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.
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.
United has basically no chance of winning the fall championship, but still has three games remaining on the schedule. In past years, the jockeying for NASL playoff spots and playoff position would be in full swing; in other sports, even the teams at the bottom of the league might be able to think about where their draft position might be.
The current NASL setup offers no such help for fans of teams who are out of the running. United is left just to play out the string, but captain Aaron Pitchkolan insists that this doesn't mean that his team isn't taking the rest of the year seriously. "If you look at it that way, you’ll find a lot of guys without jobs the next season," he said. "It’s a professional environment; it’s very competitive, and you’re always playing for your job."
This isn't to say that tempers aren't rising in the United camp. Pitchkolan and Pablo Campos exchanged some heated words at the end of Thursday's training session, regarding the latter's perceived exertion at the end of practice, and afterwards head coach Manny Lagos pulled the two of them aside, along with defender Connor Tobin, for a long conversation.
Said Lagos, "I just think that we have a legacy of good soccer here over the years. The reality is, we didn’t quite get it done this year. So this is a big three games for the club, for a lot of individual players, and for our fans, to show that we’re going to start working on an identity and the future of the club right now for next year. It’s not going to be easy, because there are a lot of personalities and things to get sorted out."
Pitchkolan echoed the manager. "It’s not a lost year just because we didn’t make the finals," he said. "You’re always building for something in the future."
It will be interesting to see how Lagos approaches the remainder of the year with his lineups. He's spoken several times of how important it is to put the best lineup on the field to try to win - especially at home, in front of the home fans, to get a few wins and send everyone home for the offseason without a bitter taste in their mouths.
That said, though, he also needs to evaluate talent for 2014 and beyond. That could mean more time for some of the younger players, like Michael Reed or Travis Wall, at the expense of the team's established veterans.
A Ubiparipovic update
Midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic, on loan from Montreal, has been dealing with an ankle injury - one that Lagos confirmed will keep him out for the remainder of 2013.
""It’s really bothered him," said the coach. "I think with this situation, being that he can’t really train, he’s going to head home and get some rest and just go on from there."
Ubiparipovic played seven games in the fall, four as a starter and three off the bench, and did not score. His 2013 tenure may be remembered most for the September 8 game against Edmonton, when he came on as a substitute in the 60th minute and was sent off in the 61st minute for kicking Montons midfielder Chris Nurse, a performance that prompted the team's supporters group to change its rating system so that he could be awarded an 0 out of 10.
In other injury news, Campos - who missed last week's game with a hip problem - trained all week, but will be a game-time decision for this afternoon's match.
The game is at 2:30pm, at the National Sports Center in Blaine - but if you can't make it to the north Metro, you can watch the game live on Fox Sports North. If you don't have cable, or just like watching games on the computer, you can still see an internet broadcast at NASL.com/live...Carolina hasn't won a road game in 2013, with five draws and eight losses in thirteen road games in all competitions. They also haven't lost at home. Carolina must be traveling on a rickety team plane, like the Indians did in the movie "Major League"; it's the only explanation for their road woes...David La Vaque's preview box for the game is here.
Following Minnesota's 1-0 loss to New York at the National Sports Center (David La Vaque's game story is here), it was difficult to find a United player who didn't feel like his team had played well - or one that wasn't crushed to have lost the game anyway.
Miguel Ibarra said he thought Minnesota had the better of the play. "I think we dominated the second half, attacking them," he said. "It’s just unlucky, we couldn’t get the ball in. I think the team gave it all they had. It’s just unlucky."
United had a number of chances; in the first half, Ibarra flashed a cross across the face of goal, but Pablo Campos couldn't find a touch on the ball, sliding in, to turn it into the net. Mike Ambersley was through on New York keeper Kyle Reynish in the second half, but couldn't get a shot away; later Ambersley had some space on the penalty spot to shoot, but his shot was blocked by a defender closing in.
"We couldn’t finish, we couldn’t put the ball in the net," said Campos. "That hurt us. That’s what happens when you don’t score the goal - you get scored on."
On the flip side, New York took advantage of Cristiano Dias slipping over on the rain-soaked NSC field, and Paulo Mendes smashed a shot past Matt Van Oekel for the game's only goal.
"I thought we had some chances, and unfortunately they snuck one of theirs in and we didn’t," said captain Aaron Pitchkolan. "It’s disappointing."
Head coach Manny Lagos couldn't fault his team's effort. Said the coach, "Certainly, I thought as a unit we really put everything on the field, and I think the fans kept us going and I thought our players kept the crowd going, because we still believed we were going to get one back and maybe even get a winner."
With four games to go, Minnesota is now seven points behind the Cosmos, and while mathematically it's possible for New York to come back to the rest of the pack, it's unlikely. The Cosmos have Carolina (which cannot win on the road) at home, along with a home game against Edmonton; they finish with road games at San Antonio and Atlanta, but by then, the fall title could be more or less wrapped up.
It gave the postgame a distinct end-of-season feel, like the playoffs were over and the offseason was starting. Nobody was ready to admit defeat for the fall season, but you could see on each of their faces that they know it's going to take a minor miracle to get back into the race.
"I was very disappointed, I’m pretty sure the whole team was," said Ibarra. "I think the whole team fought until the end, and I think we deserved a tie at least if not the win. It’s just soccer. Unlucky."
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