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.
Email Jon to talk about soccer.
As David La Vaque wrote this morning, Premier League side Swansea City will play United on July 19 at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Be sure to read that article; he talks to team president Nick Rogers about the connection between this visit and United's training trip to England, and whether this has any meaning for the future of MLS for the franchise.
A couple of other notes:
*The only two previous exhibitions that are comparable to this game (at least in the modern era - I can't speak for the Kicks / Strikers era) are two from back when Minnesota's pro soccer team was called the Thunder. In late 2007, a David Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy played the Thunder in the Metrodome. The following summer, Burnley - then in the English second division, though they will be in the Premier League next year - visited for a similar summertime exhibition at the NSC.
The Galaxy match drew more than 20,000 fans, a number that - given the NSC's capacity of around 7,500 - this Swansea match can't hope to approach. In my opinion, though, despite Beckham's star power, having a Premier League side come to Minnesota is a much, much bigger deal.
The Burnley match in 2008 drew 6,000 or so fans to the NSC; I have no idea what the team announced for attendance, but I was there in the stands. Plus, a good third of those fans were youth teams, in town for the USA Cup soccer tournament.
This match is also during the USA Cup, so I imagine there will be plenty of kids - but I would also be completely shocked if the match didn't sell out.
*It's worth noting that this match does not fall into the NASL's summer break. In fact, United has a game the previous Thursday night, against Carolina at the NSC.
It poses an interesting conundrum for head coach Manny Lagos. I have little doubt that he'll put the league match first, especially if United fails to win the first half of the season and is still in the playoff race. That said, will he want to risk some of his most important players by playing them twice in three days? Will he be willing to play some of his older veterans in that short time frame? Will the players, all of whom get extremely excited for these types of matches, look past Thursday's match in anticipation of Saturday?
*There's no doubt that the most excited person in the metro today is Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, who announced last month that he is now a hardcore Swansea City fan. Reusse made the decision, having grown sick of the Twins' bullpen management, after careful thought and consultation with radio partner Judd Zulgad, and now his decision is already paying off.
Watch the replay of Minnesota’s game against Edmonton from Saturday. It won’t be long before Miguel Ibarra, #10 in gray, zooms into your picture from points unknown. Start focusing on him. He’s in central midfield - no, wait, he’s on the right wing. Now he’s tracking back deeper in the midfield. Now he’s harrying a defender, who until recently thought he might collect a wayward ball with no pressure whatsoever.
Eventually, you think to yourself: Geez, that guy is always running.
The 24-year-old midfielder is listed, with odd precision, on the team’s website as 5’6”, 145.2 lbs, making him the smallest player on United’s roster. He is fast, but not a burner; quick, but not blindingly so. He is not a notably great passer, yet, and in the rare cases when he does shoot, his finishing needs work.
But that workrate. He can run all day.
“His energy and his attitude and his selflessness to work hard to really put teams on their heels is so important, particularly when we’re not using the ball as well as we could,” said United head coach Manny Lagos. “He’s got a lung capacity that’s amazing. That’s the thing about soccer players; you can be big and strong or you can be small and quick. Miguel has this ability to make these long hard runs, and recover so quickly to do it again. It’s really impressive and unique, and I think that’s why that energy comes out on the field.”
In some ways, that workrate was the key to the 4-2-3-1 formation that United deployed against Edmonton. With the wingers pushing for width, Ibarra was left with acres of space in the middle of the field to try to run into.
He’s still likely to pop up in odd positions - How come he’s actually outside of Jamie Watson right now? - but that freedom gives him the opportunity to use his energy to prod the United attack forward.
That energy is also useful as a defensive weapon. The second half of games in the NASL often turn into a series of offensive volleys; the games become less about tactics and moving the ball, and more about committing players forward to stress the defense through sheer numbers.
For Lagos, Ibarra’s energy kept Edmonton away from that, and the coach was particularly impressed by that facet of his game. “In the second half when they wanted to push it and get a goal back, he showed some energy and made some runs that they really couldn’t go forward the same way, since he was there to counter,” he said.
That role as an attacking midfielder is quickly becoming one of Ibarra’s favorites - and he was especially enthusiastic after a 1-0 win, the team’s third in a row. “As of right now, I think that’s my position,” he said. “I think I’m doing a great job. I’m just working my [redacted] off, and I’m going to keep doing it and doing it.”
Ibarra was also quick to credit his relationship with center forward Christian Ramirez. The two, who both attended college in the Irvine, CA area, have quickly become inseparable both on and off the field. “He checks, I go in behind, or he checks, I give him the ball, he peels off and I come in. We just have that understanding going right now and it’s working well,” said Ibarra.
Perhaps fittingly, Ibarra used a California-related comparison, when describing the two of them. “Right now, it’s what I would call a Kobe-Shaq [type of relationship],” he said. “It’s working really well right now.”
2014 is a big year for Ibarra; it’s time for the third-year veteran to grow into that playmaking role. He has shown flashes of ability in that role, for certain, but those flashes have been rare. His goal against Ottawa in week two, for example, was an excellent finish - but his one goal in 2014 equals his entire 2013 output.
Lagos says that he has Ibarra working specifically on his finishing and both his offensive and defensive positioning, in the hopes of turning him into a complete attacking playmaker. “I think he would even tell you that he needs to become a player that is not just using his energy to solve problems,” said Lagos. “[He needs to work on] his passing, his touches, and then finding ways that he can be a little more in position to get shots.”
In other words, the coach wants him to translate that energy into something beyond just the ability to run for 90 straight minutes. “He’s an offensive player; he’s using that selfless energy to help other players, and I think he also has to use it to find himself in good scoring positions,” said Lagos. “He’s grown every year he’s been with us, and I think he’s going to continue to do that.
“I think [his best] is still to come, to be honest. I think he’s that young, that his best stuff is going to be as he matures and decides how he wants to dictate the game using all of those abilities that he has.“
In 2013, the stadium field at the National Sports Center encountered huge turf problems in the spring, to the point that a Minnesota United match on May 21 had to be played at the U of M's Robbie Stadium instead of in Blaine. This year, however, the crew at the NSC reports that the field will be ready to go.
NSC Chief Communications Officer Barclay Kruse snapped the above picture yesterday, before the snow began; despite the harsh winter, there is already a bit of green in the field, a good sign.
Through Kruse, NSC turf superintendent Curt Conkright reports that the field - which had just melted off, before today's snow - has come through the winter in good shape. It was covered with snow all winter, which helps protect the grass; it's the swings in temperature and freeze-thaw cycles, which we had none of this year, that cause havoc with the turf.
Conkright says that with some water and warmth, the field should green up nicely. He also said that the giant pile of snow that fell this morning will be helpful, counter-intuitively, as it will be wet snow that will melt into the turf quickly.
United's first home game of the spring is April 26, against Edmonton. By then, we all hope that the grass will be a little greener, and a little less snow-covered.
United defender/assistant coach Kevin Friedland is always a good quote, but after Saturday's 3-1 win over Fort Lauderdale, he couldn't think of much to say.
I asked him what his emotions were, following his final game in front of the Minnesota crowd. "I'm speechless," he said.
Friedland was all but certain to play on Saturday, but Connor Tobin limped off with an injury after just 22 minutes - leaving Friedland to come off the bench and finish the game. As I wrote in my game story, it was fitting that the 31-year-old, who has done it all for Minnesota, would have one last chance to fill in wherever he was needed.
The Dark Clouds serenaded Friedland all night, alternating between "Kevin Friedland is a Blue" (to the tune of "London Bridge", a callback to his Thunder days) and "Please don't take our Friedland away" (to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine.") They also brought a large banner that read "And God said: LET THERE BE FRIEDLAND," a reference to just how long he'd been with the team.
It was also a chance for Friedland to play in front of his family. According to him, it was the first time he'd had his family in town for a game since 2010, and for this one he had everyone together - his dad Les, his brother Jake, and his stepmom Deb were all out from New Jersey, and his mom Shellee, his sister Allison, and his niece Madison were here from California. Put them together with his girlfriend Katie, who is from Minnesota, and it clearly meant a lot to him to play in front of the whole group - you could hear a catch in his voice when he talked about them.
"I think last night and this morning was like, I’ll see, if I get in, I get in," he said. "Obviously I didn’t care either way, but it’s a good way to go out. I had no idea, no expectations if I was going to play tonight. I was hoping, starting on the bench, for maybe twenty minutes or something - maybe get out wide or in front of the goal or something like that. They needed me to play center back, and that’s what I did, and we got the result. Most important."
Again, as I wrote in the game story, if it hadn't been for Friedland's tireless efforts, I'm not sure there would be a pro soccer team in Minnesota this year. He did everything for this team that he was ever asked, and it was nice that the team got a win for him in his last home game as a player.
Hildebrandt good in goal, Campos good in front of it
The story of the night was Friedland, which unfortunately overshadowed two more goals from Pablo Campos and an excellent performance in goal from Mitch Hildebrandt.
Campos had a classic game for him, scoring twice and setting up another one, all by being physical and never quitting on an offensive chance. His first chance was created by an excellent cross-field ball from Omar Daley, who got his first start of the fall; it was a fifty-yard pass right to the feet of Lucas Rodriguez, who took his first-time chance to roll the ball in front of goal, where Campos bulled his way in to score.
His second goal was almost similar - the ball fell between three Strikers defenders, none could clear, and Campos threw himself into the middle of all three to poke the ball past keeper Richard Sanchez. It's no wonder Sanchez was caught completely flat-footed - nobody should have been able to get a shot off from there.
Campos also created the second United goal, boxing out two defenders to head a corner down for Aaron Pitchkolan to prod home. That's eleven goals from Campos this year, and five assists - invaluable for a team that's struggled to score.
The two goals pull Campos within one of the league lead for 2013; it's not inconceivable he could end up winning the league's Golden Boot this year.
Hildebrandt, meanwhile, made at least three key saves to keep the Strikers to just one goal. He had at least a couple of them in the second half, when United only led 2-1; he was in the discussion for Man of the Match with Campos (but, let's be honest, the award was always going to Friedland on this night).
The New York Cosmos clinched their place in the Soccer Bowl with a 2-1 win in San Antonio, so even though there's a week to play in the season, the Soccer Bowl - New York at Atlanta - is set.
United, for their part, is up to fourth place. They'd like to stay there, if for no other reason than to end their streak of sixth-place finishes that dates back to 2011.
If there is a god of sportswriting, here' s how United's game tonight with Fort Lauderdale will go: defender Kevin Friedland, playing his last home game in Minnesota after a ten-year career, will come on as a substitute at the end of the game and score the winning goal, following which he will be carried off the field just like Sean Astin in the movie "Rudy."
Maybe that's not exactly how it will go down, but Friedland will be in the eighteen-man squad for the game this evening. It would be pretty shocking if he didn't play at least a few minutes - perhaps enough to get the ovation he deserves.
In other lineup news, goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt will start in goal for United, his first start of the season. Hildebrandt endured an early-season ankle injury, and fell to third on the keeper depth chart behind Daryl Sattler and Matt Van Oekel - but after serving as a "valiant backup" all year, as head coach Manny Lagos said, he'll get a few minutes in front of the home fans.
Lagos listed defender Connor Tobin as probable on his weekly injury report, but noted that he was likely to start. Midfielder Michael Reed, however, is done for the year; he had surgery Friday to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
It's an honor just to be nominated
Defender Aaron Pitchkolan and winger Miguel Ibarra made the league's shortlist for its "Golden Ball" (read: MVP) award, along with 14 other players. The winner will be announced in the leadup to the Soccer Bowl.
The nominees came from the league's head coaches. The rest of the group:
Atlanta - Joe Nasco (GK), Martyn Lancaster (D), Richie Menjivar (MF), Danny Barrera (MF)
Carolina - Brian Shriver (F)
Edmonton - Albert Watson (D), Chris Nurse (MF)
Fort Lauderdale - Ivan Guerrero (D)
New York - Marcos Senna (MF)
San Antonio - Hans Denissen (F), Tomasz Zahorski (F)
Tampa Bay - Diego Restrepo (GK), Georgi Hristov (F), Luke Mulholland (MF)
On the air
Tonight's game is live on TV on KSTC, better known as Channel 45 in the Twin Cities. This does, however, mean that the game won't be available via live streaming to anyone in Minnesota, so if you don't have cable, you'll have to dig the bunny ears out of the back of your closet.
The league also announced that November 9's Soccer Bowl would be broadcast on ESPN Deportes (in Español, of course), and on ESPN3 in English.
Out in the cold
Game-time temperatures figure to be in the upper 30s, the first particularly chilly game of the season for Minnesota. Despite that, Lagos says that his team won't play any differently. "We try to play the same way," he said. "I don’t want to overthink what the weather’s going to be. We’ve kind of set up training outside this week in the cold so I think we’re used to it; unless things change with the weather the game plan for tomorrow is going to be the same."
More troubling is the team's lack of psychological edge at home, cold or no. Said Lagos, "We haven’t quite had that this year, as we have in years past. We certainly had a lot of special plays and good moments this year, but it wasn’t consistent across the board. Typically at home if you’re playing well and consistent, you tend to win."
It's a 6pm start in Blaine tonight. As mentioned, you can see the game on Channel 45, or head up to Blaine for the team's final home game of 2013.
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