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.
Minnesota United took to the turf at the Augsburg Dome on Friday, playing Chicago's Bridges FC (about which more here) in a pair of 70-minute practice matches. The team's second string won its match 3-0, but the first team - which drew 0-0 and only created a few chances - showed that United still isn't quite ready for the season to begin.
This was the first chance for United's vaunted free-agent forward attack to play together in the preseason, but both Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara looked far too static. Campos did get the ball in the net in the first half, though he was offside, and Barbara forced a save from the keeper in the first half, but otherwise neither really threatened the defense at all. Barbara in particular looked as if his fitness is way off the mark - he appeared to be nowhere near ready to play 90 minutes at NASL speeds.
Head coach Manny Lagos used the term "sluggish" to describe the first team's play, especially in the opening 35 minutes. "It maybe wasn't as sharp as I would have expected at this point of the preseason, in terms of finishing and taking advantage," said Lagos. "I thought as a group, it was just okay. I don't think there was anyone who’d walk off the field in the first scrimmage and say, 'I had a really really good day.' I wouldn’t say anyone stood out, but I don’t think there were a lot of negatives either."
Connor Tobin and Ernest Tchoupe started in central defense, and made their share of errors. At the moment, central defense might be the team's weakest area, as the back line struggles to rebuild without mainstay Kyle Altman - which is to be expected, given that the guys at that position simply haven't had that much time together. That said, goalkeeper Daryl Sattler, making his first appearance for United, might have been the team's best player in the scrimmage, standing tall to stop a couple of shots from Bridges FC.
As for the team's fitness, Lagos said he was happy overall, but did say that there were a couple of individuals who had work to do. "This sport's a crazy sport," he said. "You just have one guy who isn't quite as fit he needs to be, and you can't quite move as much as you want."
The second unit provoked far more enthusiasm from the head coach. Luis Heitor-Piffer, Anthony "Sausage" Salciccia, and Travis Wall scored for the second unit in a 3-0 win. "I thought the entire group really came on and played some fun soccer," said Lagos. "You could see they were working hard for each other. It was fun to see."
Kevin Venegas at right back was particularly impressive, and I also was impressed with triallist Brent Kallman, who played 70 minutes at center back. Michael Reed in midfield, and Wall, up front, played quite well, too.
Ultimately, a day like this might be necessary as part of the preseason. It'll serve as a signpost for United - showing them just how far they have left to go.
March in Minnesota does not lend itself to soccer matches. Minnesota United's only home match of the preseaon is Friday, when they play a 10am match over at Augsburg against Bridges FC - a team from Chicago that may well be unique in American soccer.
You won't find Bridges FC in any league directory, and if you're like me, you'd never heard of the club before, but some of the best players in America have played for the team. Midfielder Michael Bradley, perhaps the key cog for the US Men's National Team, is an alumnus. Jay Demerit and Jonathan Spector, both national team defenders, have played for the club, as well. Former Stars midfielders Neil Hlavaty and Gei Moura got a leg up from Bridges FC, as did current United midfielder Kentaro Takada.
"We're called 'Bridges FC,' but another way you could term it is 'Bridge to the Pros,'" says club assistant coach / general manager Jeff Roy. The team's mission is to take players that haven't made it - whether pro, amateur, or college - and try to prepare them for careers in pro soccer. This involves training the players as hard as possible - once or twice a day, five or six days a week - and taking a select group of trainees and playing them against the best competition that can be found, both in the United States and Europe.
200 players may come through the Chicago area to train with the team during the winter, including up to 70 at a time, but by the spring that group will be winnowed down to 22 players. That group plays exibitions against American teams at United's level and below, before embarking on a summer European tour, one that includes games against clubs in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Germany. The tour is both a development tour and a showcase tour - giving players a chance to get better by playing against good competition, but also giving them a chance to be seen by scouts or clubs in Europe, and possibly hook on to a club over there.
The soccer is one thing, but according to Roy, it's the mental side of the game that Bridges is really focusing on. "Our coach, Bret Hall, played professionally for 15 years, so he has a keen understanding of what it takes to be a professional as a career instead of just being on a team for a year or two - and a lot of that has to do with mental toughness," says Roy. "I'd say that's a big piece of it, and why so many of our players have had success. Being able to have that winning mentality is what makes two players separate, two players that have equal talent."
That holistic approach extends off the field as well. "We're trying to teach people what it means to be part of a team, what it means to solve problems instead of creating them," says Roy. Bridges takes in players who are coming from all points of life - some from around the world, some from the Chicago area, many with very different backgrounds, and the club tries to give them life lessons, as well. And while Roy is sure to mention that Bridges is in no way a missionary team, and the spiritual side is not mandatory or a requirement, the team also offers bible studies and church on the weekends. "All of us on staff are Christians," says Roy, "so we take that in to what we do. The bible studies and church are completely optional stuff, but it's a a chance to discuss things of a deeper nature with other guys, of what they're going through."
As for Friday's game, it's preseason for Bridges, too, as they're trying to find their squad for their marquee summer European tour. "It's a good chance to take a look at a few guys this week," says Hall - very much the same thing we hear from Manny Lagos, this time of year.
Preseason friendlies are always a little tough to follow, but we'll keep an eye on anyone from the Bridges squad who looks promising. There's a chance we'll be hearing a lot more about them in the coming years.