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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Nuclear Wessel returns for 2014-15

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: August 16, 2014 - 9:14 AM

Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. The show is hosted by Eric Perkins and Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11. Last year, Dana wrote about the Premier League for us just about every weekend, and after long negotiations, has agreed to do it again. Dana?


Welcome to season two of Nuclear Wessel! Voted as the best Premier League column* in 2013-14!!!

*on the Star Tribune website written by a local radio producer who has a female name

If this is for your first Nuclear Wessel experience, I implore you to go back and read the entire season one archives. You don’t just jump into "Godfather II" all willy-nilly, do you? Every masterpiece must be experienced from the beginning in order to be fully appreciated. Except "Weekend at Bernie's". You can enjoy II without seeing I.

The start of a new Premier League season is always full of excitement, but this year feels a little different. The greatest sporting league on earth has been gaining a steady stream of new fans for each of the past four or five years. But the World Cup last summer has really thrown some proverbial gasoline onto the proverbial fire. So before we get to the the weekend preview, I would like to welcome the newcomers and share a bit of wisdom to make everyone’s season more enjoyable. Last year I did an in-depth look into the soccer bars into the Twin Cities, but if you saw the World Cup, then you know where the hotspots are: Brit's, the Local, Nomad, the Roseville Olive Garden, and so on.

I'll start by addressing the big question: who to root for? Fans curious about the Premier League always talk about which team they should “pick” to root for.

Let me tell you, that is the worst possible way to go about things. Don’t pick a team. Let a team pick you. I understand the desire and temptation to hit the ground running with a new team at the start of the season, but what is the rush? You’ve waited this long to get into the Premier League, what is a few more months to make sure you get it right? I know many people who pick a team and come to regret it down the road, but stick with that team despite being indifferent about them at the end of the day.

So here's my advice: You’re single! Get out there and mingle a bit! Grab drinks with Newcastle after work. See if Chelsea wants to meet up with you and your friends at the Gopher tailgate. Tell Liverpool you’ve got an extra ticket to the Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters Show. Hell, if it’s late at night, and there is nothing on TV, and you're 100% certain your buddies won’t find out, invite Tottenham over.

Point is, take in a bunch of games. Learn a bunch about the league. Talk to fans of different teams. Ask questions. Eventually one team will grab a hold of you. And before you know it, you’ll be hugging a random stranger in a bar one Sunday morning before the sun comes up, with beer spilled all over your shirt, and you’ll have completely forgotten what life was like before the Premier League. (I am totally going to tweak that sentence and use it in a romance novel someday.)

Also, don’t let anybody give you crap or talk you out who you decide to put your ponies behind.  Like any other sport, fans like to bust balls. Just know there isn’t any “wrong” team to latch onto. If you pick a top four side, Tottenham fans will call you a glory hunter. If you pick Tottenham or Everton, fans the bigger clubs will laugh at you because your club hasn’t won anything since this country was under British rule. If you root for Burnley, then, well... just don’t root for Burnley.

Enough business. We have matches to watch this weekend! A lot of them. Take your significant other out for dinner at some point, in one last Hail Mary attempt to make up for the next nine months of early alarm clocks on the weekends and screaming at the TV before the Star Tribune (see what I did there? I worked in a plug!) is even dropped off on your doorstep.

It's not the sexiest crop of matches this weekend, but who cares? They all count the same. Three points in September counts the same as three points in May. The 38-game playoffs start now.

No. 1: Manchester United vs Swansea City at Old Trafford
When: Saturday at 6:45am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: United took this corresponding fixture last January two-rip. Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia each scored for United. Don’t expect to see this one pop up on Premier League Classics on NBCSN this weekend.

(/movie trailer voice) “The people who brought you last winter’s blockbuster smash ‘Manchester United: The Post-Sir Alex Ferguson Era’ are back. This time, with more money, more expectations, more Chevrolet...and MORE DUTCH. It’s Manchester United: The Post-Sir Alex Ferguson Era II: The Sequel: This Time It Counts: Manchester Harder.”

So the David Moyes era went about as well as the bank robbery in "Reservoir Dogs" - but all that is in the past. Moyes is sitting on a couch counting the fat check United cut him. United did some quality business over the summer, and have a manager that won’t make their biggest superstar sulk worse than a teenager at a family-reunion picnic.

United are ready to move past last season’s unmitigated disaster and build off what has been an impressive preseason for the 20 time champions. Louis van Gaal has returned a sense of authority to a club that badly needed it. Moyes gave off a big ‘substitute teacher’ vibe. The players didn’t respect him, and it showed. That won’t be the case this season.

I believe Saturday will be the start of a season that sees United make it back into top four and qualify for Champions League. They never were as truly dreadful as they looked last season. They won’t have any pesky European competitions to deal with, much like Liverpool’s return to top four glory last year. Also, their aging superstars will once be motivated. Wayne Rooney now wears a captain’s armband, and knows full well his United legacy hangs in the balance. Robin van Persie has a manger he knows and trusts and, for United’s sake, hopefully won’t pout as much. They are aging, but they are still two of the best in the world, and can lead this bunch back to Champions League.

It's a relatively easy opening draw for United, with Patrick Reusse’s Swans coming to Old Trafford. Look for United to get all three points and to officially kick off "Manchester United: The Post-Sir Alex Ferguson Era II: The Sequel: This Time It Counts: Manchester Harder."

No. 2: Liverpool vs Southampton at Anfield
When: Sunday at 7:30am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Southampton got all three points a year ago at Anfield. Dejan Lovren found the back of the net in the 53rd to secure the win for the visiting side. Had Liverpool won this game, or any of the other six games they lost last season, they’d be champions.

Liverpool, Liverpool, Liverpool. Where to start?

The obvious question will be how they replace the 37 goals Luis Suarez scored last season. The answer to that is simple. They won’t. And they don’t need to. Liverpool didn’t lose the title* last year because they needed to score more than the 101 goals they scored. They lost it because they gave up 50 goals.

*Technically they lost because Steven Gerrard slipped, but that’s beside the point.

That’s why I think a lot of people are making a bigger deal about Suarez taking his chompers to Spain than there needs to be. They got a dump truck full of cash for a guy that will never be worth the headaches. Smart business, in my mind.

It is hard to picture the stars aligning as much as they did a year ago for Liverpool, as far as the title is concerned, but they will definitely be in the mix for a spot amongst the top four. They made some quality buys this summer. Unfortunately for them, so did Tottenham, Manchester United and Everton. Let's not forget, the glory of finishing in a Champions League spot also requires you to play in the Champions League. That is a lot of extra miles on legs, and squad rotation becomes key. We’ll see how Brendan Rodgers handles his first swim in the deep end.

Like United, Liverpool can hit the ground running at home against Southampton. Sad summer over at St Mary’s. The darlings of the Premier League last year were shipped out in a fire sale that would cause the Miami Marlins to cry foul. They went from No. 8 last season to relegation fodder this year, unless they reinvest some money - and fast. Making $170 million is great, but not if your big splash reinvesting it is Shane Long.

It could be a long season for the Saints. Liverpool will have a laugh on Sunday.

No. 1: Newcastle vs Manchester City at St James’ Park
When: Sunday at 9:00am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: The eventual champions scored early and late (8th minute from Edin Dzeko and 95th from Alvaro Negredo) for an easy 2-0 victory at St James’ Park.

Can anybody give a compelling argument that the defending champions will finish any lower than 2nd? I can’t. And if I didn’t have 20-something Chelsea jerseys in my closet and own a John Terry Halloween mask, I doubt I’d think they could finish any lower than first.

I have a feeling both Chelsea and Liverpool will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of last season’s open title window, because City look even more dangerous this year. They somehow got deeper. I didn’t think that was possible. But they did. This team is so loaded that I don’t think winning just one trophy could be considered a successful year. It’s at least a double or it’s a failure. They finally got out of the Champions League group stage last year, and will be poised to continue their progression in that competition as well.

As for Newcastle, well, I dunno, they’ll finish somewhere in the middle of the table. Their fans will clash with owners. Good players will be sold. Terrible replacements (might) be bought. They’ll finish somewhere in the middle or lower. My buddy Dylan the rocket scientist is the biggest Newcastle supporter this side of the Atlantic. I asked him if his beloved Magpies stood a chance against City Sunday. Here was his response:

“....No.”

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014-15 Newcastle squad!

In all seriousness, I could see Newcastle janking out some kind of draw. I don’t think it will happen. But it won’t cause me to choke on my Wheaties if it does. How about THAT for a sizzling hot sports take! I don’t think it will happen….BUT I WOULDN’T BE SURPRISED IF IT DID! The title of this column promised you’d get NUCLEAR HOT SPORTS TAKES and by golly you got one there.

Alright, folks. There is your opening weekend. Not a lot of sexy matchups, but who cares? Every Saturday and Sunday from now until May will be filled with Premier League goodness. Soak it all in and enjoy. It looks to be the tightest race 1-7 ever. The traditional Big Four is dead.

If this is your first go-round with the Premier League, enjoy. Take it all in. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you are a surly veteran to all this, be nice to the new guys. You were in their shoes once too. If we want this soccer thing to keep growing we have to be in it together.

Until next week, may your free kicks always be direct and your midfielders always be box-to-box.

Minnesota, San Antonio, and New York begin to separate from the NASL pack

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 13, 2014 - 1:03 PM

Saturday's results in the NASL had a familiar ring to them. Minnesota, won. San Antonio, won. New York, won.

While the NASL season was split this year into two ridiculously unequal "halves," Saturday's 3-2 win over Edmonton was the midpoint of Minnesota United's 27-game league schedule. With the season half gone, it's become clear that the Loons, the Scorpions, and the Cosmos are the teams to beat.

The league's imbalance was on full display last year, as the relentlessly-promoted Cosmos won the league title despite having participated in just half the season. Coming into 2014, though, there were whispers that both Minnesota and San Antonio had ambitions - and finances - to match their New York brethren. And while the Cosmos have struggled slightly,  while also seeing a major dip at the ticket counter, the other two have blown right by.

Minnesota has lost just once all year and has a nine-game unbeaten streak. San Antonio has won eight of its last 11 matches. United has 33 points on the year, the Scorpions 32 (with one more game played than Minnesota) - and then comes a major drop-off. New York, with 27 points, is the only other team near the top two. Fort Lauderdale, in fourth place, is eleven points adrift of San Antonio - nearly a point per match.

Combine that with the box office, where Minnesota and San Antonio top the season attendance list (apart from Indy's incredible numbers), and the obvious ambitions of both to eventually play at the top level of American soccer, and you begin to sense the difference. New York has had trouble scoring goals and drawing fans, it's true, but they're rumored to be trying to spend nearly $5 million to buy striker Roque Santa Cruz from Malaga - more than the annual salary budget for every team in the league (possibly more than all of them combined - they aren't public). And their other plan appears to be to sign Spanish legend Raul to play in front of countryman Marcos Senna.

It's all representative of a sea change in how the NASL runs itself. For years, second-division soccer was mostly a competition between evenly-matched teams. In 2012, San Antonio won the league championship with 1.67 points per match; in the spring of 2013, Atlanta took the first-half title with 1.75. As long as a team won slightly more than they lost, and didn't draw too often, they had a chance at the league title.

In the fall of last year, though, New York came in and blew everyone away, winning nine times and losing only once on the way to 31 points in 14 games - 2.21 per match. United had to repeat that number to edge San Antonio in the spring, and currently leads the fall standings with four wins and one draw in five games - 2.6 points per match.

Four teams will make the playoffs this season, and anything can happen in the playoffs - something Minnesota fans well know, having seen their team finish sixth but reach the league final in both 2011 and 2012. That may paper over the cracks a little bit, especially if one of the league's weaker teams manages to pull an upset in the playoffs. But right now it looks virtually certain that the top three seeds in the playoffs will be the three big, ambitious, financially-well-set teams.

Tampa Bay has also shown a willingness to spend, without much to show for it, and if Indy can reinvest the funds from their outstanding gate receipts into the team, they may become a force as well. But right now, it would appear that it's a three-team race in the NASL - and as long as the finances and the ambitions stay in place, it may be that way for awhile.

United 3, Edmonton 2: Three points, but nobody's happy

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 9, 2014 - 10:18 PM

For the fifth time this year, Minnesota United scored three goals in a game, this time in beating FC Edmonton 3-2. Christian Ramirez put away a first-half penalty, and Daniel Mendes scored twice in eleven minutes in the second half, a neat near-post flick and a blast from near the penalty spot.

It'll make for a good highlight reel, but the United video team could equally put together a reel of Minnesota defensive blunders. There was the wayward Juliano Vicentini pass that led directly to the game's first goal, by Edmonton's Lance Laing; there was a similar wayward pass in the second half from Aaron Pitchkolan that loosed Eddies striker Frank Jonke alone on goal, forcing goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt to come out and commit the foul that got him sent off. Perhaps most shockingly, there was the innocuous-looking ball that bounced to Hildebrandt that defender Tiago Calvano chose to chest past his own keeper, off the post, then tantalizingly along the goal line, where Calvano cleared it - though a subsequent TV replay indicated that the ball may have crossed the line.

It's no wonder that head coach Manny Lagos looked distinctly unhappy, even after his team had closed out the win one man short. "This is an imperfect game and you have imperfect moments," he said. "Tonight, to walk off the field having played some good soccer, but at times having showed some shockingly poor concentration, is disappointing. We started out sluggish, and we had to get back into it and we exerted a lot of energy and got back into it - and seemingly thought we were controlling it. Our concentration kind of let us down and made it a tough night.

"We just made some poor mistakes. We’ve got good quality guys in the locker room that would put their hands up and say it should have been better. As a group, as a team, we’d be stupid not to acknowledge those mistakes."

Team captain Aaron Pitchkolan acknowledged the mistakes - and hoped that the team had got them all out of its collective system. "There’s really no rhyme or reason for it, they came all at once," he said. "We’ll learn from them and move forward. Manny and [assistant coach] Carl [Craig] and the coaching staff, they won’t let us be complacent. We know what we’re up against."

Lagos was happy, though, that the team handled the adversity of giving up an early goal and a late red card. "There were some great moments in the second half and some great goals. I certainly was proud how we changed how we started from the first half in the second half, and I thought that was the difference in the game."

Mendes scores twice more

Mendes is on a bit of a hot streak; two goals tonight brings his tally to four in five fall-season games. More notable, perhaps, was the fact that he scored both goals in the center of the field from open play. Given that United generally plays with its wide midfielders starting very wide, it's not always normal to see a winger in the penalty area.

As it turns out, it's all part of Minnesota's plan to get its fullbacks forward into the attack, and get as many potential goalscorers in the penalty area as possible. "I try to go inside to give the space to Viva [Kevin Venegas]," said Mendes. "We train a lot of that - give him space. I get more involved in the game when I get inside, and we created some good play in the wide part of the field. The coach wants the wide players to cut inside and give the space for the fullbacks to come up."

Venegas did have plenty of space - some of that probably due to Edmonton's relative exhaustion. The Eddies were playing their third game in seven days, and eight of the team's starting eleven played all three. Once United went down to ten men, the Eddies showed an offensive spark, but were otherwise mostly passive - not surprising, as there were likely a few dead legs on the field.

Juliano limps off

Vicentini limped off the field ten minutes into the second half, grimacing after a challenge left him down on the field. Postgame, Lagos said that it appeared to be a groin injury, but that the team wouldn't know more about the severity for a day or two.

Should Vicentini miss next week's game against Indy, the team would likely be left with two choices - either play Greg Jordan alongside Floyd Franks in midfield, or bring Pitchkolan forward into the midfield alongside one of the two and slot Cristiano Dias back into the defense.

Guest post: Notes from Minnesota United training

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 7, 2014 - 2:12 PM

SoccerCentric correspondent Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) was at Minnesota United FC training today. We're always happy to hear from Wes, especially when he can cover training for the blog. Wes?


Ahead of their their Saturday meeting with FC Edmonton, Minnesota United FC started training at the National Sports Center with finishing drills, and ended with two short full-sided scrimmages, matching their standard formation against the 4-3-3 lineup that the 'Montons almost always employ. The training pitch at NSC makes it difficult to play on the ground, and there were quite a few long balls.

You gotta have heart

Assistant Coach Carl Craig said that the team has been using heart rate monitors for training ever since their preseason tour to England. During the tour, the English Football Association lent the team a monitoring system, and the Loons have been using their own system in training ever since.

New signing Burgos participates

The Loons’ newest signing, Rafael Burgos, was on the pitch for the faux-Monton side, alternating in a wide and auxiliary-forward role. Having not played since the end of the European season, he is not yet up to the rest of the team’s fitness. At this point, it’s still unclear if he’ll play a role in Saturday’s game, but if he does, it will surely be off the bench.

Still stuck in Blaine

United is hopeful they can begin training at the brand-new Bielenberg training facility in Woodbury in September. However, since the team originally hoped to start there in July, we can only wait and see on an actual start date. A team spokesman wouldn’t elaborate on the delayed opening, beyond citing regular construction delays.

Trialists

Currently, there are three unsigned players training with the team: Tyler Pasher, Ishmaila Jome, and Gerald Ben. All three are local products; Jome, who played for Prairie Seeds Academy and is set to be a sophomore for the powerhouse UC-Santa Barbara squad this year, has trained with the team in the past.

Injuries

The team seemed to be at full strength aside from the long-term absence of Pablo Campos. Campos returns from Brazil this week, where he has been continuing his recovery.

Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt did ake a ball in his, uh, lower abdomen during training, but after laying on the ground for a long spell, he seemed to have recovered. “Oooh ahhh Hildebrandt”, indeed.

Your guide to the 2014-15 European soccer season

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 6, 2014 - 12:37 PM

Major League Soccer's All-Star game is tonight at 8:30pm on ESPN2, as the league's best come together, have a couple of practices, and then play against Bayern Munich in Portland. Liga MX, the Mexican first division, is also in full swing for the fall. European leagues, though, start up later this month, with a few beginning as soon as Friday. Here is your quick-and-dirty SoccerCentric guide to the season ahead.

LIGUE 1
Begins: August 8
TV: beIN Sports, which might be a little hard to find on your channel lineup
The season ahead: Paris St. Germain is owned by Qatar. They have an enormous amount of money, have won two consecutive Ligue 1 titles, and are the heavy favorites to win a third straight. Monaco, owned by a Russian billionaire, is the only other team with a real chance to unseat PSG. (In European soccer, cash is king, let's be honest.)

PREMIER LEAGUE
Begins: August 16 (though the traditional season-opening exhibition, the Community Shield, is Sunday)
TV: NBC Sports (occasionally NBC, always NBC Sports Network and always online at nbcsports.com)
The season ahead: The oddsmakers have installed Chelsea as the favorite, just a nose ahead of Manchester City. Behind the two uber-rich clubs, though, there are a host of interesting stories. Manchester United were a disaster last year, but the mercurial (and quite possibly insane) Louis van Gaal is now in charge; can they right the ship? Arsenal, for once, signed big players (most notably Alexis Sanchez) without losing anyone; can they finally make the jump? How will Liverpool handle losing Luis Suarez? Can Everton maintain their magic? Will Burnley win a game this season?

BUNDESLIGA
Begins: August 22
TV: GolTV - sorry, but unless you speak Spanish and have DirecTV, you probably can't watch this channel at home
The season ahead: Bayern Munich are once again the favorites for the German title. Borussia Dortmund, like Monaco in France, are probably the only team that have a chance of challenging them in any real way. While many American soccer writers have tried to compare various English teams to the Yankees and/or Cowboys, it's probably Bayern that are the closest European comparison, so feel free to use that in your rooting interest.

LA LIGA
Begins:
August 24
TV: beIN Sports
The season ahead: Atletico Madrid beat the odds, and both Barcelona and Real Madrid, to claim last season's crown. While this is a little like getting excited about the Mets beating the Yankees and the Red Sox for the World Series, it's still nice to see someone other than the big two on top; it hadn't happened since 2004. That said, Barca and Real are the heavy favorites to take the title this year.

SERIE A
Begins: August 30
TV: beIN Sports
The season ahead: Juventus are favorites, but Roma and Napoli are also in the mix, as is AC Milan. The once-all-conquering Italian league has dropped off a bit in recent years, probably due to the money that has flowed into other leagues and to the weakness of the Italian economy; no Italian team has made the semifinals of the Champions League since 2010, and last year, only Milan even made it through the group stage. That said, though, Italy is always a riot, only partially because on any given day, both teams may be paying off the referee.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Begins: Qualifying has already started; final playoff round begins August 19, with group stages starting September 16
TV: Fox Sports, especially FS1
The season ahead: Nobody knows anything in the Champions League; Bayern are the favorites, but that hardly matters. As with the World Cup, the group-stage draw (August 28) can determine a lot of things. Juventus, PSG, and Manchester City are lurking as potential #2 seeds, with Liverpool and Roma are even further down the draw; any of the top teams could draw a cakewalk to the final 16, or could be eliminated before even getting to the knockout round. And of course, once the knockout round begins, anything could happen.

OTHER LEAGUES
Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (starts August 9 on FOX Soccer Plus and the FOX Soccer 2Go app), but it's worth mentioning because Scotland is the home of Inverness Caley Thistle, the Official European Team of SoccerCentric... FOX Soccer Plus also carries games from the Europa League, UEFA's second-tier continent-wide competition - as well as the Australian A-League, which begins October 10...  UEFA's ranking system has the Portuguese Primera Liga ranked as the continent's fourth-best - ahead of both Italy and France. It begins August 17, but does not have a USA TV deal I can find, so you might be out of luck.

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