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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United cruising toward fall title, top playoff seed

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: September 22, 2014 - 1:30 PM

Minnesota's 2-0 win over San Antonio on Saturday sent a message to the rest of the NASL: this is United's season to control.

The team still has seven games to go in the fall season, but not only does Minnesota have one more game still to play than most of the league, they have the league lead - a two-point gap over San Antonio in the fall season, and a five-point margin in the combined standings.

With Minnesota already in the playoffs, thanks to a first-half championship, it's the combined standings that really matter; a first-place finish means a #1 seed, and the chance to potentially host both the semifinals and the finals in the playoffs. Given that the games will take place in mid-November, it could mean a significant weather-related home-field advantage for Minnesota, as well as a chance to play in front of a raucous home crowd.

Minnesota also gets both second-place San Antonio and third-place New York at home yet this season, and plays the three worst teams in the league - Ottawa, Atlanta, and Indy - over the next three weeks. It'd be difficult to arrange a more favorable schedule for a United team that's potentially in line to win both halves of the NASL season - and set itself up for a run at the league championship.

Saturday's 2-0 win in San Antonio was the team's most definitive positive statement yet. The Scorpions have been the only other consistently good team in the league this year, and now Minnesota has beaten them twice at home in 2014, both times by a pair of goals. Miguel Ibarra scored both goals for United, one either side of halftime, including a second  (http://www.gfycat.com/ThickDimwittedHowlermonkey) where he makes the entire Scorpions team appear to be standing stock-still. Throw in the fact that United had the two best chances of the game that didn't lead to goals, and you start to see a picture of a Minnesota team that's coasting at the head of the pack.

Besides San Antonio, the only other team even remotely near Minnesota in the combined standings is New York, nine points adrift - and the Cosmos are reeling, having slipped to sixth in the fall standings after losing 5-4 in Carolina on Saturday. The rest of the league is at least 14 points behind United, and with only seven games to go, it would take a collapse of historic proportions for any of the league's bottom seven to get anywhere near Minnesota.

There's no doubt that United head coach Manny Lagos would put the kibosh on any such speculation; he has so far succeeded in getting his team to treat the second half with respect, even after clinching a playoff spot. Even after a mini-swoon of three games without a win, nothing about Minnesota suggests a complacent side that's looking forward to November. By all appearances, Lagos has succeeded in getting United to focus on dominating the league.

Anything can happen during the playoffs - something that Minnesota fans well know, after a pair of championship-game appearances following sixth-place finishes in 2011 and 2012. No matter what happens in the postseason, though, one team winning both halves of the season would stand as a dominating performance - and right now, Minnesota appears on track for that type of season.

Nuclear Wessel: Chelsea at Manchester City highlights the Premier League weekend

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: September 19, 2014 - 11:17 AM

Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show with Rider, Eric Perkins and Rena Sarigianopoulos on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. He is our Premier League expert and we love him dearly. Dana?


And we’re back!!!

Hopefully your time since we last talked has gone better than Roger Goodell's. Woof. Has anybody checked on him lately? I picture him holed up in a room, unshowered, looking like Will Ferrell in the “Milk was a bad choice” Anchorman scene, and binge-watching LOST on Netflix in the fetal position.

The NFL has a lot of people, especially locally, feeling pretty icky right now - so what better way to cure what ails you than a great slate of Premier League magnificentness. And no, I don’t say this because I think the sport of soccer is by any means morally better than football. Lord knows the corruption in FIFA makes the NFL look like a lemonade stand run by third-graders. I am just merely pointing out that right now, as I type this, the NFL is about as appealing as the chick from the Exorcist.

Liverpool’s shock defeat at home to Aston Villa and the City/Arsenal draw highlighted last week’s action. Also, I wanna give a shout-out to one team in particular. One thing that makes the Premier League great is, despite the size difference between top and bottom clubs, any team can find a way to get a result each weekend, no matter how small and outmatched they are. And it is always special when some of the smaller clubs get their first win of the season. It means a lot to the long-suffering fans and the players alike.

So with all that being said, I wanna give a big CONGRATULATIONS to Manchester United on their massive upset of QPR last weekend. So cool to see that even the small dogs can have their day in the sun.

Onto the matches!

No. 1: Aston Villa vs Arsenal at Villa Park
When: Saturday at 9:00am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Arsenal bagged the full three points on the road in this fixture a year ago. Goals from Wilshire and Giroud within a minute of each other in the first half were enough for the 2-1 win.

What a result last week for Aston Villa at Anfield! Second in the table after four matches?! Are they for real?!?

No.

But good for them for getting off to a nice little start, and all the credit in the world for holding off that onslaught of opportunities from Liverpool last Saturday. The away fans were elated and that is always awesome to see - especially at Anfield.

We all know you can’t punch above your weight for 38 league matches. Villa’s next four are against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Manager Paul Lambert might be happy he got that that contract extension this week because four straight losses could be on the horizon.

But they are playing with confidence right now and that makes this match scary for an Arsenal team that is having a hard time piecing things together. They have no wins in their last six matches (including Champions League).

Arsenal managed just one win in six tries last season against teams that finished ahead of them in the table. They picked up right where they left off last week when they were seven minutes away from beating Manchester City at home before giving up an equalizer.

It is no secret what Aston Villa is doing right. They’ve given up just one goal in four matches. It is also not hard to see what Aston Villa is not doing right. They only had one shot last week against Liverpool (it went in). Arsenal are the favorites and you have to believe Wenger and his merry, but injured, men find a way to exploit this.

No. 2: West Ham vs Liverpool at Boleyn Ground
When: Saturday at 11:30 on Big Boy NBC
Last year: Liverpool won this one 2-1 last year thanks to two penalties by Steven Gerrard. At least one of them was dodgy as all get up. Or maybe both were. Or maybe none of them were and I am just being biased here. I dunno. You tell me. I am probably being biased.

If the loss to Villa last Saturday at Anfield was burning the roof of your mouth with a scorching hot piece of pizza, then the return to Champions League on Tuesday was a soothing and delicious popsicle*. I have never really shied away from my feelings about Liverpool in this place, or in any Premier League-related conversation (if you’re new: I’d happily pay upwards of $5,000 to see Stevie G take a bocce ball to the crotch). But I will admit that it was cool to see them return to the club game’s biggest stage. You could see how much it meant to their [redacted] fans.

*Popsicles are great and know no age limit. Remember that.

This West Ham match is kind of the turd between two delicious pieces of bread for Liverpool. They had their emotional return to Champions League Wednesday, and have the Merseyside derby next week. But they mustn't overlook this turd, because in the Premier League, every turd counts- okay, I am just going to stop with that metaphor. Liverpool have already dropped six points through four matches in league play, and can’t afford to drop more just because they’re looking ahead to next Saturday’s match against Everton.

Daniel Sturridge has been ruled out, but Mario Balotelli getting his first goal for Liverpool has to give Brendan Rodgers confidence heading into the weekend in a match where they are favorites to win.

I haven’t seen much of West Ham yet, but I did happen to see that Enner Valencia screamer Monday against Hull City. Liverpool will want to, ya know, make sure that doesn’t happen to them. And this concludes my scouting report on Hull City.

You’re being kind if you classify Liverpool’s start to the season as “rocky.” They needed a penalty Tuesday in the 90th minute to beat some janky Bulgarian side, after giving up the equalizer seconds earlier. But I have no doubt they can put it together against West Ham. And I hope they do. I want both them and Everton firing on all cylinders heading into next Sunday. Merseyside derbies are fantastic.

No 3. Manchester City vs Chelsea at Etihad Stadium
When: Sunday at 10:00am on NBC Sports Network - kinda surprised this one doesn’t get the Big Boy NBC treatment.
Last year: Chelsea and Jose Mourinho shocked just about everybody last year by beating City 1-0 at the Etihad. City hadn’t lost at home in something like 4,289 straight matches, but a Branislav Ivanovic goal in the 32nd was enough for the visitors to parallel park a couple buses and get three massive points.

This is the big one. The two far-and-away title favorites, squaring off for the first of two league matches. Being just the fifth match of the season, you would have thought these two would be neck-and-neck, but City have managed to drop four points already. Chelsea have the opportunity to go seven points clear of their title rival early in the season if they can have a repeat of last year’s performance at the Etihad.

Both teams took a shot below the belt this week in the Champions League, and aren’t exactly coming into Sunday flying. Chelsea had chance after chance to put Schalke away but had to settle for a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. City played well enough to earn a draw at Bayern Munich, but Joe Hart got beat in the 90th minute to give the early Group E advantage to the Germans.

Neither team can afford to allow their European hangover to linger, nor do I think they will. They need to pop up, slam a Gatorade, forget about that ill-advised tequila shot and get on with it.

Chelsea are perfect through four matches in league play but there is still plenty to worry about. They conceded first in two of those matches and the defense has looked uncharacteristically shaky at times. Adding to their worry is the Diego Costa situation. Mourinho came out and said he isn’t healthy enough right now to play two games in a week. He played 20 largely unproductive minutes on Wednesday, after Didier Drogba couldn’t shake the rust off and find the back of the net.

This match also carries some emotional weight for the visitors as Chelsea will be facing one of their own. Club legend Frank Lampard is currently on loan at City from New York City Football Club. He has only featured in one match this season so he isn’t likely he’ll play, but it will give the traveling fans a chance to sing their approval and his old teammates a chance for some bro-hugs. Last year Drogba faced Lampard and Chelsea as a member of Galatasaray. This year Lampard will face Drogba and Chelsea as a member of Manchester City. Sports are weird sometimes.

You have to imagine there will be some desperation from Manchester City. The last thing the reigning champions want is to allow Chelsea to go even further clear. Having already lost once at home, they must take care of business in front of their home fans.

Expect Mourinho to have something up his sleeve, like he always does for these types of matches. Get up early and get to the pub for this one. It has the makings of the classic. And when it’s over, go outside and enjoy a beautiful Sunday. Screw the NFL.

All right, boys and girls. That’ll do it until next week. Enjoy the matches. Until next week, may your goalines always be cleared and your free kicks always be direct.

United back in win column - and back atop standings

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: September 13, 2014 - 9:39 PM

Christian Ramirez's shooting has been wayward, but give the Minnesota United striker credit - he's finding other ways to find the back of the net. He chested in a goal, from a beautiful bounding Kevin Venegas free kick, and Miguel Ibarra added a long-distance strike in the second half as United came from behind to win 2-1 over Fort Lauderdale.

It was United's first win since August 17, a welcome shot of momentum for a team that appeared to be stuck in the early-fall doldrums. With a visit to San Antonio on tap for next Saturday, and the Scorpions and Minnesota vying for first place in the overall NASL standings, any tailwind will be welcomed

31 minutes in, Fort Lauderdale took the lead - one of the few times they've managed to do so on the road this year. Striker Pecka volleyed home a Stephane Guillaume cross, a good-looking goal that was greeted with nothing short of jubilation from the Fort Lauderdale sideline.

Seven minutes later, though, Ramirez brought United back level. Venegas's free kick from the right was perfectly placed - too far for the goalkeeper to come out to get it, but with enough pace and bend to flummox the Fort Lauderdale defense. It took one wicked hop, straight into the chest of the onrushing Ramirez, and the striker had only to let the ball deflect off his chest to get the goal. It gave Ramirez 15 goals for the season and three in United's last four games - though the first two were from the penalty spot.

Ibarra took less than ten minutes in the second half to find the winner, a long-range blast that flew into the bottom right-hand corner, perhaps Ibarra's best goal of the season - and his first since mid-July, to boot. It was enough to reduce the Strikers to a long-term policy of shin-kicking and roughhousing, one that proved unable to produce any particularly notable chances.

Ramirez, though, had a gift-wrapped through ball fall to him, three yards from an open net; sadly, he ballooned his chance over the crossbar. It was the latest in a stretch of near misses for the striker. Yet, give him all the credit in the world; he's found other ways to score, including - tonight - with his chest.

In other NASL results, New York led Atlanta 2-0 after ten minutes, blew the lead, then scored in the 84th minute to win 3-2; Carolina whacked San Antonio 3-1; Indy and Edmonton drew 1-1; and Tampa Bay lost 2-0, at home, to last-place Ottawa, and responded with a monumental "sore loser" moment on Twitter.

Might hurt less given the circumstances, Tampa Bay.

United needs to find that scoring magic

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: September 13, 2014 - 9:40 AM

Just by looking at the box scores, you'd start to think Minnesota United FC had lost their offensive magic. They've scored just three goals in three games - two of them penalties, one a free kick, none from open play. That's led to their worst stretch of the year in the results; three games without a win, including their first loss of the fall season. A terrible 1-1 draw at New York was followed with a loss at Edmonton and a draw at home with Tampa Bay, and now San Antonio has crept ahead of Minnesota in the standings; United now trails by four points in the fall table, and one point in the combined spring & fall standings.

The games themselves, though, paint a different picture. The highlight reels are filled with United chances that have skidded just wide or glanced off the woodwork; Christian Ramirez, the league's leading goal-scorer, has been especially snakebitten. If the goal were a couple of feet wider on either side, United would have won its last two games, and Ramirez would have about five more goals to his credit.

Minnesota has controlled possession and outshot its opponents. Head coach Manny Lagos spoke of pain following United's 1-1 draw with Tampa Bay. "It hurts," he said. "The ball’s not quite bouncing our way, and we’re playing some good soccer. We should be finishing our chances and we’re not."

Perhaps tonight's visit from Fort Lauderdale can get Minnesota untracked. United put three past the Strikers in both of the meetings between the two this year. Simone Bracalello, Ramirez, and Miguel Ibarra scored in the first game; Daniel Mendes, Ramirez, and Ibarra scored in the second. It's an almost complete list of the players that Minnesota needs to find the magic scoring touch, beginning with tonight's game.

United's squad will likely be the same as last week, with backup striker Rafael Burgos still gone with the El Salvador national team on Copa Centroamericana duty. He's scored twice in three games for El Salvador, who play Panama tonight in the competition's third-place match. On the injury front, defensive midfielder Juliano Vicentini took a knock in training this week, but is expected to play tonight.

Minnesota has gone to a keeper rotation over the past few games, and if that continues, it would be Mitch Hildebrandt in goal tonight. No changes are likely to the team's back line, nor is the all-conquering Ramirez likely to leave the lineup up front, but the midfield poses an interesting question. Sometime SoccerCentric analyst Bill MK looked at this dilemma, over at The Loon Call, and came to the conclusion that Minnesota needs to stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation, rather than pushing Ibarra out to the wing and bringing Aaron Pitchkolan and Greg Jordan forward. If the team does revert to the 4-2-3-1, then Jamie Watson or Bracalello might come in for Jordan, in order to run the left wing.

The difference for United, though, might not come from creating more chances. All Minnesota might need to do is finish the ones that they get.

Nuclear Wessel: The Premier League returns

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: September 12, 2014 - 8:13 AM

Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am, hosted by Mark Rider and Eric Perkins/Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11. After an unwanted international break, the Premier League is back this weekend, and so is Dana.


I dunno about you, faithful Nuclear Wessel readers, but I was lost all weekend without the Premier League. Having an international break just three weeks into the season was awful and unnecessary - although I did love the 1-0 USMNT win over Czech Republic. Young guns, baby! I just felt sad. Imagine how someone would feel if their dog ran away, so they got a new dog and THAT one ran away, so they got another one and THAT one ran away. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but it kinda felt like it.

I am writing most of this from a plane heading to NYC, so I don’t have the battery life to go on some barely coherent rant about something that has nothing to do with soccer. Let's get straight to the matches!

No. 1: Arsenal vs Manchester City at Emirates Stadium
When
: Saturday at 6:45am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: This one ended in a one-all draw a year ago after Mathieu Flamini scored an equalizer in the 53rd.

Talk about hitting the ground running! One-and-a-half title contenders squaring off in the fourth week of the season, and it’s a rematch of the Community Shield from a few weeks ago.

I’m still a little bit surprised by the 3-0 win by Arsenal in the Shield match. Granted, if English football was the dating scene, the Community Shield is the “mid-week afternoon coffee date.” But it was an impressive win nonetheless, and should have been a big shot of confidence for Wenger’s side.

That said, a lot has changed since then. Neither team is coming into this match selling commemorative scarves of their last matches. Manchester City dumped a match at home to Stoke City 1-0, their first loss at home since Chelsea beat them by the same scoreline last season. Meanwhile, Arsenal could only muster a draw at newly-promoted Leicester City a week after doing the same at Everton.

It is only the fourth week of a 38-match season, so it isn’t time to panic. But it’s safe to say that neither Arsenal nor Man City expected to drop four and three points, respectively, this early in the year. That adds even more pressure to a match that was immediately circled on the schedule the day it came out.

Arsenal fans had to be delighted to see new signing Danny Welbeck bag a brace for England during the midweek break. I presume he’ll make his debut Saturday. He knows a thing or two about big matches against City.

As far as City goes, the last thing they want is to fall further behind Chelsea early in the season. Yes, the defending champions spent very few days in first place last season, and still won the trophy. But they were gunning against an over-achieving Liverpool side and a not-fully-developed Chelsea side. It was essentially a one-horse race with them being the only horse. This year is different. Chelsea are much improved and have come out of the gates flying. This is the type of early match where waking up is a no-brainer.

I won’t take the easy way out and pick a draw, although I really want to. City 2-1.

No. 2: Chelsea vs Swansea at Stamford Bridge
When
: Saturday at 9:00am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Chelsea beat the Swans 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day last season. Eden Hazard had the game’s only goal in the 29th minute. Party!

Undefeated Swansea visits undefeated Chelsea for a clash for the top of the table!

Wait, what?

There are only two perfect teams three weeks into the Premier League season and they meet Saturday morning at Stamford Bridge. This was expected out of Chelsea. Swansea? Not so much. The Pride of Patrick Reusse not only have nine points, but they have only allowed a single goal. Granted, they have yet to play any teams of real substance - no, Manchester United does not count - but you can only play the matches on your schedule. And so far, the Swans have looked good. In fact, their last loss may have been against Minnesota United in July.

But any talk of this Chelsea team with their new summer toys taking time to develop has been put to rest in the first three matches. It has been two weeks, and I think my nerves have finally calmed down from that 6-3 match at Everton. Yes, Chelsea’s defense looked shaky at times, but they will be fine in the back. This is a Jose Mourinho team we are talking about; the only question is if they could score goals. 11 in three matches, with four of them coming from Diego Costa, has Chelsea fans smiling and the other 19 teams trembling.

Swansea are playing well and deserve credit, but they will be up against it at Stamford Bridge, as the most of the Premier League is. But Chelsea can’t take their opponent lightly, and must give them the respect they deserve. The home side are coming off an emotional win two weeks ago, and an international break where the entire team was scattered around the world. It’s time to get back to business and refocus.

No. 3: Liverpool vs Aston Villa at Anfield
When
: Saturday at 11:30am on Big Boy NBC
Last year: A weird match last January at Anfield between these two. Villa got up 2-0 but Daniel Sturridge scored right before the break to cut the deficit in half. Stevie G added a penalty in the 53rd to level things at two, but there would be no winner from either side.

Nice little Saturday triple-dip! The best three matches are all on Saturday this weekend. The only Sunday match? QPR vs Manchester United. Yikes. I’d rather watch Chris Berman take a bath.

Liverpool rebounded nicely after the City defeat by kindly reminding Tottenham where they belong. I said it before he made his debut and I’ll say it now that he has: I am excited Mario Balotelli is in the Premier League. Say what you will about the guy, and everyone does, but he is entertaining and compelling and I want the world’s most entertaining and compelling players in my favorite league. It’s as simple as that.

In another one of those early table oddities. Villa are actually in third right now. That’s what a 1-0 victory over Stoke, a scoreless draw vs Newcastle* and a 2-1 win over the mighty Hull City can get a team three matches into the season.

*I watched most of that match and, granted it is my fault for having nothing better to do, but woof. I wrote down the names of everyone who played on a piece of ancient parchment, and I am going on a quest around the world to get $20 from every single one of them. I want something for my time. I deserve it. And if you watched, so do you.

Alright, that’ll do it this week. I will be checking out the matches at some soccer bars in the Big Apple. I imagine they are just like Minneapolis soccer bars but more New Yorkie? Is that a word? Whatever. I’ll report back next week if anything stands out.

Enjoy the matches. Until next time, may your cards stay yellow and your sheets stay clean.

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