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 continued to fill out its 2014 roster on Tuesday, as it announced that ten more players from the 2013 squad have had their options picked up for next season. The ten include goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel; defenders Justin Davis, Brian Kallman, Cristiano Dias, and Brent Kallman; midfielders Floyd Franks, Simone Bracalello, Kentaro Takada, and Michael Reed; and forward Nate Polak.
Forward Pablo Campos, center back Aaron Pitchkolan, winger Miguel Ibarra, and fullback Kevin Venegas were announced as the first pieces of next season's team at the team's mid-November press conference, so today's announcement brings the 2014 squad to 14 players.
The team also continues to work towards potential contracts for several free agents, including center back Connor Tobin, winger Omar Daley, and goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt.
For the second straight year, United's back line will see the most continuity of any group. Davis, Brian Kallman, Dias, Venegas, and Pitchkolan all saw significant time in the back four, and Van Oekel was the team's starting keeper for most of the year. If Tobin re-signs as well, the team's defense will be more or less intact from the end of 2013.
Up front, the team remains quite thin. Campos's return means the team has one proven scorer, but Polak played just seven minutes last year, after a blood clot in his shoulder ruined the first half of his season.
The announcements leave eight players from 2013 as free agents, most notably striker Max Griffin and winger Lucas Rodriguez. Rodriguez has been in Minnesota for four years, and in some ways was United's most consistent option on the wing in 2013, if not their most dynamic; it was a surprise to see him not on the contract list. Griffin showed a ton of promise, but could only score once in fourteen appearances; given Minnesota's lack of forwards, though, I thought he might return as well.
Also on the free-agent list is keeper Daryl Sattler, who began the season as first choice between the pipes, but spent the entire second half of the season on the disabled list with a torn labrum, and Mike Ambersley, who came to Minnesota during the summer break in the Etienne Barbara trade and played in 13 games at forward without scoring.
The final four free agents are midfielders Edi Buro, Sean de Silva, and Luis Heitor-Piffer, and striker Travis Wall.
Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. The show is hosted by Cane Peterson and Eric Perkins/Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11.
It's cold outside, but the Premier League will keep us warm - and Dana is just the person to tell us what to watch each week. Dana?
And we’re back! That pesky international break is over! I only call it "pesky" because of the poor results for the USMNT, but how could anybody complain about the team? A first place finish in CONCACAF, a Gold Cup trophy, the return of Landon Donovan and the winningest calendar year in US history? As Lou once so eloquently stated when Chief Wiggum asked him to check out the park job in 7-A, “Oooh, that’s sweet.” (If you got that reference, you are invited to my birthday parties from now on.)
The next date to look forward to for the US supporters (or supporters of the other 31 World Cup teams) is two weeks from Friday, when the draw takes place. Now, the World Cup draw is the worst thing on earth. Literally the worst. Four years of waiting, a grueling qualifying campaign, and in the end it all hinges on some ping-pong balls. It is unbearable to watch. During the 2010 South Africa draw, I was dating a girl that happened to smoke cigarettes and, depending on if my parents read this, I may have been burning heater after heater to calm the nerves.
But no sense firing up heaters now; the Premier League is back. A quick refresher on how tight the table is before we take a peek at some matches: Arsenal tops the table with 25 points, but only six points separate them and eighth-place Manchester City.
No. 3: Everton vs Liverpool at Goodison Park
When: Saturday at 6:45AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: The Merseyside derby at Goodison last year ended in a 2-2 draw. It looked like this would be an all-timer, with all four goals being scored between the 14th and 35th minute, but play settled down and both teams seemed content with a point each.
I really wish the Premier League schedule-makers would take into consideration the sleeping interests of a non-Everton-supporting, non-Liverpool-supporting radio producer in Minneapolis who wakes up at 2:30AM on weekdays. But alas, they do not. So I will be up early for this one. Derbies are amazing. Especially when you don’t have to deal with the nerves of having a rooting interest in one of the teams. Therefore the Merseyside version is one of my favorites each year.
There hasn’t been one in recent memory that has been sexier than this one, either. The stadiums are separated by less than a mile, and the two teams are separated by just three points, after both have had dream starts this season. Liverpool sit alone in in second place with 23 points, while the Toffees are in sixth place on 20 points, and only trail Manchester United in goal differential for 5th place.
You have to go back to 2010 to find the last time Everton has won this derby, but they are playing with form not seen at Goodison Park in recent years, under first-year manager Roberto Martinez. They have lost just one match (against Manchester City) and have been superb defensively, conceding just ten goals, which is good for a tie for second-fewest allowed in the league. Further, American goalie and future President of the United States of America Tim Howard has a 240-minute-plus shutout streak going.
Timmy and the Everton defense will need to tack on as many minutes to that shutout streak as possible against Liverpool. Seemingly every time I turn on a Liverpool match, Luis ‘ The Human Cannibal’ Suarez and Daniel Sturridge combine to score a goal. It almost gives me a panic attack every time it happens, because I feel this deja vu that makes me worry I’ve become Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day.
Liverpool’s away form hasn’t exactly been something you put a gold star on and hang on your mother’s refrigerator, having won just two of six away from Anfield, including getting run off 2-0 at Arsenal last time out.
As the old cliche goes, you can take a Merseyside derby record book, light it on fire and drop-kick it out the window with the intensity of Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat. (Full disclosure: I honestly have no idea if the Dragon had an intense dropkick or not, I just thought it sounded cool here. And you, the reader, have no idea either, so I could have not admitted this, but in an effort to gain your trust, I want no secrets between us.)
There is always a ton of pride on the line in this match, but for the first time in a while, there is plenty at stake in the table. Brendan Rodgers has his men believing they can win the Premier League for the first time ever, and Martinez has his men believing they can qualify for Champions League for the first time ever.
Set your alarms; this will be a good one. I have confirmed with Brits Pub that they will be opening up bright and early before the sun comes up for this one. Liverpool supporters will no doubt pack the Long Room.
No. 2: West Ham vs Chelsea
When: Saturday at 11:30AM on the Big Boy NBC
Last year: West Ham sent Chelsea back home to Cobham with a load in their shorts after a 3-1 defeat. It was also the first loss of the Benitez-era. I apologize to other Chelsea fans for even bringing it up.
Well, how do you like this? Another derby! A bit overshadowed, given what takes place a few hours before, but it's still a huge match for both clubs.
Before last year’s debacle for Chelsea I referenced above, you have to go back to 2003 to find the last time the Hammers defeated their London rivals... but Chelsea aren’t exactly keeping their blue flag flying high right now. Their last two times out in the league saw them lose to Newcastle (who let them out of the fridge by the way? They are ninth right now and could go ahead of Spurs or City depending on results this weekend) and jank, JANK, out a draw against West Brom.
Hopefully (for Chelsea fans, anyway), the team used the international break to get their minds right, and Jose Mourinho instilled the fear of god in them after the West Brom mess. A win here could potentially set the Blues up for a nice December. Their upcoming schedule: Southampton (the surprise team of the season) at home, at Sunderland, at Stoke, home versus Crystal Palace, and then the big showdown with Arsenal at the Emirates two days before Christmas.
West Ham aren’t exactly playing the type of soccer right now that makes kids get in fights over who gets to play with them on FIFA. They have only won one of their past six matches; granted, it was against Spurs, but that doesn’t make up for dumping full points to Hull City and Norwich City.
The lineup Mourinho comes up with at West Ham will be interesting to see. The Special One still hasn’t found a preferred lineup. It has led to a lot of frustration and bickering amongst Blues supporters, as the team sits in fourth place after being projected by nearly everyone to lift the trophy.
The Chelsea supporters will be hanging out at Morrisey’s Irish Pub in Uptown so come on by if you feel like hanging out with us. All are welcome. Also, speaking of soccer bars, I owe Local an apology for ripping them before the season started. I stopped by for the start of Manchester United/Arsenal two weeks ago and had a great experience. Granted, I was surrounded by more Arsenal fans than I would have liked, but the breakfast buffet is incredible. Full spread. The works, really. And the staff couldn’t have been cooler. So, there you go.
No. 1: Hull City vs Crystal Palace at The Kingston Communications Stadium
When: Saturday at 9AM on NBC Sports Extra
Just kidding. I would rather watch RandBall and RandballsStu leg wrestle, best out of seven, than watch this match. (Wait a minute, that was supposed to be an insult, but now that I think about it, watching those two leg wrestle sounds awesome. Let's make it best out of fifteen! Let's set that up, next time everybody is in town!)
No. 1: Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium
When: Sunday at 9AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: City rallied from a goal down in the second half with goals from Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko.
We round up the weekend with the Battle of the Congested Top of the Table Bottomfeeders! Well, technically the PL weekend wraps up with Manchester United/Cardiff City, and West Brom/Aston Villa but, you know, gross.
Tottenham and City sit in seventh and eighth place heading into this match, and that sounds disastrous for both clubs with December looming - but the truth is, with the table so tight, both teams are within two points of a top-four spot.
City supporters are thanking their lucky stars this match is at home. For whatever reason, City play like a bunch of U-14ers that are more concerned with the girls' team practicing on the next field over, when they are on the road. They lost their last two road matches to Sunderland (SUNDERLAND!) and Chelsea, and have lost four away from home overall this season.
The sweet confines of the Etihad is a completely different story. City have scored 20 goals and conceded only two - not too shabby. That two goals conceded is the biggest worry for Spurs, who have only scored a comical nine goals in eleven matches. That is fewer goals than such world-beating outfits as Aston Villa, West Brom, Stoke City, Swansea City, and Sunderland - all in tenth place or worst.
These City-Spurs matches have been goal-fests the last two years. All four meetings have had at least four combined goals. It could very easily happen again Sunday, but given how things have gone for these two clubs, it is more likely to be 4-0 or 3-1 City than anything favoring a Spurs result.
That will do it for this week’s explosively controversial edition of Nuclear Wessel. Until next time, may your free kicks always be direct and your midfielders always be box-to-box.
Minnesota United FC announced Tuesday a new reserve team joining the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) in 2014. The club will be named Minnesota United Reserves and will play at East Ridge High School in Woodbury, near the franchise’s new training center.
The Reserves, United FC coach Manny Lagos said, will allow more games for younger players seeking development and an avenue for injured players to prepare for a return to the big club.
Lagos estimated “four to six” North American Soccer League teams will have “some type of reserve team” next season.
“This is a bigger-picture thing,” Lagos said. “This is really going to help the overall club in terms of trying to become competitive year-in and year-out. We’re really committed to developing players and producing players for pro soccer.”
Since 2005 the NPSL has expanded nationally, adding Midwest, Northeastern and Southeastern regions. The league is sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body of soccer in the United States, and operates in the 4th Division. The Minnesota United Reserves will play in the Central Conference of the Midwest Region against teams such as the Milwaukee Bavarians and the Minnesota Twin Stars.
Games will run from May until August and the team will consist of amateur and professional players. Ticket information and 2014 schedule have not been released. East Ridge High School is on the same campus as the newly renovated Bielenberg Sports Center, which will become the official training facility of Minnesota United FC when the complex opens next spring.
“It’s a great step forward that lines up very well with the training facility,” Lagos said.
“We’re excited to add Minnesota United to the NPSL’s Central Conference of the Midwest Region,” NPSL Commissioner Michael Hitchcock said in a press release. “Under new ownership, Minnesota United have taken major steps to establishing their brand and growing the game, on and off the field. We’re honored that Minnesota United has selected NPSL as the league for their Reserve team to play which is an important part of their business model to develop players for the NASL team.”
United sign deal in Blaine
Minnesota United also announced Tuesday a three-year contract to continue to play home matches at the National Sports Center in Blaine. The team played in first five games of the 2013 Spring Season at the Metrodome before finishing the schedule in Blaine.
Lagos said the team will retain the services of forward Pablo Campos, midfielders Kevin Venegas, Aaron Pitchkolan and Miguel Ibarra.
Now that the 2013 NASL season is over, the offseason can get into full swing - and, for Minnesota United FC, that means it's time to start making some contract decisions.
Unlike other pro sports leagues, none of the United players have guaranteed multi-year deals. For the vast majority of its players, United holds contract options for 2014 - meaning they can choose whether to bring them back or release them as free agents. For the most part, United signs players to one-year contracts with these team options for a second year, so all but a handful are waiting to find out whether Minnesota will pick up their options.
I talked to team president Nick Rogers to get the contract details for United's players. Here's what we know:
Pablo Campos is the only player who is already officially signed for next year. His contract included performance incentives - likely related to goals, though Rogers wouldn't go into details - and he met those, thus making his option year into a contract year for 2014.
Keeper Mitch Hildebrandt, winger Omar Daley, fullback Kevin Venegas, and center back Connor Tobin are the only players who are completely out of contract and free agents. This is not to say that the team will not bring any of them back, but all four have the ability to negotiate with any team.
It'll be interesting to see where the team's free-agent interest lies; Tobin was first choice all year at center back, and developed a good partnership with Aaron Pitchkolan at center back in the second half of the season. Venegas showed flashes after moving from midfield to fullback for the season, and Daley - signed in the summer - finished the year with a hat trick at Tampa Bay. Hildebrandt served as a backup for most of the season, but could well return next season in the same role, especially given his youth (he turned 25 on Tuesday).
Midfielders Calum Mallace and Sinisa Ubiparipovic were on loan from Montreal, and thus, have returned to being property of the Impact. Barring a major change in their Montreal status, it's unlikely that either will be back.
United holds options on the remainder, giving them the ability to pick and choose. They're virtually certain to bring back a few players, including winger Miguel Ibarra, who will no doubt get another chance to prove that he can be one of NASL's best on the wing. I would also expect them to bring back Pitchkolan; he was the best Minnesota player this year, and has the versatility to play as a center back or in defensive midfield.
As for the free-agent market, look for Minnesota to be active in trying to find central midfielders, especially central midfielders with the ability to play an attacking role. United is likely to be rumored to sign just about every central midfielder available, so be prepared for a deluge of rumors as the offseason moves along.
Dana Wessel produces the Cane & Company morning show on 96.3 K-TWIN. The show is hosted by Cane Peterson and Eric Perkins/Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11 and airs Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. He explains it all, when it comes to the Premier League. Dana?
And we’re back! Welcome to the eleventh edition of Nuclear Wessel. This week’s edition promises to be the most nuclear-est edition yet!
I’ve actually started to submit this column in print form, with a $20 bill paper-clipped to it, in hopes that Marth might go through the archives and scrub my predictions involving Arsenal in the first few weeks. Yikes. I definitely alluded to the possibility of them not qualifying for the Europa League. Now they sit in first place, and could lose 142-0 this week (Marth - check to see if that’d be a record) and they would still be in first place next week. But that’s why I write about soccer here, rather than bet on games in a Vegas penthouse while being served buffalo wings by Anna Kendrick in a full Chelsea kit.
(It's kinda concerning that "Chelsea kit" was my go-to outfit for her to be wearing, right? I should probably go back and change that... Oh well. What’s done is done. Wheel of Fortune is almost on, and Marth has requested I submit these to him on Thursday evening rather than on Friday morning. Unbelievable right? What a demanding editor. I guess I could always just watch Wheel on DVR later, and go and polish that sentence - naw, somebody might tweet me a Wheel spoiler, and that would just leave a sour taste in my mouth heading into Friday. You never want that.)
A rather average slate of matches this weekend culminates with an absolute doozy between a Manchester United team desperate for a big result, and an Arsenal team desperate to prove to everyone they are for real.
Let’s get to it. We start with Chelsea, but I promise I kept it brief this time.
No. 3: Chelsea vs West Brom
When: Saturday at 9AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Chelsea bagged the full three points in a very nondescript 1-0 match, with Demba Ba snapping a seven-match scoreless streak by netting one in the 28th minute.
Woof. That Chelsea/Newcastle match sure was something, huh?
Now let’s never speak of it again.
(Editor's note: For those who didn't remember, Chelsea lost 2-0 at Newcastle last week. Wait, does this count as speaking of it again? Sorry, Dana.)
I was happy to see Jose Mourinho absolutely destroy the club after the match, because everyone except for John Terry deserved it. But the boys in blue responded like you knew they would, in a 3-0 home Champions League win against Schalke.
Samuel Eto’o scored two goals mid-week, and could be asked to start again Saturday against West Brom after Fernando Torres picked up a knock and appears set to lose the race to be fit by Saturday. Speaking of being fit, it doesn’t appear Nicolas Anelka will be ready to play against his former club. If Eto’o gets the day off, it would be Demba Ba up top; Ba put the cherry on top of the sundae on Wednesday, with a goal of his own.
It is so refreshing for Chelsea fans to see forwards scoring goals. It’s also great to see the Captain playing so well. I was planning on writing a lot about him here, but I don’t want to lose the non-Chelsea audience so quickly, so I'll just wrap up this up. West Brom have just one win in their last five road matches, and Chelsea have never lost at home under The Special One. All signs point to Chelsea having a laugh on Saturday, but I learned my lesson about being over-confident last week.
No. 2: Sunderland vs Manchester City at the Stadium of Light
When: Sunday at 9AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Sunderland actually managed to pick up three of their 39 points last year, at home against City in a Boxing Day match, with a 1-0 win.
I think we all can admit now that Jozy Altidore and Sunderland’s season together hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. The Black Cats survived relegation a year ago by the hairs of their chinny chin chin. It will take some doing the rest of the season to survive again this year.
But let's focus on the positives, yeah? Sunderland picked up their first league win of the year two weeks ago, when they handed a loss to Newcastle, 2-1. They are still very much in the drop zone, but to be frank, I couldn't care less if they get relegated or or not; all I care about is how Altidore performs, and that he gets the matches he needs to get ready for the World Cup next summer.
(My apologies to my massive readership in Sunderland)
And there is some good news for the young Altidore, who celebrated his 24th birthday this week. That isn’t a typo. He just turned 24. The problem with being a household name (in the American soccer world) since you were 16, is that jerks like me write you off before your 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd birthday. My bad. Jozy was massive in both the win over Newcastle (quite a coming out for your first Tyne-Wear Derby) and on Wednesday in a 2-1 Capital One Cup Match win over Southampton - one of the darlings of league this season.
Jozy assisted on both goals, and played the unselfish kind of match that managers love. And wouldn’t ya know it? His manager loved it. Gus Poyet (former Chelsea player!) raved about the Great American 2014 Striker Hope after the match, lauding him for his play in what was a huge win for the team. He also took jabs at other players for not getting Altidore more looks on net.
Poyet was hired less than a month ago and has only been in charge for three matches. You always worry when a player transfers to a new club (especially a huge upward move like Jozy made, moving from the Netherlands to the biggest league in the world), and the manager getting sacked within the first month of the season only added to those worries. But it appears the man from Uruguay has taken a liking to young Josmer.
Jozy has had issues in his club career finding his place and fitting in. You need to look no further than his extensive loan record for evidence. It would be so detrimental if he was buried on the squad, and lost all semblance of form leading up to this summer. The fact that he is getting both playing time, and the backing from his manager, leaves me with visions of World Cup runs dancing through my head.
The Black Cats welcome Manchester City into the Stadium of Light Sunday. The result means little to me. City will likely win. I just want Jozy to play and score. And continue to play and score.
No. 1: Manchester United vs Arsenal at Old Trafford
When: Sunday at 10AM on NBC Sports Network -- shame this one isn’t on the big boy NBC. Last week, Arsenal-Liverpool got 990,000 viewers which was the highest of the season. I bet United/Arsenal would have topped the million mark.
Last year: United won this fixture 2-1 last November, behind goals by Robin van Persie and Patrice Evra. This one wasn’t as close as it looked, either; Arsenal scored in the 95th minute to make it look better for the papers.
This is an absolutely massive game for two of the biggest clubs in England - for completely different reasons.
Nobody would have been surprised if you told them that one of these teams had the opportunity to go 11 points clear of the other with a victory at Old Trafford on Sunday. But most would have thought you were crazy if you said it would be Arsenal in a position of authority over the defending champions.
Arsenal are five points clear of a three-way tie between Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham right now, and it might appear there is some room for error for the Gunners here - but there really isn’t. United have shown themselves to be vulnerable at Old Trafford this season, with a loss to West Brom and draws to Chelsea and Southampton. A loss would put Arsenal just two points up - it's unlikely that Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs will all lose winnable matches - and all of a sudden, United would be back within striking distance of the top of the table again, after their nightmare start.
A draw would be serviceable, and is a very likely result, but Arsenal have such a grand opportunity here. I am not going out on a limb by saying that few have fully bought into the dream start they have had through 10 Premier League matches and four of six group stage matches in Champions League.
Although they’d never admit to anyone else, even the biggest Arsenal fans appear to be going about this excellent start with guarded trepidation. We all know it is only the first week of November, and April/May are a long, long time away. A lot has been made in this space and others about how soft the fixture list had been for the Gunners up until this point. They deserve full credit for beating an in-form Liverpool side last week. They deserve even more credit for beating Borussia Dortmund in their barn. Winning a Champions League group stage match in Germany is never easy. Winning a Champions League final in Germany against a German team is even more difficult. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
But that won’t mean much if they come out Sunday and get dumped by United, and van Persie bags a pair. Then they come back to the pack a bit, and the story (fairly or unfairly) shifts. But a win gives them that massive result people have been waiting for, and would shut people like me up for a bit, and cause me to tip my cap.
United will clearly be motivated in a match that will certainly define their season one way the other if someone snatches the full three points. United have won three of their last four league matches but definitely could have used the confidence boost that a win at Real Sociedad in midweek would have provided them, but they settled for the 0-0 draw and we all got Hilarious Chicharito Botched Goal From Inside the Six Volume 43.
And just like a Arsenal loss would cause doubters to say “I told you so!," a United victory would cause their fans to say “I told you so!” to all the David Moyes-doubters. I'm hoping there are some fireworks in this one. I think there will be. The 10 o’clock kick is perfect, since it will be over right as NFL cranks up. No reason to miss it. Grab a friend who usually doesn’t watch soccer, and get them into it.
Next week, there are no Premier League matches, because of an international break. The World Cup play-in ties get decided (go New Zealand!), while a lot of other nations play friendlies. The US play in Scotland next Friday, and in Austria the following Tuesday. Awesome tests. Love Klinnsy’s scheduling.
Until we chat again, may your goals always be golden and headers always be diving.