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.
The USA knew they wouldn't have an easy time at next summer's World Cup in Brazil, but Friday's draw did them no favors whatsoever.
The Americans were drawn in Group G with Germany, Ghana, and Portugal, arguably the most difficult group of the eight. They were also drawn in the worst possible spot in the tournament for travel, and will have to journey nearly 9,000 miles between the three games - including a game in the rain forest in Manaus, in the north of the country.
Former USA midfielder and current Minnesota United head coach Manny Lagos summed up the draw, from an American perspective. "I'm like everybody else," he said. "It's not ideal."
The USA were not one of the eight seeded teams in the event, meaning that they were guaranteed to be drawn against one of the top eight seeds, one team from Africa or South America, and one team from the remaining European teams. Unfortunately for the Americans, they drew one of the best teams from each of those three categories.
Lagos wasn't willing to call it the worst possible draw for the USA, noting that they were lucky to avoid the Netherlands from the group of European teams, but his assessment - not the worst possible, but "up there" - was the same as many fans' reactions.
ESPN, using its "Soccer Power Index" rankings, gave the Americans just under a 40% chance of finishing first or second in their group and qualifying for the knockout round. Germany was given a 91% chance, with Portugal just ahead of the USA at 40% and Ghana at 28%.
The Americans have a recent history with each of these teams at the World Cup. Most famously, they were knocked out of the tournament by Ghana in both 2006 and 2010, losing both times in their final game of the tournament against the Africans. They lost to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals, 1-0, despite outplaying the Germans for long stretches of the game and having a clear penalty kick denied them in the second half. In the same tournament, though, they beat Portugal 3-2 in their opening match, one of the upsets of the tournament.
Local USMNT expert Dana Wessel, contrary to the negative reactions from most, said via email that he was optimistic about the draw. "It isn't nearly as bad as it looks," he wrote.
Wessel pointed out that, despite the star power of Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal struggled to get through an easy qualifying group to make it to the World Cup. He also noted that the USA outplayed Ghana in both losses, and that if you had to pick one team's coach to be able to break down Germany, it would be former German coach and star Jurgen Klinsmann, America's manager.
"The people freaking out on social media over this group are stuck in 1998," he wrote. "People do realize we are good at soccer, right? We are coming off our best year in federation history, and I guarantee you supporters of Portugal and Ghana were not happy when they saw themselves land with the United States."
The USA's opening match will be against Ghana on June 16; they play Portugal next, in the rainforest on June 22, and finish with Germany on June 26.
Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. The show is hosted by Cane Peterson and Eric Perkins/Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11. We like it when he tells us what to watch in the Premier League this weekend. Dana?
OK. Has everyone simmered down and adjusted their underpants after Wednesday afternoon’s slate of matches? What an afternoon. An American scored, Spurs scored twice in 15 minutes to win, and the reigning champions find themselves in ninth place after yet another home loss.
The World Cup draw is this morning at 10am, and will be broadcast on ESPN2 starting at 10:30. This will set the opening matches for the US.
Regardless of what the draw holds, don’t fret. Even if we are in the Group of Death. We are the United States. The days of fearing other teams is over. Other nations are now afraid of us. We have gotten out tough groups before, and we will do it again. Now is a time to be excited, not hyperventilating over Nation X. This is the best US team we have ever sent to a World Cup, and it is going to be one heck of a ride regardless of who we draw.
Now, back to across the pond...
No. 3: Manchester United vs Newcastle United at Old Trafford
When: Saturday at 6:45AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: The eventual champions won a wild one in the corresponding fixture last season 4-3 on Boxing Day. Chicharito slotted the match-winner in stoppage time to annoy every non-United in the entire world. Thanks for ruining my favorite holiday, jerk! Seriously, what is Boxing Day? All I know about it is there is a ton of soccer on. Is that it? A soccer holiday? Somebody look this up and call me with the answer.
I have no real opinion on David Moyes one way or the other. Seems like a decent enough dude, I guess. But man, you just have to feel for him. He tried for eleven years as Everton manager to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, only to watch Everton come in and win in his first year as manager at United. Hope his whiskey cabinet was stocked Wednesday night.
You also have to feel for how delusional and in over his head he seems. The headlines after the match were how he admitted that United are playing catch up in the title race and face a tough road ahead.
In honor of Moyes’ stunning revelation I will also admit that I face a tough road to make the NBA (Slamball is a different story. You’ll wanna get on my entourage now, because once it comes back, it’s all over) and I may not have as good of a chance with Anna Kendrick as I claim.
I understand Moyes has to go with the coach-speak but maybe it is time for him to be realistic and actually admit the real truth: United, the reigning champions, face tough odds to even qualify for Champions League this season.
After this weekend we will be through 15 of 38 matches. The table has taken shape. I think we can all say pretty confidently that the current top three of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City will finish in the top three in some order. That leaves Liverpool, Everton, Spurs and Manchester United battling for the fourth spot. And that isn’t even including Southampton and Newcastle - I think we all can agree they will regress to the mid-table teams we all know they are.
As of now, United really isn’t even in that dogfight, going winless in their last three league matches and trending downward. They welcome in a plucky Newcastle club that had rattled off four straight league wins, including a decisive 2-0 win over Chelsea, before taking one in the shorts against Swansea, 3-0 on Wednesday.
It is funny calling an early December home match against Newcastle a must-win for United, but that is the reality of the situation. It is a reality that Moyes and the boys are fully aware of. Surprisingly, United are just 3-2-2 in the fortress they call the Theater of Dreams, grabbing just 11 of a possible 21 points.
No. 2: Sunderland vs Tottenham at the Stadium of Light
When: Saturday at 11:30AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Spurs bagged all three road points in this fixture last season 2-1 thanks to a Aaron Lennon goal in the 51st. Can’t say I recall seeing this match.
I hope Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas bought Chiriches and Holtby a plate of wings or something, because he was about 15 minutes away from having a lot of time on his hands the rest of the winter. It's crazy how much difference 20 minutes makes. It was looking like a 1-0 Fulham win that would have pulled them out of the drop zone, the kind of victory to inspire the club after sacking their manager this week.
It also appeared that AVB, who seemed almost resigned to his fate after the 2-2 tie Sunday against Manchester United, would be on his way out, having gone five straight without winning - including that now infamous 6-0 loss to Manchester City.
But two goals flips the script, and possibly saved a job along the way. Spurs are riding high after an emotional victory and now have a trip to bottom-feeding Sunderland where a win would put them right back in the thick of things.
Hopefully the Black Cats don’t hang their head too low after an emotional loss to Chelsea Wednesday at home. They took a 1-0 lead on a Jozy Altidore goal, his first of the year (Ed. note: I deleted 93 exclamation points that Dana inserted here). They fought back to equalize at 2-2. They refused to quit when falling behind 4-2, earning themselves quality chances at an equalizer before falling 4-3.
That type of fighting spirit and resolve can get a team out of the drop zone and save a season as long as they don’t let themselves get too down. Points will come. All credit and congratulations to Jozy, for his first goal in the Premier League since about 20 years ago with Hull City (editor, please fact check). (It was February 2010 - Ed.) Say what you will about John Terry, but he is still a class defender and Jozy just posted him up and smashed one past Peter Cech, one of the best goalies in the world. Hopefully that is the boost young Josmer needed.
I am also a major loser, and see it as a total sign that he got his first goal of the season less than 72 hours before the World Cup draw.
No. 1: Arsenal at Everton at Emirates Stadium
When: Sunday at 11AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: This one ended without a goal from either side last April, in a match where both teams needed all three in their chase for a top four spot.
How could you not be happy for Everton? I thought the away stands at Old Trafford were going to fall over on Wednesday after that final whistle blew. Sheer joy and euphoria for the supporters who have waited 20 years for that moment. 'Tis why we watch.
The Toffees have more confidence than they’ve had in a really long time, after finally vanquishing the the (once) mighty Manchester United in their own backyard. They’ll need it. The scheduling gods didn’t exactly do any favors for Everton, with back-to-back matches on the road against United and Arsenal within a four day span.
Make no mistake, the victory over United wasn’t one of those "Well, it hasn’t happened in 20 years, so it was bound to happen eventually" kind of victories. Everton earned the much-deserved breakthrough in the 86th minute, were the better side on the day, and are the better side in the standings.
Arsenal will be a much tougher test for first year manager Roberto Martinez’s overachieving side. This will be an intriguing one and one of the toughest domestic tests of the season for the current league leaders. Other than the season curtain-jerker at Emirates, when Arsenal lost 3-1 to Aston Villa (and we all laughed maniacally, thinking that was a sign of things to come), the Gunners have been untouchable at the Emirates, grabbing all 18 points from six matches and only conceding six goals.
They're four points clear of Chelsea, but this is the stretch of the season everyone has been pointing at for Arsenal ever since they started rattling off wins in September. After hosting Everton, they travel to Napoli Wednesday for the final match in their Champions League group of death, where qualification is still up in the air. Then they head to Manchester City, and host Chelsea in consecutive Premier League weekends.
Arsenal cannot get ahead of themselves. Everton will have never been riding a bigger high than this. The smart money will surely be on the home side, but I think a scoring draw is very possible.
That’s it for this week. Myself and the rest of the Minneapolis Chelsea crew will be at Brits Saturday for the Stoke City/Chelsea match at 9AM. Come say hello!
After signing over the summer break, winger Omar Daley flew under the radar for Minnesota United FC for awhile. He made four appearances as a substitute, never doing anything of note, and it began to look like the veteran midfielder would make very little dent in the consciousness of United fans.
The last two games of the season, though, Daley was thrown into the starting lineup, and he responded. He created Minnesota's first goal in a 3-1 win over Fort Lauderdale with a gorgeous cross-field pass that Lucas Rodriguez turned back into the center of the field for a Pablo Campos goal - perhaps the best pass from a winger all season. The following week, in the season's final game in Tampa, Daley showed he could score, too, netting a hat-trick in a 6-4 win.
Thursday, United announced that the veteran - who will be 33 in April - will be back for another year. The move adds a second winger to the roster, after Miguel Ibarra, and helps explain why the team let veteran Lucas Rodriguez become a free agent.
Daley certainly has plenty of experience; he has played 72 times for the Jamaican national team, including twice in a pair of friendlies against Trinidad and Tobago in November, and made more than 150 appearances in the Scottish and English leagues over the course of four seaons.
Minnesota effectively has two remaining players from the 2013 squad in limbo; keeper Mitch Hildebrandt and center back Connor Tobin are both free agents, but both are in talks with United regarding potentially re-signing for the club. The team has already re-signed two of its own free agents, in Daley and Michael Reed.
Last summer, MLS commissioner Don Garber caused a stir by announcing that the league plans to add four new expansion teams by 2020. One of them, in Orlando, has already been announced for the 2015 season, but three are still up in the air - and on Tuesday, Minnesota soccer fans got the clearest indication yet that Minneapolis is on the league's short list.
During Garber's state of the league address ahead of this weekend's MLS final, a slide was displayed with five cities marked as potential expansion destinations: Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Antonio, and Minneapolis. (NOTE: The commissioner said he hadn't seen the slide before the presentation, so make of that what you will.)
You can watch the whole event here, but the commissioner confirmed that the two markets that are farthest along are Miami, which has an expansion bid led by David Beckham but needs to find a stadium to play in, and Atlanta, which is fairly close to finalizing a deal that would land an MLS team in the Falcons' new stadium, which is projected to open in 2017.
The Atlanta/Miami/Orlando triumvirate would fill the Southeastern hole on the current MLS map, but Garber specifically mentioned the Midwest as another hole. According to the league's official website, he said, ""There are a number of other markets that we don’t have teams in that are large swaths of the country... The Midwest is one of them, which is why we’ve thrown Minneapolis out [as a potential destination]. There are a number of cities in Texas which are intriguing to us. San Antonio is one, Austin is another... St. Louis could be another great market."
The map ignores a number of other potential destinations for MLS, notably Sacramento and Detroit. That said, virtually every city of any size in America has at least a small group pushing for an MLS franchise in their town; if every place that wanted an MLS franchise got one, it would be a 75-team league.
A team in the Midwest, whether in Minneapolis, St. Louis, or elsewhere, would help serve as a potential rival with Chicago and Kansas City; the league has leveraged built-in geographical rivalries, especially between Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, to help drive its growth over the past few years.
The new Vikings stadium might be the most likely destination for a potential expansion team, but the cavernous dimensions of the new field could be a concern. Vancouver, which plays in 54,000-seat BC Place, reduces the size of the stadium for Whitecaps games by stringing white sheets over the field, as a makeshift roof for the stands, thus making their stadium a little more intimate. Renderings of an MLS setup for the new Falcons stadium show a similar system in place.
The Wilfs, the owners of the Vikings, floated the possibility of MLS in Minnesota several times during the stadium negotiations, but have never revealed any serious plans of bringing a franchise to town. It is possible, of course, that those rumors were mostly a canard to help push the stadium through the Legislature, as a partial answer to concerns that the new stadium will be a billion dollars that are being spent on ten Sundays per year.
Minnesota United FC owner Dr. Bill McGuire has insisted that his focus is on operating his team in the NASL, rather than positioning it for a potential MLS expansion bid.
As always with talk of an MLS franchise in Minnesota, many, many questions remain. But it's clear that, in the league's collective mind, Minneapolis remains an intriguing possibility.
Minnesota United continued to fill out its 2014 roster on Tuesday, as it announced that ten more players from the 2013 squad have had their options picked up for next season. The ten include goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel; defenders Justin Davis, Brian Kallman, Cristiano Dias, and Brent Kallman; midfielders Floyd Franks, Simone Bracalello, Kentaro Takada, and Michael Reed; and forward Nate Polak.
Forward Pablo Campos, center back Aaron Pitchkolan, winger Miguel Ibarra, and fullback Kevin Venegas were announced as the first pieces of next season's team at the team's mid-November press conference, so today's announcement brings the 2014 squad to 14 players.
The team also continues to work towards potential contracts for several free agents, including center back Connor Tobin, winger Omar Daley, and goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt.
For the second straight year, United's back line will see the most continuity of any group. Davis, Brian Kallman, Dias, Venegas, and Pitchkolan all saw significant time in the back four, and Van Oekel was the team's starting keeper for most of the year. If Tobin re-signs as well, the team's defense will be more or less intact from the end of 2013.
Up front, the team remains quite thin. Campos's return means the team has one proven scorer, but Polak played just seven minutes last year, after a blood clot in his shoulder ruined the first half of his season.
The announcements leave eight players from 2013 as free agents, most notably striker Max Griffin and winger Lucas Rodriguez. Rodriguez has been in Minnesota for four years, and in some ways was United's most consistent option on the wing in 2013, if not their most dynamic; it was a surprise to see him not on the contract list. Griffin showed a ton of promise, but could only score once in fourteen appearances; given Minnesota's lack of forwards, though, I thought he might return as well.
Also on the free-agent list is keeper Daryl Sattler, who began the season as first choice between the pipes, but spent the entire second half of the season on the disabled list with a torn labrum, and Mike Ambersley, who came to Minnesota during the summer break in the Etienne Barbara trade and played in 13 games at forward without scoring.
The final four free agents are midfielders Edi Buro, Sean de Silva, and Luis Heitor-Piffer, and striker Travis Wall.