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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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.
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."
Connor Tobin scored with effectively the last kick of the match, bulling a deflected cross into the nett with his shoulder, to give Minnesota United a 3-2 win over the San Antonio Scorpions. Pablo Campos scored the other two goals of the match for United, which sent the Scorpions to their fifth loss in five fall-season games, and their first under interim coach Alen Marcina.
This was a game that Minnesota had to win - not only to get back into the NASL race, but to stave off more questions about how one of the more talented teams in the league had ended up in seventh place after four weeks of the fall. The win moved them up to third place, one win away from first-place Carolina.
Walter Ramirez opened the scoring for San Antonio in the 14th minute, a goal that came from - once again, for United - a set piece. Ramirez latched on to a partial clearance, and had time to set himself and hit a looping shot into the far corner of the net, one that goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel had no chance to save.
Campos, though, equalized before halftime, using his imposing presence to create a goal out of nothing. Scorpions defender Kevin Harmse appeared to have walled off Campos from a ball that was rolling towards San Antonio keeper Pat Hannigan, but Campos managed to hurry Harmse and get a touch on the ball that rebounded off Hannigan. With the defender and Hannigan thus colliding, all Campos had to do was poke the ball into the net to make things 1-1.
Five minutes into the second half, it was Campos again scoring a solo goal, running down a long pass and smashing a powerful shot underneath Hannigan to make it 2-1. And when Scorpions midfielder Jeff Jennings was sent off in the 58th minute for a terrible two-footed lunge on Cristiano Dias, it appeared United could cruise to victory.
Of course, this being Minnesota, it's never that easy. Twelve minutes from the end, San Antonio Tomasz Zahorski uncorked a goal of the season candidate, a 25-yard strike in the run of play that leveled things at 2-2.
United pressed for the final ten minutes, but it wasn't until the fifth minute of stoppage time that Minnesota got the ball to the net - and Tobin popped up to save Minnesota's season.
NOTE: The NASL will likely be taking a look at some postgame antics between Harmse and Campos. The two came together after the final whistle, presumably because of some in-game disagreements. Harmse took the opportunity to punch Campos in the crotch; the Minnesota striker retaliated by karate-chopping Harmse in the neck. As Harmse went down like he'd been stabbed, San Antonio's Esteban Bayona sprinted over to give Campos an enthusiastic two-handed slap to the face, at which point all pugilists were separated by an onrushing cavalry of peacemakers from both sides.
Between Jennings' terrible tackle and the post-game dustup, one would think that suspensions of some kind may be forthcoming from the league.
Minnesota United's squad for tonight's game in San Antonio includes 16 of the players who traveled to Carolina last weekend - plus three new faces, all of them midfielders. Sean de Silva, Lucas Rodriguez, and Kentaro Takada will make the trip to Texas, while Max Griffin (who will be in Los Angeles for his brother's wedding) and Michael Reed miss out.
Rodriguez and Takada played with the second team in Wednesday's scrimmage against Anoka-Ramsey Community College, while de Silva worked with both the first and second teams in either half. Though nobody with the team mentioned an injury, given that Reed started the past three games in central midfield, I'd speculate that he picked up some kind of an injury on either Wednesday or Thursday.
United has a 19-man travel list instead of the usual 18 for this one, possibly to provide cover for Miguel Ibarra, who did not practice Thursday after a minor injury Wednesday. The winger may be a game-time decision, with Rodriguez or de Silva ready to take a spot on the bench if Ibarra is unable to play.
Honors for Wall
Striker Travis Wall was named to the North Coast Athletic Conference (Division III) All-Decade team this week - along with siblings Tyler and Sarah. All three starred for the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops; Sarah graduated in '05, Tyler in '10, and Travis in '11.
Wall was one of the most-decorated players in Division III soccer history; he was three times All-Conference, twice All-American, and was the 2011 National Player of the Year and won a national championship. Since joining Minnesota in 2012, Wall has made nine appearances and one start for the club.
The return of Altman
United captain Kyle Altman, now retired and in medical school in San Antonio, will be at tonight's game in a different capacity: superfan. Altman tweeted this week that he'd be in attendance, saying, "Unofficially starting the SA Dark Clouds division this Saturday."
He later clarified that he was willing to make it official, rather than unofficial, if only anyone would pay him dues.
Tonight's game is a 7:30 pm start, at Toyota Field in San Antonio. You can watch online at MNUnitedFC.com. As always, the team will host an official watch party at Brit's Pub in downtown Minneapolis, while the Dark Clouds will be watching at the Nomad World Pub on the West Bank (or, in the case of Altman, from the Toyota Field stands).
Minnesota United FC still has a chance for the NASL spring championship - admittedly, a small one, but still a chance.
Carolina drew 1-1 with Atlanta last night, the RailHawks' first dropped points at home all of last year, leaving the door just slightly ajar for one of three other teams to slip through. San Antonio also won, 4-1 at home against Fort Lauderdale, so the standings right now have Carolina with 20 points, Atlanta with 18, and San Antonio with 17.
Minnesota can stay alive with a win today at Edmonton, which would give them 17 points going into the season's final week. If they win today, they would need to beat Atlanta at home next week, and San Antonio would need to beat Carolina at home - which would leave Minnesota, Carolina, and San Antonio all level at 20 points apiece.
The first tiebreaker is goal difference, and United has problems there. Carolina is +6, San Antonio is +2, and Minnesota is at 0 for the season. In other words, Minnesota needs not only two wins, but two fairly comfortable wins; they'll need to score at least five more goals than their opponents, possibly six, to win the title.
It's possible. Maybe not likely, but possible. First things first, though - they have to beat Edmonton today.
Avoiding the "end-of-game chaos"
This week, Minnesota United put out a video tribute to captain Kyle Altman, who is retiring at the end of the spring season and going to medical school. First, though, they have a bigger concern - getting him back on the field.
Altman sprained his foot/ankle during the first half of last week's loss at Carolina, and had to leave the game at halftime. "I tried to gut it out," he said, "but at some point I felt like I hindering my team, and was more of a liability than an asset."
According to the center back, he's been in a walking boot all week, and has been doing work in the pool and by himself to try to get back. He's in the travel squad for this week, but it's up in the air as to whether he'll play.
Head coach Manny Lagos mentioned Altman's absence as a factor that led to two late Carolina goals last week. "I think there was a little bit of disjointedness that happens when you have your center back and captain go out," said Lagos, who said this contributed to the "end-of-game chaos" in the 3-2 loss.
In two games this year, Minnesota allowed three goals to Carolina that came in the final ten minutes of the game, turning two potential wins into a draw and a loss. All three of those goals came from set pieces, and Lagos is as confused as anybody as to why that has happened. “Traditionally, we’ve been pretty darn good at them [defending set pieces], and this year at weird times we haven’t quite got what we needed to see the game out.”
“We do a pretty good job, I think, preparing and making sure [the players] are aware of their assignments,” said Lagos. “In that stress and fervor at the end of games, we have to make sure we’re organized and mentally sharp. Odd plays are going to happen, but we try to limit them, and we try to have that courage and intensity to try to keep from getting scored on.”
Certainly, the team could use Altman back - and certainly, he wants to be in the lineup, especially as his career winds down. "It would take a lot to keep me out of those last two games," he said.
Quietly, it’s Taka time
I haven’t written much about Kentaro Takada in the past few weeks; the central midfielder doesn’t appear often on the scoresheet, or in the highlights. Under the radar, however, he’s played every minute of Minnesota’s last four league games, serving as a defensive midfielder, usually behind Bryan Arguez, who’s a little more adventurous offensively.
What Takada does do, however, is pretty much run from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. Said Lagos of Takada, who is in his fourth year in Minnesota, “You look at Taka, he's consistent not only this year but over the years. He's a really unique individual that has embraced what the club's about. He is a unique person, because he's not from this country, but he just wants to experience this culture and this environment.
“He dedicates himself both on and off the field, to contribute however possible. It's that consistency and that dedication that comes out on the field in terms of the effort you see, in terms of the energy he puts forth to try to help the team win.”
Apart from Altman, the only other players of note who did not travel are center back Connor Tobin, who will be out until the fall season, and central midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan, who returned as a sub last week after a month out, but suffered a setback in midweek training this week. “Even in the game, he was playing through it a little bit,” said Lagos. “He’s a good pro, he was pushing himself.”
Wide midfielder Lucas Rodriguez is with the team in Edmonton this week, and he could return to the lineup as well to give Minnesota more of a two-way player on the wing. “I think we were missing some wide defending in that game [against Carolina],” said Lagos, “and Lucas can provide that.”
Though Lagos didn’t specify a lineup, the assumption might be that Rodriguez could supplant Miguel Ibarra in the lineup, as Ibarra has struggled mightily in his sophomore campaign.
It’s a rare Sunday afternoon game for Minnesota United, as they take on Edmonton at 3pm today. The game can be seen live on nasl.com; for the social among us, the team is holding a watch party at Brit’s Pub on Nicollet Mall, beginning at 2pm.