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 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.
It's nothing like the team's injury problems in the first half of the season, but for the first time this fall, United will be affected by an injury. Striker Pablo Campos - who has scored five times in the fall season, the same number as the rest of Minnesota's players put together - will miss tonight's game in Atlanta with an unspecified lower-body injury.
Midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic has an ankle injury, and also did not make the trip to Atlanta. Central midfielder Floyd Franks returns to the squad, however, after missing out on last week's game against New York with a hamstring problem.
Goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel was limping around at Thursday's practice, and had an ice bag on his ankle / foot - but is in the travel squad. He shrugged off a question about the ankle, so he may well be good to go for the match tonight.
Four strikers - Mike Ambersley, Max Griffin, Nate Polak, and Travis Wall - are in the eighteen-man squad for tonight's game. If Polak plays, it will be his first appearance for the team since 2012, and his first since being diagnosed with a blood clot in his shoulder early in April.
United on TV
Minnesota announced this week that their final two home games will be televised. Fox Sports North will show the team's 2:30 match against Carolina on October 19, and the 6pm game against Fort Lauderdale the following week will be shown on KSTC.
It's been awhile, but these won't be the first Thunder / Stars / United games on live cable TV. According to United play-by-play announcer Chris Lidholm, the old Thunder had a few games that were broadcast on Midwest Sports Channel around 2000 or 2001, with Wally Shaver doing play-by-play and Lidholm as the sideline reporter.
The various teams have also had many games on North Metro TV (Blaine public access, basically), and online broadcasts have become more and more common as the years have worn on, but still - this will be the widest television availability that Minnesota pro soccer has had for a long, long time.
Thin between the pipes
With Daryl Sattler out for the year with a torn labrum in his hip, and practice keeper Peter McKeown out with a broken ankle, United is a little short for goalkeepers in training right now. Thursday, with Van Oekel limping around, Mitch Hildebrandt was left as as the last man standing.
It almost became a problem in the final drill, when the team worked on finishing chances. Hildebrandt stopped a rocketed close-range shot with his nose, but had to continue - to the cheers and encouragement of the rest of the squad - as the team's only available keeper.
It brought up an interesting question - who would be Minnesota's emergency keeper? It could come up if, somehow, both of the two goalies that are usually in the game-day squad are injured - or if the starter is injured following the team using all three subs.
Apparently, defender Brian Kallman is first in line - followed by anybody else who grew up playing basketball, football, baseball, and all of the rest of our hand-skill sports. "It'd be one of the Americans for sure," said Kevin Friedland.
Following training, with a number of players sticking around to work on long-range shooting, Friedland grabbed an exhausted Hildebrandt's gloves, and stepped in himself. It's a job that the defender / assistant coach / jersey maker / front-office executive hasn't filled before for United - maybe the only one left that he hasn't done.
It's United's final trip to Atlanta this year; the game begins at 6:30pm Central. You can see it, as always, at NASL.com/live.
The Silverbacks, with 13 points, are in sixth place - but already have their spot in the Soccer Bowl wrapped up, as spring champions. The championship will be played November 9 in Atlanta... Striker Ruben Luna, who left the team over the summer to pursue a few opportunities in France, is back with the Silverbacks. Luna has played for the team five times since the beginning of September, scoring once - and missing two penalties.... David La Vaque's gameday preview from today's paper is here.
Be sure to read David La Vaque's profile of United midfielder Edi Buro in today's paper; it's a great story about a remarkable player. His preview box, which focuses on Etienne Barbara's return to Minnesota after ripping United coach Manny Lagos, is also online.
In their own words
United saw five new arrivals over the summer break, and while Calum Mallace and Sinisa Ubiparipovic have played most of the first two games of the fall season, we've yet to see much from the other three. Midfielder Floyd Franks has made a couple of appearances as a late sub, and forward Mike Ambersley played the final ten minutes in Fort Lauderdale last week. Meanwhile, winger Omar Daley has yet to appear in an NASL game.
Franks and Ambersley are NASL veterans, so longtime fans of the league will know about them. But for those fans who don't know much about them, an introduction - in the players' own words.
Ambersley: "I see myself fitting in very nicely. They have Pablo [Campos] who’s a proven goalscorer, a big guy, a target forward, and in the past I’ve always played well with a big target forward who can hold the ball up and I can make runs in behind. It’s kind of a dual threat for defenses, they have to think about going up against Pablo and also thinking about a guy making a run in behind. Once I get a little more fit, I think I’ll be out there and creating havoc."
Daley: "Hopefully I can bring a bit more pace to the team, a bit more creativity - and hopefully I will get a few goals."
Franks: "[I'll be playing] in the center [midfield] for sure. That’s my position. I see myself fitting there, and whether or not I’m in it every week, I’ll be here working hard and trying to earn that spot."
There, indeed, you have it: a second forward, a speedy winger, and a midfield stalwart.
For a team that was decimated by injuries in the spring, United is remarkably healthy. Both Brent Kallman and Kevin Friedland are listed as probable on the injury report this week; though neither is likely to start, there's no doubt that their presence in training has been a bonus for the team.
It's also worth mentioning that Ambersley, who missed much of the first half with a knee injury, says that he's back at 100%, as well. "I got over that probably two months ago," he said. "[Tampa Bay coach] Ricky [Hill] was easing me in towards the final stretch. I think I came off the bench in three games, got my fitness, and then started the last two and did fine. And then once I got fully fit, we had a month break; it’s not ideal. I was fit in the second preseason at Tampa, and then I find out I get traded, and it takes me a week to get my family down here. So while I’m running, I’m not playing for a full week, so that sets you back maybe two weeks. I’ve been practicing for a full week now, and I think I’m getting close to 90 minutes fit."
Presented without further comment or emendation: Michael Reed's new haircut.
Hours after the team announced the trade that sent striker Etienne Barbara to Tampa Bay in exchange for attacker Mike Ambersley, United head coach Manny Lagos was already trying to start looking forward to the fall season that begins tomorrow.
"As a club, you have to try to get better and find the right mix of players, and that’s what makes you successful," he said. "We as a club felt like making the change would help us in both the short and the long term."
It was clear that Barbara just couldn't settle in Minnesota, for whatever reason. His outspoken nature may simply have clashed with the all-for-one locker-room culture that United had forged over the past two seasons as a league-owned, us-against-the-world type of team.
Said Lagos, "We’re honest that it didn’t quite work out. Unfortunately, a better environment on both sides might be what is needed."
Ambersley, the player Minnesota received in return, is no slouch himself. The 30-year-old, who has played both up front and in the midfield, has scored 17 goals for Tampa Bay over the past two-and-a-half seasons. He battled injuries this spring, playing the equivalent of three matches' worth of minutes, but he scored two goals in that span.
"He’s just a smart forward, who makes good runs, who is clever off the ball, and has good touch and has a knack to finish," said Lagos. "We as a club think we’re doing it for the right reasons, to get better and be more competitive. Mike’s a quality player, he’s a proven forward in this league."
According to the coach, it was a trade that was two weeks in the making, and one that finally came together midweek. "It had to be a unique situation for us to move Etienne," he said. "He [Ambersley] was probably one of the few guys in the league who made sense."
The front office isstill working out the complications of getting Ambersley to Minnesota, and so he won't be available for Saturday's game against Atlanta. He'd be more likely to make the trip to Fort Lauderdale the following week - or even debut the next week, when Minnesota is at home against the Rowdies.
Sattler also down for the count
United brought in five players over the winter - two of which have now been traded, and one of which, goalkeeper Daryl Sattler, will miss the entire fall season. Sattler had surgery Thursday to repair a torn labrum in his hip, a surgery that will remove him from contention for the fall season.
The 32-year-old started the first six games of the season for United, before making way for Matt Van Oekel as the #1 keeper. Lagos wasn't able to confirm whether Sattler is under contract for next year, but the coach, wearing his GM hat for the moment, thought that the team held an option on his contract for at least next year. For the time being, Van Oekel will man the goal, with Mitch Hildebrant as the #1 backup.
The only other injury of note was center back Brent Kallman, who suffered an ankle injury in an exhibition match and appears set to miss out on Saturday with Atlanta.
With a few hours to reflect on the trade that sent midfielder Bryan Arguez to Carolina in exchange for RailHawks midfielder Floyd Franks, United head coach Manny Lagos said that while Arguez wasn't outwardly unhappy after signing for Minnesota in the offseason, he never really seemed to be on the same page.
"You can’t always put your finger on certain things," he said. "I just felt like sometimes players come and can’t quite buy into what you’re trying to do, and they’re a little bit distant. It was one of those situations where unfortunately he couldn’t quite embrace it here. I don’t think he fully committed to the club."
Franks will replace Arguez in the Minnesota setup, after captaining Carolina during the spring season. Lagos is looking forward to not only his skills, but his leadership. "He’s a two-way midfielder who works really hard," said the coach. "He’s a box to box player. In modern-day soccer, there’s a need for real quality box-to-box players; they need to be good on both sides of the ball. We envision him just adding to the stability in the center of the field."
More signings on the way?
According to Lagos, the club has opened negotiations to try to sign two triallists for the fall. Minnesota is trying to sign both defender Logan Emory and winger Omar Daley, in part to try to help pad a squad that struggled with injuries in the spring season.
"We are trying to get a little bit deeper squad, just because we felt like we got caught with a lot of injuries the first part of the year," said Lagos. "We’re trying to acknowledge that it was an unlucky year in terms of being healthy, but we’re going to try to attack it by having a little more depth in the second half of the season."
I looked both Emory and Daley's situations as part of the coverage of the USA Cup exhibition with Edmonton, including some quotes from Emory, but a short recap: Emory made 22 appearances at the back for Toronto over the past two years, while Daley is a vastly experienced winger, with 50 international caps for Jamaica on his resume. Both would be excellent signings - and both could see plenty of the field for Minnesota in the fall.
Said Lagos, who didn't comment on either player directly, "I always think young players should be hungry to play pro soccer. It doesn’t matter where you are; the guys that are going to make it long-term have that hunger and that drive no matter what, whether they’re playing in MLS or in our league. We fully expect that any player we sign to this club, they’re looking to try to become a better player, and help the club out, and in turn we’ll give them an opportunity."
Two more exhibitions, two more results
United had a pair of exhibitions in the last week, following up with their well-attended game with Edmonton. The Eddies trained in Minnesota all week, so the two teams met again the following Saturday for a closed-door scrimmage, which ended 0-0 and featured a number of triallists on both sides.
Tuesday, Minnesota traveled to Thunder Bay to take on the Chill, a Premier Development League side. The game was tied at halftime, but second-half goals from Michael Reed, Travis Wall, Nate Polak, and Sean De Silva gave United a 4-0 win. The Chronicle Journal of Thunder Bay had a full recap of the game, which was played mostly by squad players from Minnesota, not triallists.
Nate Polak returns
Striker Nate Polak missed the entire first half of the season with thoracic outlet syndrome - blood clots in the shoulder, basically. (I interviewed him about the injury here.) He's back on the field, though - as you can tell from his goal in Thunder Bay - and he couldn't be happier. "I'm very grateful to be healthy and playing again," he said via text. "I don't know what I'd do without soccer."
Polak says he's completely healthy and 100% for the fall, good news for a United side that's struggled to find a forward to play alongside Pablo Campos.
"Hopefully we'll be pretty darn healthy"
Things may finally be looking up on the injury front for United. Central midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan trained in full for the first time on Thursday, leading Lagos to hope that he would be available for the beginning of the fall season. Most of the rest of the team is healthy as well, including Calum Mallace, who did not travel to Thunder Bay for the game, but who practiced in full Thursday.
The one player who may be injury-affected is Brent Kallman, who appears to be set to miss another week with a knock picked up in training. No doubt the youngster - who has a chance to play big minutes at center back, with Kyle Altman's retirement - will be hoping it is a relatively minor problem.
I joined United play-by-play guy Chris Lidholm and famed podcasters Bruce McGuire and Wes Burdine for a special Minnesota-centered edition of the du Nord Futbol Show. We gave out grades for the team in the spring, and talked about how United could improve for the fall, and at least one player already indicated on Twitter that he wasn't happy with us.
I hope you'll check it out - not for me, but for the rest of the crew, who were positively delightful. If you aren't a du Nord podcast listener, Bruce and Wes talk about Minnesota virtually every week, along with all sorts of other North American soccer news. I can't recommend it highly enough.