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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Minnesota Update: Mukwelle Akale leads USA U-18 team to tournament victory

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 25, 2014 - 7:58 AM

Minneapolis native Mukwelle Akale is winning international awards yet again - this time, in the Czech Republic. Akale was named Player of the Tournament at the Vaclav Jezek Tournament, and scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Ukraine in the tournament final. It's another award for the youngster's shelf; he won the same Player of the Tournament award at the Copa del Atlantico earlier this year.

Akale, who signed with Spanish giants Villareal earlier in the year, has long been a part of the USA youth setup, as well as the Minnesota Thunder Academy that's based in Woodbury. He started in the USA's tournament-opening 3-1 win over Hungary, and came on as a substitute in the team's 3-2 win over the Czech Republic. His winning goal, in the 47th minute of the title match, capped off yet another starring performance for the youngster.

Should you want to see him in action, you can also see him here, scoring for the Villareal U-18 team against the Southampton U-18 team. 

Nor was Akale the only local on the field in the Czech Republic. Jackson Yueill, who has also featured for the U-18 team in the past, was again in action with the squad as well. He started the team's opening game, but missed on out the game against the Czech Republic; no box score is yet available for the championship match, so there's no telling whether he made the field for that one. Yueill, also a Minnesota Thunder Academy product, is still part of the Woodbury program.

On the women's side, Woodbury native Kassey Kallman is one match away from her first championship ring in the pro ranks. Her NWSL team, FC Kansas City, beat the Portland Thorns 2-0 on Saturday. Kallman started and played all 90 minutes, taking three shots, one of which was on goal. KC will face the winner of Seattle next Sunday for the NWSL title. The 22-year-old Florida State grad has started 18 of Kansas City's 24 games this year, and has plenty of international action to her credit as well, last featuring for the USA U-23 team at the Six Nations tournament in March.

Goalkeeper Cody Cropper has also been featuring for the U-23 team, on the men's side. The Maple Grove native started at keeper in a 5-1 win over the Bahamas senior team in early August, the culmination of a five-day training camp for the team that's likely to feature at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Cropper, who was born in February 1993, will just meet the age limit for the games, and is on track to start at keeper - should the United States qualify, as they failed to do in 2012.

Cropper remains at Southampton, where he started for the U-21 side on Friday in their second game in the U-21 Premier League, a 2-1 win over the West Ham U-21s.

Cropper's sometime USA youth teammate, Woodbury's Eric Miller, has been back in the picture for the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer. Miller started the first seven games of the year for Montreal, and has been back in the lineup recently, starting three games in August as the Impact search for a combination that will keep them off the bottom of the league. His teammate Calum Mallace, a Henry Sibley HS alum, has also been featuring for the Impact; Mallace started last Saturday against New York and picked up an assist, though Montreal lost 4-2 to New York.

And finally: Prior Lake native Teal Bunbury has started almost every game this season for the New England Revolution, generally playing on the right side of midfield. He's scored twice and has four assists, in his first season since leaving Sporting Kansas City, where he played for four years.

United steals point against ten-man Cosmos

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Off the field, Soccer Updated: August 23, 2014 - 8:39 PM

It would have been reasonable to expect Minnesota United, the NASL leaders, to dominate a game in which they had a man advantage for virtually the entire match. Instead, United were run off the field by the New York Cosmos, and were lucky to escape New York with a 1-1 draw.

Christian Ramirez scored from the penalty spot just eight minutes into the game, after Cosmos keeper Joe Maurer took down the onrushing Daniel Mendes in the penalty area. Maurer was sent off for the challenge, and Ramirez slotted home his 13th goal of the season.

Thereafter, though, Minnesota was nothing short of terrible, even given the lead and the man advantage. Mads Stokkelien finally scored for the Cosmos to knot the game in the 74th minute, but by then, United should have already been a goal or two down. Andres Flores should have scored just 20 minutes in to the game, when a bounce beat United defender Justin Davis, and keeper Matt Van Oekel had to parry away a close-range shot from Flores. Van Oekel was on display again, twice in two minutes in the early second half, denying both Hagop Chirisian and Stefan Dimitrov from close range after both had found their way through the floundering Minnesota defense.

As the second half wore on, the Cosmos grew stronger and United flailed even harder. Cosmos right back Hunter Freeman should have scored from a header, with the net wide open in front of him, but mistimed his leap. On the other end, Ramirez pulled a shot just wide - in what was really Minnesota's only chance of the game, a sad statement of just how punchless their offense was.

After Stokkelien had turned home the cross, Minnesota collapsed completely. Davis ran over Flores in the Minnesota area, a fairly clear penalty that was somehow ignored by the referee. One minute later, Van Oekel had to come rushing out to clear a long ball that had escaped the inert Minnesota defense, and his sliding clearance rebounded to Freeman, who was unlucky to see his long-range blast rebound off the post.

In the end, United was more than lucky to escape with a draw. The end of the game saw a sight that perhaps has never before been seen on a soccer field - Giovanni Savarese, the coach of the team that was down to ten men, berating the officials for not adding more time onto the end of the game.

It's difficult to describe how hapless United's performance was. Somehow, even though the Cosmos had one fewer player on the field, they were able to outnumber Minnesota on both ends of the field. United were neither able to control possession nor press the Cosmos defense; their only tactic was to attempt long balls over the New York defense. Penalty aside, Minnesota's super attack was completely neutralized - not the result that United wanted to see, in what was a preview of a potential playoff matchup.

Somehow, the Cosmos had the freedom to run wherever they wanted on the flanks. Somehow, they were able to break up every United passing play in the middle of the field - and even turn them into counterattacks. Somehow, New York was first to every loose ball and highest for every header.

Minnesota can justly be proud of their spring-season title, and will point to their current eleven-game unbeaten run. It's worth mentioning, though, that they've been comprehensively outplayed by the Cosmos twice this season, and though they beat San Antonio on the season's opening day, they've yet to play the Scorpions in the fall.

For the moment, United remains atop the standings. But if it's a championship they're after, they'll have to win it against San Antonio and New York, the other teams ahead of the NASL pack. After their performance tonight, it would seem that against those teams, even an extra player isn't enough to make them the favorite.

Nuclear Wessel: Week two in the Premier League

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 22, 2014 - 9:41 AM

Dana Wessel (@DanaWessel) produces the K-TWIN Morning Show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00a, with Mark Rider, as well as Eric Perkins and Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11. Every week – well, most weeks – he writes this collection of wonderful about the English Premier League. We are thrilled to have him back for this year. Dana?


Welcome back, Nuclear Warheads! It’s time to once again preview the weekend’s Premier League action. Typically it takes a while for the top of the table to sort itself out, but after one week it looks like this:

1. Chelsea
2. Manchester City
3. Arsenal
4. Liverpool

How many people would be willing to bet straight cash, homey on that being the exact table at the end of week 38? I would.

Anyway, that somewhat disturbing smell you may be noticing is coming from United fans washing their unmentionables after last week’s home loss to the mighty Swansea City. You can’t help but smile picturing David Moyes sitting on an expensive couch that Manchester United paid for, smoking a fine cigar that Manchester United paid for, and drinking expensive whiskey that Manchester United paid for – and all with a doo-doo-eating grin on his face, courtesy of the good people at Manchester United. Fun times!

Last weekend’s matches ended up being a lot of fun, despite being on paper as sexy as irritable bowel syndrome. This weekend? It’s more scorching than a hot tub full of Inferno buffalo sauce. And the best news? The 6:45am Saturday match is an absolute trainwreck, so there is no need to set an early alarm.

No. 1: Chelsea vs Leicester City at Stamford Bridge
When: Saturday at 9:00am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: These two last met at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup in 2012, with the eventual champions Chelsea winning 5-2. Their last Premiership encounter at Stamford Bridge was back in the 2003-4 season; Chelsea dominated that encounter as well, 4-0.

Chelsea make their 2014-15 Stamford Bridge debut, after a 3-1 win at Burnley in which they looked like the champions - just as many predicted they will be, come May. Meanwhile, recently promoted Leicester got off to a dream start, with a 2-2 tie against Everton.

Other than an early defensive lapse at Burnley that put Chelsea down a goal, the opener went just about perfect for Jose Mourinho’s overhauled roster. Their new big shiny striker Diego Costa scored the opener. Sure, it was right place, right time. But as far as goals from strikers at Chelsea, they’ll take it. The Cesc Fabregas pass to Andre Schurrle was remarkable enough that even those who detest Chelsea spent their week watching it over and over again online.

Leicester managed to get two past Timmy Howard* last week. But they’ll be away from the friendly confines of St. Bellow Higgenbottom Terrace (I don’t know where they actually play without looking it up, but neither do you, so let’s just go with “St. Bellow Higgenbottom Terrace”), where their fans were letting go all the pent-up emotion that comes with a decade away from the Premier League. The emotional high of the first game back in the Premier League will have subsided, and reality will set in. And that reality is a very good Chelsea team.

*I’m happy for Timmy. If you hadn’t heard, he is taking a year-long sabbatical from the USMNT to spend more time with his kids. He’s earned it. The US will be in fine hands with Brad Guzan at the Gold Cup next summer. Timmy will have to fight for his spot when he comes back next September, so there is no guarantee he will put the crest on again. If this is it for Timmy, it was a hell of a career. Half of me wants to be happy I got to grow up watching him and Landon Donovan play; the other half of me wants to “first 10 minutes of ‘Up’”-sob-cry that they both might be done.

Go Chelsea!

No. 2: Everton vs Arsenal at Goodison Park
When:
Saturday at 11:30am on big boy NBC
Last year: Everton took all three points in a 3-0 rout last April against the Gunners. This was during a four-match winless streak for Arsenal, where it looked like they were going to fall out of the top four. Arsene Wenger then led them on a five-match win streak to save their top four status and his job.

Speaking of Tim Howard! Everton fans living in England must be happy about the news that he won’t be going off for international duty in the next calendar year. World class athletes and that blah blah blah, but those miles add up. Trips back and forth across the Atlantic take a toll on your body and your internal clock.

Road draws happen, but the worst news so far this year for Everton has to be the Ross Barkley injury. There are still varying reports on when he will be back. Five months? November? Either way, it is a huge blow for Everton. Barkley was one of the big reasons Everton had a crack at the top four last year, and they needed similar production from him to have another crack.

In week one, Arsenal narrowly avoided lighting two points on fire and watching them burn. They needed a stoppage-time goal to beat a Crystal Palace team at home that doesn’t even have a manger. Seriously. They don’t have a manager. They have a monkey in rollerskates wearing a Crystal Palace scarf managing the team. He knows NOTHING about soccer. Nothing. They got him from the zoo. He just poops a lot. Very messy situation. Both literally and figuratively.

Just kidding; they have an interim manager but are having trouble hiring someone to replace Tony Pulis, who left the club shortly before the season after winning Manager of the Year last season. Maybe they should buy a pair of rollerskates and go find a monkey? I dunno. I’d watch more Palace matches if there was a rollerskating monkey involved.

The Gunners are also coming off a mid-week draw in a Champions League qualification match. No rest for them. This will be an intriguing match for both sides. Everton will be trying to prove that they belong amongst the top four, while Arsenal want to show the rest of the league they can win the big matches in which they so often failed in last season.

I think this one ends up a scoring draw. 1-1, 2-2, 15-15, etc.

No. 3: Manchester City vs Liverpool at Etihad Stadium
When:
Monday (Ohhhhhhhh whhhhhhy Monday?) at 2:00pm on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Liverpool coughed up an early lead on Boxing Day last year (something that became a bit of a habit) and lost to City 2-1 thanks to a Alvaro Negredo goal late in the first half.

This is the first big-time match of the season. Sorry, Arsenal-Everton. Your match is important, but it’s a consolation game of a middle school basketball tournament compared to this one, as far as the title goes.

It is crazy to think about how close we were to this match featuring Liverpool, as champions, heading to Manchester City for the first big match of their title defense. But that scenario will just have to stay in a “Back to the Future”-alternate-1985-style universe. The reality of the situation is that Liverpool blew a golden opportunity to win their first ever Premier League crown, and are back at square one facing the daunting task of putting together another dream season.

The big news ahead of this fixture is of course Liverpool swapping one borderline-psychopath striker for another. Mario Balotelli is returning to the Premier League! Yay? I guess? The guy is entertaining. He’ll actually fit into Liverpool’s system pretty well. And although he is weirder than those people who run with those sock shoes with the toes, he isn’t a threat to bite anybody like Luis Suarez. I think.

The signing isn’t official as of this writing, so he won’t be available to play in Monday’s match, which is too bad. That would have added a delicious wrinkle to an already spicy affair at the Etihad.

This is the first big Monday match of the season where you might want to fake an afternoon sales meeting, or just go hide in a broom closet with your laptop. Mondays suck anyway. Might as well mix in what should be an entertaining match. I see City getting the full three points in a 3-2 or 2-1 situation.

All right Nuclear Warheads, that’ll do it for this week. As always, remember to keep your oranges sliced and your goal lines cleared.

Guest post: Notes from Minnesota United training

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 21, 2014 - 9:28 AM

Correspondent Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) made it out to Minnesota United training on Wednesday, and checked in with the following report. In return, I demand that you listen to Wes and Bruce McGuire on the du Nord Futbol Show podcast, which is one of the best and deserves your ear time. Wes?


Minnesota United FC spent the day training at Parade Park in downtown Minneapolis to prepare for Saturday’s away game against the New York Cosmos. The team played an 8v8 scrimmage for a little while, in order to practice playing under pressure, then turned to a full sided practice to practice putting the opposition under pressure. It’s a safe bet that there will be pressure both ways on Saturday.

The team seems to have settled into their 4-2-3-1 formation and don’t look likely to stray. I would bet that the midfield two will be Aaron Pitchkolan pairing with either Floyd Franks or Juliano Vicentini. My full interview with head coach Manny Lagos is available on Youtube; he talks more about last week’s win over Indy 11.

New York Cosmos – struggling, but still dangerous

Looking at the table, the only pressure seems to be on the Cosmos, who apparently haven’t yet discovered that the fall season has begun. They have a paltry 8 points from 7 matches, having won just twice all fall.

However, the Cosmos have proven the bogeyman for the Loons since their reboot in fall of 2013. The two teams have met three times, each game ending in a 1-0 victory for New York.

Loons’ Head coach Manny Lagos said he was well aware of the Cosmos’ threat. After training, Lagos said, “We acknowledge that they’ve had the better of us in close games.” He added that they were looking forward to testing themselves against a team that needs results.

Parade Park serves as home base

The team practiced today at Parade Park, which - side note - is absolute torture for someone who dreams of a downtown stadium location. It was a beautiful day and the city skyline loomed above us. Just beautiful. But I digress.

The Cosmos play on turf at the James M. Shuart stadium at Hofstra University. Lagos wanted to prepare for that game with a day’s training on turf. The team will be back up at the National Sports Center in Blaine for the remainder of the week. Lagos pointed out that “you mentally have to prepare” for games on turf, and that the team will need to adjust to that surface quickly.

Juliano returns to training

Midfielder Juliano put in a full session of training Wednesday, as he recovered from the injury he sustained in the 54th minute of the 3-2 win over FC Edmonton on August 9. He trained at three-quarters speed on Tuesday, and will be available for selection on Saturday.

Rafael Burgos nears full fitness

Fans have still not seen new striker Rafael Burgos in action. Burgos signed at the end of July, on loan for Austrian side SV Ried, but has yet to see any action for the team. Burgos is still working up his fitness - but also suffered a separated shoulder in training last week, as setback as he tries to catch up to United’s mid-season fitness level.

Burgos was fully training with the team on Wednesday, despite the shoulder, and is fit enough that he’s in consideration for Saturday’s match.

The striker also has potential international duty ahead of him. El Salvador named Burgos to their preliminary 40-man roster for the Copa Centroamericana, to be played from September 3-13. The final 23-man roster will be announced September 1; if Burgos makes the team, he would then miss matches against Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale.

Pedro Mendes ready to go

The Loons’ newest addition, striker Pedro Mendes, was in the 18-man squad for last Saturday’s match up against Indy, his former club. He looks to be ready to play. Lagos said that Indy made it known that Pedro was available, and the coach thought the striker could continue to add depth to Minnesota’s attack. I was struck by Pedro’s imposing size during training. At an even six feet, he is not remarkably tall, but he has the sort of battering ram’s build that could be helpful if the team is chasing a game.

Watch United's Ramirez score perhaps the NASL's goal of the season

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: August 17, 2014 - 8:18 AM

Minnesota United extended its unbeaten streak to ten games with a dominant 5-1 win over Indy Eleven last night. Aaron Pitchkolan, playing in midfield with Juliano Vicentini out injured, opened the scoring after 25 minutes, and Christian Ramirez and Daniel Mendes added goals before halftime to take the game out of reach at the halfway mark. In the second half, Jamie Watson added a fourth and Ramirez a fifth before the hour mark. Kleberson scored a consolation for Indy, 20 minutes from the end of the match.

I tell you all that so that I can tell you this: all anyone can talk about is Ramirez's first goal, which came from a bicycle kick in the Indy area. You can see it below, beginning at about the 2:30 mark.

The win takes United, at least for the moment, to the top of the fall-season table. San Antonio plays at Ottawa later today, but after six games for both teams, United has 16 points and the Scorpions 15.

Ramirez's two goals extended his lead atop the NASL scoring race; the young striker now has 12 goals in 15 games this year. To put that in perspective, only two players scored more than 12 goals in all of 2013, and only four players have ever tallied more in the three previous NASL seasons. And keep in mind that Ramirez has a dozen games to go this fall.

We all wondered how United could cope this year without injured striker Pablo Campos, who scored at least 12 goals in each of the three years of the NASL. It's safe to say that Ramirez has filled those shoes admirably.

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