unique in American soccer.
You won't find Bridges FC in any league directory, and if you're like me, you'd never heard of the club before, but some of the best players in America have played for the team. Midfielder Michael Bradley, perhaps the key cog for the US Men's National Team, is an alumnus. Jay Demerit and Jonathan Spector, both national team defenders, have played for the club, as well. Former Stars midfielders Neil Hlavaty and Gei Moura got a leg up from Bridges FC, as did current United midfielder Kentaro Takada.
"We're called 'Bridges FC,' but another way you could term it is 'Bridge to the Pros,'" says club assistant coach / general manager Jeff Roy. The team's mission is to take players that haven't made it - whether pro, amateur, or college - and try to prepare them for careers in pro soccer. This involves training the players as hard as possible - once or twice a day, five or six days a week - and taking a select group of trainees and playing them against the best competition that can be found, both in the United States and Europe.
200 players may come through the Chicago area to train with the team during the winter, including up to 70 at a time, but by the spring that group will be winnowed down to 22 players. That group plays exibitions against American teams at United's level and below, before embarking on a summer European tour, one that includes games against clubs in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Germany. The tour is both a development tour and a showcase tour - giving players a chance to get better by playing against good competition, but also giving them a chance to be seen by scouts or clubs in Europe, and possibly hook on to a club over there.
The soccer is one thing, but according to Roy, it's the mental side of the game that Bridges is really focusing on. "Our coach, Bret Hall, played professionally for 15 years, so he has a keen understanding of what it takes to be a professional as a career instead of just being on a team for a year or two - and a lot of that has to do with mental toughness," says Roy. "I'd say that's a big piece of it, and why so many of our players have had success. Being able to have that winning mentality is what makes two players separate, two players that have equal talent."
That holistic approach extends off the field as well. "We're trying to teach people what it means to be part of a team, what it means to solve problems instead of creating them," says Roy. Bridges takes in players who are coming from all points of life - some from around the world, some from the Chicago area, many with very different backgrounds, and the club tries to give them life lessons, as well. And while Roy is sure to mention that Bridges is in no way a missionary team, and the spiritual side is not mandatory or a requirement, the team also offers bible studies and church on the weekends. "All of us on staff are Christians," says Roy, "so we take that in to what we do. The bible studies and church are completely optional stuff, but it's a a chance to discuss things of a deeper nature with other guys, of what they're going through."
As for Friday's game, it's preseason for Bridges, too, as they're trying to find their squad for their marquee summer European tour. "It's a good chance to take a look at a few guys this week," says Hall - very much the same thing we hear from Manny Lagos, this time of year.
Preseason friendlies are always a little tough to follow, but we'll keep an eye on anyone from the Bridges squad who looks promising. There's a chance we'll be hearing a lot more about them in the coming years.
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