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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Guest post: MLS inevitable for Minnesota? Don't be so sure

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Vikings off the field, Soccer Updated: July 3, 2014 - 11:56 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week, I published a post about the inevitability of MLS coming to Minnesota. Sometime SoccerCentric Major League Soccer correspondent Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) isn't so sure, and offered up the following rebuttal. I am always happy when Wes, who co-hosts the popular du Nord Futbol Show podcast, is here, even when he disagrees with me. Take it away, Wes!


“I want to reassure you, soccer fans of Minnesota… Minnesota will get a Major League Soccer team.… it’s happening. I’m convinced of it.”

My friend and the curator of this soccer blog, Jon Marthaler, wrote these words last week. Jon knows the sports world, and the soccer community specifically, very well, yet I disagree with him completely. I am not convinced Minnesota will be awarded an MLS franchise, and unfortunately, there is an air of inevitability that has overtaken our politicians and media.

Despite Jon's arguments, the Twin Cities have proven nothing about their ability to be a guaranteed MLS success. No politicians support the team, and the fanbase has yet to show up in the waves that would indicate that MLS has support. The market needs politicians and media to publicly support a bid, and fans to show that MLS will have a home here.

In his blog post, Jon cited the desirability of the Twin Cities market for why MLS would want a franchise here. I agree with him thoroughly. The Twin Cities is not just the 15th largest television market - the entire upper Midwest is dead space for MLS.

Major League Soccer’s expansion strategy has followed three principles. Their top priority is working toward better TV deals, and so they have targeted top TV markets such as Atlanta, and a New York City team in one of the five boroughs. They have also looked to fill out their geographic profile, specifically the glaring gap in the American Southeast. Finally, they are looking for teams in cities that will develop unique and passionate soccer cultures.

This final principle is a little bit hard to capture, but it is the difference between Sporting Kansas City - who have sold out every league match since opening their new stadium in 2011 - and the less-passionate markets for FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids, or the New England Revolution. The resounding success of MLS’s growth over the last few years has come from the unique relationships between fans and front offices.

Major League Soccer has now overtaken the NBA and NHL in average attendance per game, and while the successes of Toronto, Philadelphia, and Portland all have different flavors, they can be traced back to the very soccer-specific fan and club relationships.

The Twin Cities tick all the MLS expansion boxes: we have a large TV market, we would have great rivalries with Kansas City and Chicago, and we have has one of the most unique and famous lower-division soccer supporters groups, in the Dark Clouds.

Despite all this, MLS coming to Minnesota is not inevitable. Frankly, MLS does not need Minnesota. They would certainly love to expand to the Twin Cities. However, to believe that we have the upper hand is to completely misunderstand the position we are in right now.

The idea that MLS needs Minnesota more than we need MLS betrays the kind of dismissiveness that we heard in planning meetings for the new Vikings stadium. In those meetings I heard comments from council members putting soccer on the level of college baseball. I distinctly remember hearing an official saying, “We have to remember that this is a football stadium and we can’t meet the needs of every interest group.”

This attitude is part and parcel of Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson’s comments to the Pioneer Press, in which she said, “Taxpayers are funding half of a one billion dollar stadium that is being built to accommodate soccer.” I’m sorry to report to the Council President that she is incorrect; soccer has never been anything more than an afterthought in the planning of the new Vikings stadium.

These attitudes greatly misunderstand the health of Major League Soccer right now. The League has no need to move to a city where they can’t expect a resounding success. They will not move into Miami without a proper downtown stadium, and they most certainly will not move into the Twin Cities without knowing that we will deliver a game-day atmosphere that will surpass their other recent successes.

The Twin Cities have built two football stadiums and two baseball stadiums in the past decade. Apparently, one football stadium is not appropriate for two teams of the same sport. And yet soccer fans are continually asked, “Why can’t an MLS team play in the new Saints stadium?” Or TCF Bank Stadium? Or the Vikings stadium?

I am not advocating for a certain level public funding here, or anything else specific. I am merely pointing to the lack of self-awareness that surrounds public conversations about soccer. American soccer’s success has been built on the unique atmosphere created by soccer fans. We stand and sing for 90 minutes. We don’t just watch the games; we participate in the action. That is not an atmosphere that can be shoehorned into any stadium.

If you think that MLS will just happen to ride into town someday, you are greatly mistaken. Our cities and our state are in auditions. It’s our job - not just the job of soccer fans, but a job for businesses and politicians - to prove to to Major League Soccer that we understand what’s at stake. If we continue to shrug our shoulders and pretend that soccer is just another sport that can be shoe-horned in anywhere, then MLS can take its horse and pony show to San Antonio or Sacramento or any other city that will take them seriously.

The Mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro, has been vocal about his desire to bring MLS to San Antonio. In Minneapolis, our politicians discuss soccer on par with college baseball.

In Orlando, the state has joined with the city to create an exciting new stadium that will be foster and showcase the scintillating atmosphere of live soccer. In Minneapolis, decision-makers view soccer as a way to fill dates in a stadium built for another sport.

There are three high-end international soccer matches coming to the Twin Cities this summer: English Premier League team Swansea City vs Minnesota United FC, the Mexican Under-21 National Team vs Minnesota United FC, and English champions Manchester City vs Greek powerhouse Olympiakos. None of these matches have sold out. That says something.

I firmly believe that MLS would be a great success in the Twin Cities, and I believe the fanbase is there. But I don’t believe that people have taken soccer seriously enough, especially as a sport that is tied to a particular revitalization of the urban core in cities throughout the US and Canada.

MLS coming to Minnesota is not inevitable. Thinking that it is only adds to our collective underestimation of Major League Soccer.

Belgium 2, USA 1: Heart-stopping loss leaves Americans wondering

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: July 1, 2014 - 5:50 PM

The USA could have won their game against Belgium. Chris Wondolowski nearly scored in stoppage time, skewing his shot wide with only the goalie in front of him (though he may have been called offside); after falling behind 2-0 in extra time, Julian Green scored for the USA, and gave the Americans hope of tying the game and winning on penalty kicks, which Clint Dempsey nearly pulled off from a set piece.

It all could have happened. Tim Howard was massive in goal, making 16 saves, the most of a keeper in recorded World Cup history. Belgium dominated the game, for sure, but the USA refused to break for all of regulation, and we got to hope.

Heart-breaking? No. Belgium deserved the win, deserved the two goals they got in extra time, and deserve to play Argentina this weekend in the quarterfinals. But heart-stopping? You had better believe it.

It is possible to find small moral victories all over the field in the USA's performance - Howard, Green's goal, everything DeAndre Yedlin did. And it is also possible to dismiss the Belgium win as a simple equation: Belgium is better than the USA because they have better players, all over the field, and a win for America would have been an upset. And it is also possible to appreciate the Americans' tenacity to come back, after being dead and buried in extra time, to manage to haul themselves back into the game one more time.

Nevertheless, it's disappointing to be here, again, as an American fan. With four years between World Cups, when another one rolls around, it's tempting to believe that this is the year of the breakthrough. This is the year that America finally finds itself, and begins to realize the promise that the team has showed for years. Even when all evidence is to the contrary - we are still short on good players - it's always worth a hope that somehow the team can come together and find that missing something to make a run.

It all seemed possible in 2002, when the USA outplayed Germany in the quarterfinals but lost 1-0. 2006 was a horrible disappointment, and 2010 was one late Landon Donovan goal away from going the same way. Twelve years on, American fans were looking for some idea that things were on the upswing.

We'll have the days and weeks to come to unpack that, of course. We can remember valiant defeats to Germany and Belgium, two awfully good teams, and the draw against Portugal that should have been a win, and the Americans overcoming Ghana despite being outplayed.

Or, we can remember that the USA was second-best against Ghana, Germany, and Belgium, and wasn't good enough to hold on against Portugal. We can remember that, though the team got through the Group of Death, they did so with the second-worst possession statistics of any team in the tournament. For all of the hope of America finally asserting itself offensively, they really only did so in the middle hour of the Portugal match.

This World Cup was going to be a referendum on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a chance to judge the controversial coach. After this World Cup, it's still unclear, and your opinion on the team as a whole may be geared to match your opinion on Klinsmann.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the best summation came from the goalie. "I don't think we could have given any more," said Howard after the game, and he was dead right. Talent aside, coaching aside, luck and hope and breakthroughs aside, ultimately that may be all that we as fans can really ask for.

World Cup Day 17 and 18: Four for the quarterfinals

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: June 30, 2014 - 9:31 AM

The first four teams in the quarterfinals are set, and it's the four that most people expected to get through. The only surprising thing is how the four got there. A few thoughts:

Brazil 1, Chile 1 (Brazil wins on penalties 3-2): This is not the Brazil we thought we would see. We did not expect Brazil to score in the first half, concede a goal a quarter of an hour later, and then doggedly hang on through the remainder of the game and extra time in order to get to penalties. This is supposed to be the World Cup of samba, of verve and attacking and the expression of joy through futbol; it never crossed our minds that Brazil would need to hang on against Chile.

Then again, perhaps we're just expecting too much from Brazil. They are still the tournament favorites, and are still three wins away from a seventh World Cup. Then again, they were the favorites in Germany and South Africa, too - they are perma-favorites - and they lost in the quarterfinals both times.

Colombia 2, Uruguay 0: Every World Cup has a breakout star, a player that maybe you knew about already, but who suddenly is possessed by the spirit of Pele and scores a bunch of goals. This year's edition is Colombian winger James Rodriguez - it's pronounced Hahm-ez - who scored both Colombian goals in the quarterfinals, bringing his tally up to five, the most in the tournament. If you have not yet seen his first goal, please go watch it; I suspect we will not see a better goal in the tournament.

I guarantee you that every fan of a club soccer team around the world has, at some point during this World Cup, gone to Rodriguez's Wikipedia page to find out where he plays (Monaco, in the French league) and how old he is (just 22). They will have been disappointed to learn that Monaco paid 45 million Euros for him last season, in the top 20 highest transfer fees in history, making him too expensive for all but a handful of teams. But they will remember his name - if for no other reason, than to pronounce it correctly in the future.

Netherlands 2, Mexico 1: Giovani dos Santos scored an excellent goal, and it looked like Mexico might hold on - until a late Wesley Sneijder rocket tied the game, and an Arjen Robben dive in stoppage time fooled the referee into awarding the Dutch the game-deciding penalty. If this serves only to remind the world that Arjen Robben is absolutely the worst, then perhaps it's still worth it. To sum up: Arjen Robben is the worst.

Let's also spare a thought for Mexico, which - almost incredibly - lost in the first knockout round for the sixth consecutive World Cup. It's like our neighbors to the south are doomed to forever be the 13th best team in world soccer: sure to qualify, good enough to progress, never good enough to go any farther.

Mexico has now been in the World Cup 15 times. They have made it to the knockout stage eight times. And in all that time, they have won ONE knockout-round game. By the time they get a chance to go for another, it'll be 32 years since that win, at home against Bulgaria in 1986. Yikes.

Costa Rica 1, Greece 1 (Costa Rica win 5-3 on penalties): Costa Rica are the tournament's happy underdog story, and we're just so pleased to see it keep running for a few more days. Bryan Ruiz scored in the 52nd minute for Los Ticos, who then had Oscar Duarte sent off 14 minutes later. But the Costa Ricans exhaustedly withstood the Greece attack for an hour longer, even after Sokratis Papastathopoulos tied the game in stoppage time in regulation, and then somehow had the energy to score all five penalties to advance. Striker Joel Campbell in particular looked like he could barely walk up to take his penalty, but he scored.

Costa Rica's reward is a quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Saturday, which is a poor reward. Still, during the game, the announcers told the story of the 1990 World Cup, the only other time Costa Rica made it through to the knockout round. Though they lost in the first game, upon their return to Costa Rica, they were given a heroes' welcome; people came out of their houses and held up mirrors, as the team's plane circled the country, and the players could see the reflection of a thousand points of light from all across the nation.

I don't know what awaits the team upon their return to Costa Rica this year. The modern equivalent would probably be laser pointers, but that seems unsafe.

MLS will come to Minnesota, and waiting may be a good thing

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Vikings management, Soccer Updated: June 27, 2014 - 1:00 PM

I want to reassure you, soccer fans of Minnesota - especially those of you who might just be joining us, thanks to an exciting World Cup and the USA making it to the knockout round. Allow me to soothe your fevered brows: Minnesota will get a Major League Soccer team. When they will start play, no one knows; who will own the team is also undecided, as is where the team will take the field. But it’s happening. I’m convinced of it.

For all of Major League Soccer’s talk about franchise fees and expansion criteria, the league has been extremely pragmatic in placing its franchises. The league wanted to tap into the Pacific Northwest’s soccer culture, so it placed teams in Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, despite the first two playing in cavernous football stadiums and the last playing in a converted baseball stadium. MLS wanted a second team in New York, and so New York City FC will begin play next year in Yankee Stadium, without a concrete plan to build a stadium of its own. The league wanted to get back into the Southeast, where two clubs folded in 2002, and so awarded teams to a smaller market in Orlando, to an NFL owner in Atlanta, and to a stadium-free, David Beckham-led bid in Miami.

Now, the league wants to spread across the country, to expand from its East Coast / West Coast / Texas footprint. The Southeast trio was a big part of that expansion. Adding another team in the center of the country, to go with Chicago and Kansas City, looks like it’s the next logical step. Combine that with the lure of a top-15 television market and the financial backing of the Twin Cities business community, and you begin to see why Minnesota, not San Antonio or Sacramento or Las Vegas, has been the focus of most of the next-franchise league rumors.

Nothing has been decided yet, though, and that’s because Major League Soccer would like to drop a team into a perfect situation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. Ideally, the league would like all of its teams to play in a soccer-specific stadium, in a downtown locale that’s accessible both by car and by public transit, in front of fans that have an affinity for the team and owned by a group that’s committed entirely to soccer. The league has never made any bones about this desire in every market they’ve gone into. They’ve achieved bits and pieces of this vision; twelve of the league’s 19 teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, although these tend to be in the suburbs and not downtown, and very few of the league’s teams have the disinterested corporate ownership that predominated in the MLS’s early days.

It remains possible that the league could check just about every one of their boxes in Minneapolis. Two decades of pro soccer support in Minnesota have now coalesced around Minnesota United FC, and almost ever since Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the team early in 2013, rumors have swirled about his desire to build a soccer-specific stadium in Minnesota. Talk of a stadium at the Farmer’s Market site in downtown Minneapolis has intensified, and other sites that would meet the team’s desires have been suggested. Any plan would not only require a site but also a financing plan, which could be difficult in a local market that has seen the approval of four new stadiums in the past ten years. But if McGuire - and any partners he might include in the team - could make a stadium plan a reality, it would appear, to me at least, that the team is a natural choice to become the next MLS franchise.

Should the plan fail to materialize, though, the league has a waiting backup plan in the Vikings. The team already has the downtown arena being built, albeit in the form of a Vancouver-style converted football stadium, and the Vikings’ latest public-relations push appears designed to convince both the league and local fans that the team is serious about being a committed MLS owner.

Many United fans are dead set against the idea of the Vikings owning a team, an anger that is the combination of a number of factors. For one, the fans fear the cheap, disinterested soccer ownership style that New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who also owns the New England Revolution in MLS, has made infamous. For another, fans of pro soccer in Minnesota are angry that the Wilfs did not step in to save their team while it was in years-long danger of being folded - even while simultaneously pushing the possibility of soccer in the new Vikings stadium.

Mostly, though, both local fans and MLS itself realize that there is still the possibility of that top-notch, soccer-focused experience coming to Minnesota, and that’s what they’re holding out for. If that doesn’t happen, I expect the league to once again be pragmatic, and announce the launch of a Vikings-backed team. But the league can afford to be patient, and wait to see if its best hopes become a reality.

I know it’s hard, soccer fans. But I think you just need to be patient, as well. I’m convinced MLS in Minnesota is going to happen, and waiting means it might happen in exactly the way that both you, and Major League Soccer, want it to happen.

Germany 1, USA 0: Game is lost but the job got done

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: June 26, 2014 - 1:50 PM

History will remember the USA's 1-0 loss to Germany as a speed bump on the way to the knockout round, and ultimately, that might be the truth of it. The Americans never looked like scoring against Germany, but Portugal beat Ghana 2-1 in Group G's other game, and in the end the Americans go through quite comfortably on goal differential.

Following the World Cup draw, this was exactly the path to the knockout round that most pundits planned for the USA: beat Ghana, get a result of some kind against Portugal, and then keep it close against Germany and hope results break the USA's way. That's exactly what happened, and while it wasn't convincing, it got the job done. The many who have questioned the team, and especially the methods of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, will be left to remember that Klinsmann navigated his underdog team through the hardest group at the World Cup.

Focusing on the results, though, ignores the actual panic of the early afternoon for American fans. 0-0 at halftime, with Portugal leading Ghana 1-0, everything felt pretty comfortable; barring a Ghanian comeback or a German goal, the USA would skate comfortably through. Within three minutes of each other, though, Thomas Muller scored for Germany and Asamoah Gyan - him again - scored for Ghana, and suddenly the USA was one Ghana goal from going out.

It wasn't until the 80th minute, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Portugal, that fans began to breathe easy. Ghana never found either of the two goals they would have needed to go through, nor did Portugal and Germany look like scoring the three combined goals they'd need to score to send the USA home, and each of the fifteen minutes that remained following Ronaldo's goal was more comfortable than the last.

In the end, it was a 1-0 loss that the USA could be happy with. From the opening kickoff, it became apparent that the Americans would concede Germany most of the possession and aim to wait for a chance on a set piece, or for a German defensive mistake. Germany, at least, tried to press the Americans into a mistake; the USA sat back, allowing two-thirds of the possession to go to their opponents in favor of keeping most of their team behind the ball.

For much of the first half, the USA appeared to be playing nothing so much as six defenders; in general, either or both of wings Graham Zusi and Brad Davis were in the defensive line, along with occasional trips there from Kyle Beckerman, who barely strayed more than ten yards from either center back. Michael Bradley, theoretically set to lead the USA's attack from midfield, was again so ineffective that he and Jermaine Jones effectively switched places. Clint Dempsey was surrounded fore and aft by German defenders for the entire game, to the point that he eventually started coming back to 30 yards in front of his own goalkeeper, just in the hopes of getting a piece of the ball.

Still, though, to focus on the negatives of the USA's defensive-minded approach would be wrong, in some ways. It's also notable that the powerful German offense barely cracked open the USA defense; Tim Howard was forced into a few saves, but most of them were either shots from distance, or controllable. It was only from a corner that Howard's initial save fell to Mueller near the edge of the area, and the German striker buried a world-class shot inside the far post.

You can be positive about the USA's defense, then, given that a collapse would have sent them home. You can be infuriated about their lack of attack, given that they managed just four shots - none on goal - and two corners. Ultimately, though, the Americans knew that a 1-0 loss might be enough for them - a belief that proved true.

Getting out of the Group of Death? Achieved. We will remember John Brooks's late winner against Ghana, and that Portugal's at-the-death equalizer against the Americans wasn't enough to knock the USA out. We will forget about today's game against Germany, just as we've forgotten about the USA's 3-1 loss to Poland in the final group-stage game in 2002, which also wasn't enough to knock the Americans out of qualifying for the second round.

The tournament resets now. The USA will play either Belgium or Algeria - likely Belgium - next Tuesday at 3:00. The Group of Death is over. Now comes the hard part.

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