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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United heads to KC for, perhaps, their most important game of the summer

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: June 18, 2014 - 10:21 AM

Minnesota United are currently promoting their "Summer of Soccer", including friendlies with Swansea City and the Mexico U-21 team. Throw in their league game at TCF Bank Stadium, and it's an important summer for the club from a marketing standpoint - but on the field, the most important game of the summer might be tonight, against Sporting Kansas City in the US Open Cup.

Friendlies are fun, but by the end of the year, it'll be tough to remember whether United won or lost against either Swansea or Mexico's youngsters. And while the game at TCF Bank Stadium will take place on a bigger stage, it's still just a regular league game.

Win tonight, though, and the Portland Timbers come to town next week. Win tonight, and Minnesota will be the team that beat the MLS champions. Win tonight, and the transformation from plucky underdogs - "the team that nobody wanted" - to a force to be reckoned with will be, in some ways, complete.

"It's become even more important because we have a club that expects us to get silverware," said United head coach Manny Lagos. "The US Open Cup means potential credibility at a different level. Teams are taking it particularly seriously, because winning it gives you a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, which is coveted nowadays."

For Lagos, though, the US Open Cup is no longer about proving yourself. "I feel like that storyline is a couple of years ago," he said. "The guys on the team feel like they should compete against any team in North America right now."

It's that chance to compete that is most exciting for the players on the club. "This is a big one," said defender Justin Davis, who spoke about wanting to prove that NASL teams could beat MLS teams. "KC being geographically close to us, it's one of the bigger games for the club for sure. We're going to go in there like it's a cup final."

Four MLS teams have gone down already. New York lost to their crosstown neighbors, the Cosmos, in a 3-0 beating that had the Red Bulls' fans incensed about coach Mike Petke's cavalier attitude to the competition. Carolina, always tough at home, beat floundering Chivas USA on penalties, and Atlanta won 2-1 against Real Salt Lake, to make a trio of NASL teams already into the fifth round. DC United also lost to third-division Rochester. Seven other MLS teams have already gone through to the next round as well, two of them over NASL sides; Minnesota has a chance to keep the league's winning record against MLS intact.

That said, beating Kansas City is a much taller order; for one, the team is unlikely to throw out a half-strength team. "I know the coaching staff there very well," said Lagos. "They're going to take the game very seriously."

Not only are KC the reigning MLS champions, but they play a high-pressing style that has troubled Minnesota in the past. The Cosmos did the same to Minnesota earlier this year, and United went about the first hour of the game seemingly without completing a pass or putting together anything organized offensively. Sporting is well known for doing the same, and it concerns Lagos, who says he'll have to treat this different than a normal NASL game. "'d be a little naive if I didn't think about it differently, particularly against Kansas City, which has developed a style that's different than some other MLS teams," said the coach. "We're going to have to absorb a different type of tempo than we're used to, a different type of pressing, a different speed of play. I think even teams in MLS have to deal with that when they play Sporting KC."

Both teams will have to deal with the heat, as well; temps will reach the 90s in Kansas City today, and while kickoff isn't until 7:30 - you can see the game on sportingkc.com - it'll still be plenty warm.

It'll be a tall order for United. Whatever the team might say, they are underdogs this evening, on the road in one of America's toughest places to play. If they can come through with a win, the rest of the summer - despite the marquee games - might pale in comparison.

United draw 3-3 at Tampa Bay, clinch NASL spring title

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: June 7, 2014 - 8:58 PM

Minnesota United FC drew 3-3 with Tampa Bay Saturday night, thus clinching the NASL spring championship and the first league playoff spot of 2014. The win means that Minnesota will host at least the first round of the NASL playoffs, and has the inside track to clinch the #1 overall seed.

It certainly wasn't easy for United, who led both 1-0 and 3-2 but had to hold on for nearly twenty white-knuckle minutes to close the game. Justin Davis put United ahead in the twelfth minute, but Blake Wagner and Lucky Mkosana scored first-half goals - the latter in first-half stoppage time - to give the Rowdies a 2-1 lead.

To United's credit, they came roaring back in the second half, and in a five-minute span, Jamie Watson set up Daniel Mendes to tie the game, before Christian Ramirez did the same for Miguel Ibarra to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead.

WIth a half-hour to go, Minnesota appeared to be crusing comfortably, but Tampa's Frankie Sanfilippo bundled home a corner in the 74th minute, tying the game at 3-3, and giving United fans occasion to chew their collective fingernails down to the quick.

A smiling Manny Lagos was nothing but positive following the game. "It was a great game," he told the TV broadcast. "It took a lot for us to win the spring championship, we had to go on the road twice and get results."

The draw sends United into the summer break on a positive note. The team now has the playoffs, a US Open Cup trip to Kansas City, and a pair of summer friendlies against the Mexico U-21 team and Swansea City all to look forward to. Minnesota is using the slogan "Summer of Soccer" to advertise themselves over the warmer months; for now, their summer is certainly living up to the hype.

United beat Atlanta 2-1; spring title remains a three-way race

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: May 31, 2014 - 9:11 PM

Greg Jordan scored his first goal for Minnesota, Christian Ramirez added his fifth of the season, and Minnesota United withstood a late Atlanta rally to stay atop the NASL standings with a 2-1 win.

United entered the night with a three-point lead on San Antonio and New York, but the Scorpions and Cosmos both won road games of their own, leaving Minnesota's lead unchanged with one game in the spring left to go. United will clinch the spring title with a win or a draw in Tampa Bay next week; they can also clinch if they lose, but San Antonio fails to beat Fort Lauderdale at home, and New York fails to beat Ottawa at home.

On this night, Atlanta had far better chances than did Minnesota. The Silverbacks had 18 shots to United's six, including several excellent chances, but only Kwadwo Poku could find a way past Mitch Hildebrandt. The Minnesota keeper denied both Poku and Jaime Chavez in the first half, and Poku and Deon McCauley in the second, allowing United to steal the win.

Jordan's goal, in the 53rd minute, came just moments after a sterling Atlanta chance, as McCauley hooked a leaping volley from inside the six-yard box just over the crossbar. United got going quickly from the goal kick, and Jordan flicked Ramirez's cross from the right just inside the far post.

Twenty minutes later, Minnesota had the ball in the net twice inside three minutes. The first, an Aaron Pitchkolan header, was judged to be offside. Ramirez's second, though - a header from a Justin Davis free kick - counted, and United had a 2-0 lead in the 72nd minute.

Poku's blast with five minutes to go made for some nervous moments for Minnesota fans, especially since it coincided with San Antonio scoring at the death in Indy to win 2-1, and New York taking the lead in Fort Lauderdale. United, though, parked all ten players in front of their own goal, and managed to hold on for the win.

Atlanta coach, and FOX soccer analyst Eric Wynalda, was highly critical of Minnesota after the match. Asked why his team lost on the Atlanta broadcast, following the game, he said, "We're not as good at rugby as the opponent."

Wynalda continued in the same vein. "It’s frustrating, because we’re better at soccer than they are," he said. "They don’t really play soccer; what they do is similar to maybe a second division [team] in England, and it worked tonight. Our guys are frustrated, because this isn’t what we signed up for. To play a pretty good style, and have opportunities to win the game… We got a good goal out of Poku, but we’re frustrated, because this sucks."

United head coach Manny Lagos was understandably less negative after his team's win. "It was a battle tonight," he said. "I thought both teams really put it in... The results didn’t go our way, so it comes down to next week."

With things looking up, United can clinch tonight in Atlanta

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: May 31, 2014 - 9:57 AM

Minnesota United beat the Des Moines Menace 1-0 on Wednesday, thus advancing to the fourth round of the US Open Cup, where they will travel to Sporting Kansas City on June 18. It will be the team's first US Open Cup match against an MLS side since 2012, when the team - then the Minnesota Stars - destroyed Real Salt Lake 3-1 in the third round, before falling 1-0 to San Jose in the fourth round.

It’s worth remembering that, this time last year, United was bottoming out. They lost two league games in a row, putting them back in the pack in the spring-season race - then lost 1-0 to Des Moines in the Cup, at home, in the rain, in one of the more dismal soccer games any of the thousand fans in attendance could ever hope to see. Head coach Manny Lagos started his postgame interview by apologizing to all of the team’s fans. Team president Nick Rogers sent his apology out on Twitter.

Fast-forward a year, and Minnesota is riding high. They're on the way to Kansas City. They have the biggest friendly in Minnesota soccer history scheduled for July 19, when Swansea City visits. They procured a decent July 4 game, with a visit from Mexico's under-21 side that's sure to be attractive to the area Mexican population - a constituency that the team wants to reach. They're playing at TCF Bank Stadium, following the Manchester City - Olympiakos game that matches the Premier League champions against the team that wins the Greek league virtually every year. And to top it all off, they're three points on top of the league with two games to play in the spring championship, and can clinch as soon as tonight, if they beat Atlanta and other results around the league go their way..

Throw in the continued forward momentum in the front office, with the franchise setting up one of the league's best operations, and it has to be said that everything is looking up for United.

Tonight, Minnesota takes on Atlanta, last season’s spring champions. The Silverbacks’ big news this season is that they are now managed by former US National team star Eric Wynalda, who is splitting time between being Atlanta’s coach and being an analyst for FOX Soccer. Both ownership and Wynalda insist that the team doesn’t need the coach on site at all times; after seven games, Atlanta is in seventh and has the league’s worst goal differential, so at best the jury is still out on the arrangement.

The Silverbacks are led by forward Jamie Chavez, who has scored twice already this week - once in Atlanta’s win at Edmonton last Saturday, once in their midweek US Open Cup win against FC Chattanooga. Salvadoran midfielder Junior Burgos also scored twice in midweek; he began the season coming off the bench, but has made two May starts and may be in line for another tonight.

Meanwhile, United’s defense is limping - in some cases quite literally. Center back Cristiano Dias is suspended after being sent off last Saturday against Carolina, and goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel is missing as well with an ankle injury. With center back Tiago Calvano also a doubt, owing to a hamstring injury suffered last week, and right back Kevin Venegas still missing with a broken jaw, United could be playing three backup defenders and a backup goalkeeper this week. Aaron Pitchkolan will likely slide back to center back to replace Dias, and if Calvano can't go, Brent Kallman could make his second NASL start.

Minnesota's big squad news is that Australian attacker Richard Garcia - who signed a month ago, but had his arrival delayed by US Customs - is in Atlanta and with the team. Garcia's arrival brings the squad up to 19, with only 18 players allowed in the gameday squad, so it remains to be seen whether United will throw him directly in with the team, or whether he'll have only next Saturday's game as a chance to make an impact.

Mitch Hildebrandt will again start in goal, and will be backed up by Andrew Fontein, who was the reserve on Wedensday against Des Moines, as well. The 24-year-old started three games for Tampa Bay last year, and made a substitute appearance in Minnesota's wild 6-4 season-ending win in Tampa.

Last season, Atlanta clinched the spring championship at the National Sports Center, and celebrated wildly on United's field - something that incensed a number of Minnesota players. One can assume that, should United clinch tonight, celebrations at Silverbacks Park will be rather unrestrained. 

David La Vaque's preview box for the game is here.

United's Open Cup schedule set

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: May 21, 2014 - 8:11 AM

Minnesota's path to the US Open Cup, at least for the first two rounds, is now set - and the path involves two trips away from home.

United will face the Des Moines Menace next Wednesday, May 28, at 7:30pm, at the Menace's home in West Des Moines. Should Minnesota beat the fourth-division Menace - something they couldn't accomplish last season, let's remember - they will travel to Sporting Kansas City in mid-June for the next round, playing the MLS side at 7:30pm on Wednesday, June 18 at Sporting Park.

There was some confusion about the fourth-round game in Kansas City, at least from a Minnesota standpoint. With both MLS and the NASL taking a break in June for the beginning of the World Cup, neither Minnesota nor Kansas City has a game scheduled for the weekend of June 14 - an attractive proposition for Minnesota fans who were hoping to make the trip south for the potential fourth-round tie. Instead, the game is scheduled for the following Wednesday night.

I talked to Chris Wyche, Sporting KC's executive vice president of stadium operations, to get some clarification on why the game is happening on a Wednesday. It turns out there are two reasons; for one, while Minnesota doesn't have a game scheduled that weekend, Des Moines does. While KC might have liked to have the game on a Saturday, they also want to start selling tickets - and would prefer to sell those tickets for a set date, rather than have the game depend on which opponent they might play.

Last season, KC drew more than 15,000 fans for a Tuesday-night game against Des Moines in the same competition, so clearly playing on a weeknight is not too much of a concern for the team, from a ticket-sales standpoint.

KC is also entirely replacing the field at Sporting Park, beginning on June 2, in order to change the type of grass in the field to a strain that will better survive the hot and humid East Kansas summer. The US Open Cup game will be the first to take place on the new field, and having the game on June 18 rather than June 14 will give the field an extra four days to take root. Combine the two reasons, and it makes perfect sense that the game would be on June 18.

First, though, is next week's game in Des Moines - which as mentioned, is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. United also has the spring season to worry about, with games on the Saturdays on either side of the Wednesday trip to Iowa.

Interestingly, the Menace also have games on both weekends that bookend the US Open Cup match - with the second taking place against United's reserve team. If the main squad can't beat the Menace on Wednesday, perhaps the reserves can do the job the following weekend.

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