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.
During the preseason, I talked to a number of Minnesota United players who had been in training camp with Major League Soccer teams, or had previously played for MLS teams, or just had the goal of getting to that level. And I was struck that all of them had a consistent message: we love playing MLS teams in the US Open Cup, because it means we have a chance to show them what they're missing.
Those games against MLS teams are, for some of the players, bigger than almost any other game of the year. The team had one lined up next Tuesday night, a trip to Kansas City - and all they had to do was beat Des Moines, a team made up of college players.
United's 1-0 loss is, once again, proof that they can take nothing for granted.
Head coach Manny Lagos was as downcast as I've ever seen him, after the game. "It’s a time for me to apologize to the fans, to the owners, and to the people of Minnesota that support us," he said. "This is a low I think the team hasn’t felt in years... The reality is that we can’t get much lower than what happened today. If we can’t wake up tomorrow and assess some stuff about what needs to be done, that’s an issue."
Team president Nick Rogers also apologized to fans via Twitter, writing "To #MNUFC fans: I apologize & am embarrassed for what you saw tonight. To @MenaceSoccer: thanks for showing us how much work we have ahead."
I asked Lagos what had gone wrong, and he didn't have a lot of answers. "The honest truth is it’s a little bit of everything," he said. "I think right now it's a lack of belief in themselves, and it starts with putting yourself out there, giving yourself the energy and belief to do well. It’s disheartening for sure."
"I certainly think we’re not doing the stuff we need to do to win games, and certainly it doesn’t help when we continue to complicate things."
Give some credit to Des Moines - they played exactly the type of game they needed to play. The Menace defended deep the entire game, with eight or nine players getting behind the ball at almost all times. Their hope was to get a counter-attack, or a set piece, that would allow them to squeak out the winning goal - and the plan worked to perfection.
Brandon Fricke, who scored the winner for Des Moines, knew that a set piece was the best chance for the away team. " I think we put them under a lot of pressure this game from set pieces," he said. "It was just a typical set play for us.... I made a run hard to the near post. It was great service, I've got to give it all up for the service. Luckily I got my head on it."
"When the ball was in the air, [I was thinking] just get good contact and put it on frame, really. Hit the net, and I started celebrating."
Fricke was understandably over the moon, as was the remainder of the Menace locker room, which could best be described as "jubilant." Said Fricke, "That’s definitely the biggest goal of my career so far. It’s awesome. I’m looking forward to moving on to Kansas City."
At least Minnesota wasn't alone. San Antonio lost to FC Tucson, also a PDL team, on penalties, and Fort Lauderdale needed a shootout to get by the Laredo Heat. But Fort Lauderdale gets a home game against FC Dallas now. Atlanta won, and gets a trip to Real Salt Lake. Tampa Bay gets to host Seattle. And Carolina gets the biggest prize of all, a home game against the LA Galaxy, the MLS champions.
As for Minnesota, that's three straight losses for United now - one to the league's last-place team, one at home in a game they controlled, and one to a fourth-division amateur side.
It's safe to say that, right now, it seems like things can't get a lot worse for Minnesota.
Woodbury native Brent Kallman, the younger brother of Minnesota United FC defender Brian Kallman, has officially signed with the team - and he could potentially see action as soon as tonight.
Kallman - Brent Kallman, I mean - finished his career at Creighton University last season. He trained with United during the pre-season, but couldn't officially join the team until he was done with the school year. The scouting report is that he's a larger version of his older brother; Brent, listed at 6'2" and 190 pounds, is noticeably taller than Brian, who is listed at an even six feet.
The younger Kallman could play tonight, as Minnesota is woefully shorthanded in defense. First-choice center backs Kyle Altman (concussion) and Connor Tobin (ankle) are both unavailable. Cristiano Dias and Kevin Friedland filled in there last Saturday, but with two more games this week, Friedland - who hadn't played this season before Saturday, and who is 31 - is unlikely to play all of both games. Midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan filled in at center back for San Antonio last season, but he twisted his ankle Saturday and is also unavailable.
United had planned on bringing Brent in all along, but the situation made it especially important to get him in as soon as possible. Said head coach Manny Lagos, "I believe in finding local talent to develop, and I think Brent has the potential to be a really good pro."
Brian Kallman and fellow fullbacks Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas have all been healthy, so it's plausible that the team could try to slide one in as a center back. The easier solution, however, might be to insert Brent Kallman and see how he does.
No word on what the Kallmans will wear on their jerseys, should they have to play together, though given that the abbreviations would have to be "Bre." and "Bri." it might be just as effective to put their entire names on their jerseys. (And for ease of reference, I might just start referring to them by their jersey numbers.)
Cobbling a team together from the walking wounded
The injury list for United isn't shrinking. As mentioned, Tobin, Altman, and Pitchkolan are all unavailable. So too is Kentaro Takada, who hasn't returned to training with the team yet. Max Griffin is being brought along slowly.
Also a worry is outside midfielder Simone Bracalello, who was dealing with a hamstring problem in the second half last Saturday. He's not on the injury report, but the team will be careful with the guy who's been their best offensive player so far this year. With all the injuries, they can't afford to lose him.
Lagos did mention that Bryan Arguez and Michael Reed will likely play in central midfield tonight, and Pablo Campos is likely to begin the game up front. Apart from that, look for United to try to mix in a few players that haven't seen much playing time - both to get them some experience, and out of sheer necessity.
"We would like to have a deeper roster," said Lagos. "We just don't."
Ticket sales begin at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, just off the U of M St. Paul campus, at 6pm - $10 for adults, $5 for youth. The stands aren't large - gophersports.com lists the venue's capacity as 1,000 - so showing up early may be advisable.
Regarding parking: the University of Minnesota lot that's immediately adjacent to the stadium, just off Fairview Avenue, will be used for operations purposes (EMTs, staff, etc.) However, the Gibbs Farm Museum lot directly south of that University-owned lot will be first-come, first-served free parking for fans.
For overflow parking, the club will be running a shuttle from two lots on the U of M campus: the lot next to the U of M golf course driving range, just off Larpenteur Avenue a short distance west of Cleveland Avenue, and University lot SC101, just south of the "Lawn" area on the St. Paul campus, at the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue. The driving range lot will have a small fee; the Cleveland/Commonwealth lot will be free. Shuttles will run every five minutes.
Every Minnesota United FC player looks forward to games against MLS teams. They all want to prove they belong at a higher level, and playing against those teams offers the best opportunity they'll get.
The Des Moines Menace, United's opponent tomorrow night in the first round of the US Open Cup, is two levels below Minnesota. It's a team made up of amateur college players, all of whom are dreaming of a future in the pros, and so their hunger to beat United is roughly equivalent to the Minnesota players' desire to beat an MLS team.
Any Open Cup game is a big game, but for the Menace, it's even bigger. In order to find out more about the team, I emailed Chris Cuellar, a Des Moines Register sports journalist. He was nice enough to answer a few questions.
1. A lot of NASL players really get up for games against MLS teams, in the Open Cup or otherwise, because it's a chance to show they belong at the top level. Is the same true for the Menace, playing against a pro team?
Absolutely. The franchise takes plenty of pride in its four straight Open Cup appearances, and the professional club matchup is even more significant as this season's Menace has a record number of NCAA Division I players. Opportunities to show they deserve a job after college don't get much better.
2. Who are the players to watch for Des Moines - the guys that can really turn the tide in a cup game like this?
The offense has yet to really take off, but Jamaican strikers Jimmy Tulloch and Nico Wright are strong, traditional targets that are capable of breaking through at any time. Left back Albert Edward takes plenty of risks coming forward because he's got speed that has blistered Des Moines' amateur opponents.
3. How big are the Menace in Des Moines - well-known, or a minor attraction?
A well-known brand in a small soccer community. The same contingent of fans support the team regardless of form, but a lack of history and top-level success in Des Moines keep the Menace a niche attraction.
4. How does the Menace recruit their squad each year? Do they tend to come back year after year in college, or does the roster begin from scratch?
A new general manager and coach meant greater turnover this year and just eight returning players. Recruiting reaches all levels of college soccer and some players that have MLS combine or practice squad experience and can maintain amateur status. It's quite an undertaking each season, with divisional opponents located in Canada adding to all the paperwork.
5. Like United, Des Moines has a large number of games in a short amount of time. How does the team prioritize - does the league or the cup come first?
Unprecedented depth has allowed coach Mike Jeffries to rotate the squad some, with the cup taking priority at this point in the season. United presents a huge opportunity and an upset would potentially mean one of the biggest games in franchise history. Management will deal with a bland 1-0 win on Saturday if the team is upset-ready on Tuesday.
My thanks to Chris for answering my questions.
Dropping two points after Carolina scored a late goal was annoying for Minnesota United. Losing last week to Fort Lauderdale, the last-place team in the league, was a reality check for the team. But after United lost 3-2 against Tampa Bay, the team's frustration was evident.
For most of the game, Minnesota was in control. After the Rowdies took a 1-0 lead just seconds before halftime, their coach, Ricky Hill, told the TV broadcast, "That's the first bit of quality play we've had in the first 45 minutes." United keeper Daryl Sattler came off his line to clear a cross, but his punch went straight out to Tampa midfielder Shane Hill, who swung the ball back in towards the goal. Two sliding Minnesota defenders couldn't get a foot on it, and it was 1-0 Rowdies.
"I came out to punch it, I felt like I got distance on it, but as the goalkeeper you want to get that ball wide," said Sattler. "He tucked it in nice. The guys come back just like they’re supposed to when I come out for a cross, and they just couldn’t keep it out. I’d like to get that one back so I could punch it wide. I came, I won it, it just didn’t land where we wanted it, and he capitalized. That’s one personally I’d like back."
United's first goal, meanwhile, was a thing of beauty. Simone Bracalello - who has been so, so good this year - found some space on the left-hand side. He ran into two backtracking defenders, so he spun to hold the ball up for a second, then chipped the ball past both defenders, right into the path of Michael Reed.
It was Reed's first goal as a pro. He said, "Simone made that unselfish pass and led me through, and I looked over my shoulder and I saw one of their center backs starting to close, and their keeper was at the near post, so I just went for a sliding shot, and it went in."
Following the goal, though, it was like the Minnesota defense switched off. The ball fell right outside the penalty area, and defender Justin Davis didn't close on the ball - and before the ball got to him, Luke Mulholland nipped in for Tampa Bay.
Said Rowdies coach Ricky Hill, "When the ball broke to him and he intercepted it I think in behind the left back, and when it bounced up, I thought, yeah, he’s going to try to volley that, because he does it in training every day. I’m not surprised. In the game, when you have to execute, Luke is magnificent. He’s our top scorer, I don’t know how many he’s got, three or four, but his workrate, his effort, his exuberance that he brings every day to the club is vital for us."
Once again, though, Bracalello brought Minnesota back, this time ten minutes later. Pablo Campos won a header, and the ball fell in amidst two Rowdies defenders. Bracalello stuck a foot in, the ball popped out behind both, and suddenly the Italian was away on goal by himself, scoring to equalize for Minnesota for a second time.
He's been Minnesota's best offensive player this year - in part, because he's playing as a winger, something that dates back to last year's playoffs, a change he reminded me of after the game. "Before I was a forward, more like Pablo," he said. "Now I am starting from the back and I can see the play. I don’t have my back to the goal. That’s completely different for me."
"That position is mine," he said, referring to the wing. "I was feeling good [playing up front], but it’s not my position."
For that final half-hour, I was expecting a MInnesota goal any minute. They went close several times - even center back Cristiano Dias had three shots at goal - but then, just as the clock got close to the 90-minute mark, Keith Savage had the ball in the back of the net for Tampa Bay.
I asked defender Kevin Friedland to walk me through the goal. "They played the ball wide - I actually thought the guy was offside," he said. "I was tracking with, I think it was [Rowdies forward Carl] Cort, into the box. There was service for the man that was behind me, I just tried to get a foot on it - and I got a foot on it and set it right up and Savage came in and smashed it."
It was a wild game, but in the end, most of the Minnesota players just looked like they wanted to punch things. Said Hill, who was of course delighted, said, "I'm happy to get all three points, but Minnesota can feel aggrieved to not get anything from the game."
Aaron Pitchkolan left the game in the first half after a challenge in the penalty area. Postgame, he was walking as gingerly as possible. Though he said he'd just twisted his ankle, he looks like he'll have a tough time coming back any time soon.
I also saw defender Kyle Altman - he was wearing a pretty awesome neon pair of sunglasses, presumably to protect his eyes from the Metrodome light following his concussion. Local soccer expert Brian Quarstad reminded me after the game that Altman had another concussion early this spring, while he was trying out with DC United.
Altman is going to med school this summer. He needs his brain uninjured. Here's hoping he gets well.
Friedland back in the swing of things
With Altman out, Friedland - an assistant coach in whatever spare time he can manage - came back into the starting lineup - and after 90 minutes, he looked completely exhausted. "I'm tired," he said. "It's been awhile."
I asked if it was tough making the transition from coaching to playing, but he brushed that aside. "I’m a player when I need to be. I’m a player every day. I might not play as much as I used to, but I think when I’m called upon I have to perform just like everybody else does. We’re in a situation now where I’m needed, and I played. Can’t say I was great, but I thought I was solid, and unfortunately we didn’t win."
A busy schedule
There's no rest for Minnesota, who plays the Des Moines Menace on Tuesday, then travels to Tampa Bay on Saturday for an immediate rematch. I asked United coach Manny Lagos if it'd be good to get right back on the field, but he said, "We’re having some injury issues and we’re light in a lot of areas on the field. I think from a team standpoint I think the guys want to get back on the field so that we’re better than what we’ve shown, certainly. From a mental and physical standpoint, we’ll see."
Sattler is more excited. "We’ve got work to do and we’re excited to play Tuesday and then get back to Tampa again, it’s going to be revenge," he said. "Tampa and Minnesota, it’s a rivalry. We may be wearing a new badge, but it’s the same game. That’s the beauty of this game. There’s ups and downs - we’re in a slump and we need to get out of it."
Another quick injury update for Minnesota United FC - and this one is pretty bad news. I just talked to head coach Manny Lagos, who told me that defender and captain Kyle Altman suffered a concussion in training on Tuesday, and will not play today.
Lagos said that, since Tuesday, Altman's symptoms have gotten "worse, not better," which has to throw his status into doubt for the forseeable future. Minnesota sports fans have seen a number of local players, like Twins first baseman Justin Morneau and Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, be affected by concussions for years, not days or weeks.
With the potential for four games in the next week and a half, the injury couldn't come at a worse time for Minnesota. Altman's first-team partner, Connor Tobin, remains out with an ankle injury, leaving United without either of its first-choice center backs.
Today, veteran defender Kevin Friedland will come into the side alongside Cristiano Dias, who has filled in for Tobin over the past two weeks. Dias joined Minnesota in 2011, so it's not the first time the two have ever played together - but it certainly hasn't been a regular occurence. And with so many games upcoming, now is not the time for United to have a shaky partnership at the back.
There's no word on who will captain the team, with Altman out. In the preseason, both Friedland and defender Brian Kallman assumed that role, and it's a fairly safe bet that one of them will do so today.