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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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.
If you haven't seen it already, check out David La Vaque's game preview story today. It's got some good quotes from Justin Davis and Aaron Pitchkolan about the next eleven days of United's season, the busiest stretch they'll have all year.
Today, Minnesota takes on Tampa Bay at the Dome. Tuesday, they'll play the Des Moines Menace in the US Open Cup, at Robbie Stadium. Saturday, they play Tampa Bay again, this time on the road. The following Tuesday, if they beat Des Moines, they travel to play Sporting Kansas City of MLS.
That's four potential games in eleven days. In past seasons, with a 28-game league season, United might have sent out a less-than-full-strength side for one or both league games, in the hopes of using the first team for the Open Cup games. But this year, with the twelve-game spring season, the team can't afford the risk of league losses.
"We’ve got the US Open Cup coming up. The Open Cup’s important, now the first season is important, where do you put your chips?" said defender / assistant coach Kevin Friedland. "I don’t think you can afford to not put them in both baskets. Last year during the Open Cup, we basically sent the second team out for two games. We got two results, we got two 0-0 away draws, which is a good result - especially given that it was essentially our second set of guys. I don’t know how we’re going to handle that coming up."
It'll be interesting to see what the team sheets look like over the next two weeks. I'd be surprised if United didn't play a full-strength side today, given that they've had a full week of practice at home - but I suspect there will be a lot of rotation for the three that follow.
United has listed three players as "questionable" on their injury report. Center back Connor Tobin is still dealing with the ankle injury that has kept him out of the past two games; Kentaro Takada, who missed last week in Fort Lauderdale, is still affected by his ankle injury, too. Max Griffin is also listed as questionable with the recurring hamstring problem that has limited him to just one game this season.
Midfielder Bryan Arguez, however, finally made his season debut in Fort Lauderdale, coming on for the second half in United's 2-1 loss to the Strikers. He looked effective, and I would not be too surprised to see him get an increasing number of minutes over the next stretch of games.
More on the Open Cup
I'm really getting into the Open Cup spirit - so much so that I penned a column for the RandBall blog about how it needs to be expanded to at least one other sport. Bruce McGuire of du Nord also put together a quick history of Minnesota's appearances in the tournament, a fascinating trip down memory lane.
Minnesota United FC has officially announced that Tuesday's US Open Cup second round game will be played at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium. Tickets are being sold at the door, $10 for adults and $5 for kids.
The team's opponent for Tuesday has been finalized, as well. The Des Moines Menace of the USL Premier Development League beat the Madison 56ers 1-0 on Wednesday evening, and will make the trip north next week. It's a rematch from last season's second round, when Minnesota beat the Menace 2-0.
The Premier Development League is in some ways similar to baseball's Northwoods League, in that the teams are mostly made up of college players who want to play high-level soccer during the summer break. The oldest player on the Menace roster is 23, the youngest 19.
The US Open Cup also announced the potential third-round pairings, and United was unlucky to be drawn as the away team, denying them a chance for a third-round home game against an MLS team. If Minnesota wins against Des Moines, they will travel to Kansas City the following Tuesday to face Sporting KC, which currently sits third in MLS's Eastern Conference.
If United can win in Kansas City, they'll be part of the final 16 teams, which will then be drawn into a knockout bracket. Their fourth-round game, which could be home or away, would be played on Wednesday, June 12.
Of the six NASL teams in the competition, only Minnesota and Atlanta will have to head on the road for the third round, should they win in the second round. Assuming all of the NASL clubs go through, San Antonio would host Houston, Fort Lauderdale would host FC Dallas, Tampa Bay would host Seattle, and Carolina would host the LA Galaxy. Atlanta would make the trip to Utah to face Real Salt Lake - where Minnesota won 3-1 last year in this competition.
When last we saw the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the Twin Cities, Minnesota was beating them 2-0 in the first leg of the NASL championship series. The next week, though, the Rowdies turned around the two-goal deficit, winning 3-1 and then prevailing on penalties to snatch the title from Minnesota.
Now, the two teams are among a host of title contenders for the spring season, with both teams tied for second place, three points behind Carolina. Saturday, Tampa Bay comes to Minnesota; the following Saturday, United makes the return trip.
To help educate us about the Rowdies, I talked to Mike Manganello, who covers the Rowdies for the Tampa Tribune, and who can be found on Twitter at @MikeManganello. He was nice enough to answer a few questions.
1. Did the NASL title help Tampa, in terms of attendance and popularity and coverage locally?
I’m not sure the NASL title helped the Rowdies. Through three home games this year, Tampa Bay’s average attendance is 3,740, just above last year’s average attendance of 3,116. Their home form has been awful — two points from three games — but if the Rowdies can really get rolling at home, attendance should go up. I think more people locally know of the Rowdies than last year, but they haven’t necessarily started coming to games yet.
2. The Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale talk up their rivalry - how much of that is an honest rivalry between the teams, and how much is the two clubs just trying to manufacture a "derby"?
I think the Tampa Bay-Fort Lauderdale rivalry is more for the hardcore fans than the casual fans or organizations. Fans of both teams certainly get up for those games and generally despise the other city, but I’m not sure the players themselves really care. That may change though, considering Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov reportedly ruptured Strikers goalkeeper Cody Laurendi’s spleen in a collision last month. Of course, that left Fort Lauderdale a goalkeeper short, so they went and got Rowdies legend Tampa Bay fan-favorite Jeff Attinella on loan from Real Salt Lake. The Strikers’ visit on July 4th could be … explosive.
You could make a case that the players consider Minnesota a bigger rival than Fort Lauderdale, given their playoff history.
3. Is midfielder Luke Mulholland the league's best player?
I’m not sure Luke Mulholland is the NASL’s best player yet, but could walk into the starting eleven for any team in the league and he’s probably the most exciting player to watch. His footwork is clinical, his creativity is unparalleled and he has amazing touch with the ball. Sometimes he’s not quite quick enough to get back when an attack breaks down, but he eventually gets there. His free kicks are something to watch too. It was ultimately in a loss, but his first half against Atlanta was special. He got an assist with a knockdown header, scored from open play and then score from a free kick in the span of 35 minutes.
4. Other than Mulholland, who should Minnesota fans keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks?
If you want to see good players, watch the Rowdies’ wide midfielders. Evans Frimpong on the left and Raphael Cox are both undersized and play with that extra bit of grit because of it. Both work hard on both ends of the field and never stop running. They’re a very fun pair to watch.
For pure entertainment, watch the disaster that has been Rowdies goalkeepers. After opening the year with two clean sheets, Andrew Fontein was quickly benched after allowing twice being caught way off his line in an ugly 4-3 home loss to Atlanta. His replacement, Diego Restrepo, is very adventurous, often chasing the ball outside the box and relying on goal-line clearances from his defenders. It’s a position of real concern for Tampa Bay.
5. Much has been made about Orlando's MLS ambitions. Is Tampa looking the same way - and if so, would the league ever go back there, after the folding of the Mutiny in 2001?
I don’t think Tampa is nearly as concerned with getting into MLS as Orlando is. Orlando City already has the committed ownership group with the financial power to make the jump, support from the city and stadium plans in place if MLS gives the go-ahead. The Rowdies are still struggling to get local support to begin planning a stadium and I think new investors would have to be brought aboard for the Rowdies to seriously consider trying to get into MLS. If Orlando City’s setup was in Tampa, MLS wouldn’t hesitate to bring them in. Tampa is actually a much larger media market than Orlando and the biggest in Florida, bigger even than Miami. For now though, Orlando and Miami seem to be way ahead of Tampa in the MLS arms race and this state won’t ever have three teams.
The winter of 2013 will go down in history as the Winter That Wouldn't End - and now, its lingering effects are causing problems for outdoor soccer, even in mid-May.
Minnesota United FC plays its first game in the US Open Cup next Tuesday, and had planned to play at the National Sports Center in Blaine. The field at the NSC stadium, however, is in terrible shape after the winter - and the NSC has recommended that United stay off it, lest it be damaged for the remainder of the year.
No location for next Tuesday's game has been finalized, though team sources say that it is very likely that the game will be played at the University of Minnesota's Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, in Falcon Heights near the U of M St. Paul Campus.
If United wins, they would have a chance of hosting a Major League Soccer team the following Tuesday, May 28. If they do host that game, it would be played at the Metrodome.
If Minnesota also wins that game, they would again have a chance to host the following game, which would not take place until June 12.
The team still needs to finalize stadium plans, and clear the venue change with US Soccer, which administers the US Open Cup.
Robbie Stadium has seating for only 1,000 spectators, as well as standing-room-only areas at the top of the stands and around the field. Through three games at the Metrodome - albeit for NASL games, and on Saturdays - United has averaged 5,238 fans per game.