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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Nuclear Wessel: Your Premier League viewing guide

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: March 28, 2014 - 10:29 AM

Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. The show is hosted by Eric Perkins and Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11. His team might win the Premier League title, and he is both excited and nervous. Dana?


We will know the winner of the Premier League in fewer than 50 days. Seven matches to go. Everything still to be decided.

This is the fun part although it sort of sucks because West Brom, Cardiff, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Fulham are tanking for draft picks. Hahaha, oh, wait. No, they aren’t. That is why this is the greatest league in the world. There is more at stake for the teams at the bottom than there is for some of the teams at the top. Nobody is laying down, and every match is intense.

Chelsea are still tops of the league, but for how long? Arsenal are in the top four, but for how long? There have been a lot of intriguing developments since we last got cozy and chatted like this, so how about we light this candle?

Game 1: Manchester United vs Aston Villa at Old Trafford
When: Saturday at 7:45AM on NBC Sports Network

Bahahhaha. I am just kidding. Watching this match is guaranteed by science to make you a dumber, less popular human.

Game 1: Crystal Palace vs Chelsea at Selhurst Park
When: Saturday at 10:00AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: These two last played a Premier League match at Crystal Palace in 2004. Chelsea got all of the allotted points thanks to goals from Drogba (awww) and Tiago.

Chelsea are good enough to win the league, but now must pay for past sins. City control their own destiny, and Chelsea just have to sit and hope they slip up. It is kind of like one of those 1980s movies where the hot girl promises she’ll go to the dance with the main character as long as Big Jock Stud guy doesn’t ask her. All he, and Chelsea, can do is wait and hope.

That emphatic...wait, that word has probably been used 10,000 times in other articles written about that match, so let's try something different... that VIGOROUS (sure) victory over Arsenal last Saturday was one for the ages. The most amazing thing was the talker after the match. It wasn’t about how great Chelsea were, it was how expected this was from Arsenal. I’d hate to root for a club where losing 6-0 to one of your chief rivals while in a title race is met with a, “Yeah, well, what else did you expect?” Sad. Disappointment and Arsenal go together like lamb and tuna fish at this point. Or spaghetti and meatballs if you’re more comfortable with that analogy.

Chelsea have to essentially remain perfect the rest of the way, after getting no help from a worthless Manchester United side in United's midweek capitulation to City. Teams like Palace can’t be overlooked, or Chelsea will find themselves looking up to both Liverpool and City in the standings. Also, Chelsea has two midweek matches against PSG in the Champions League, adding even more stress.

The only London team to win the Champions League is certainly up against it but this is where they have thrived in the past few years. Plus, Jose LOVES playing up the "nobody believes in us" angle.

Game 2:  Arsenal vs Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium
When: Saturday at 12:30M on NBC Sports Network
Last year: City blanked the Gunners on their own ground last season 2-rip. Goals by Milner and Dzeko in the first half ended this one early.

Last Saturday, Arsenal visited Chelsea with a chance to come within a point of the league lead, and a match in hand looming midweek against Swansea that could have potentially put them in first. They responded with a 6-0 loss to Chelsea, and a draw against Swansea in which they scored an own goal in second-half stoppage time to gift Swansea a point.

Arsenal are now in a dogfight for fourth place instead of sitting on top of the league. Ouch.

This week, they welcome in the cruising Manchester City, to the stadium they could only manage a single point against Swansea at days earlier. This team is in serious trouble, and are playing with the confidence of the central team of an underdog sports movie in the first half hour of the film. They can still feel good about themselves by winning the FA Cup and fending off Everton and Spurs to finish fourth, but not even the most optimistic Arsenal fan can say they are confident in both happening. Does finishing on the outside of the top four mean curtains for Wenger?

City, on the other hand, are rolling right now. With nine matches left (and currently still in third because they’ve only played 29) it is too early to start stocking up on bubbly, but they know what they have to do at this point. Plus, for a team that wants to win the league, getting knocked out of Champions League was probably the best thing for their title hopes. Rather than having messy midweek games against the likes of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, City has their sights set solely on regaining the domestic trophy.

On the surface, you have to think City will roll here and Arsenal will continue to crumble. But it is a funny game sometimes. I say the desperate Gunners get at least a point. Their season is going the way of Surge soda right now, and they will be up for this game.

Game 3: Liverpool vs Tottenham at Anfield
When: Sunday at 10:00AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Liverpool got all three points after a Steven Gerrard penalty put the home side up 3-2. If I remember correctly, the penalty was controversial. Spurs went up a goal twice but Liverpool kept fighting and eventually got their reward.

Tottenham finally get a ray of sunlight in their quest for that top four spot and what do they get? A trip to Anfield! Great timing!

I have been saying it for weeks in this here column: If you don’t think Liverpool can win the title right now, then you probably related to Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber. They are absolutely dealing right now, and playing with a sort of confidence - and, yeah, I am gonna say it, swagger - that makes City and Chelsea watch on in awe.

It is kind of funny the reaction that supporters of other teams have taken to Liverpool’s huge run of form. United, City, Chelsea, and Arsenal supporters have basically come to the conclusion that if their own team can’t win the title, they want anybody but Liverpool to lift the trophy. I hate to be one of those NFL meatheads with a shirt that says "My two favorite teams are Chelsea and whoever are playing Liverpool derrpppppppp" but it is true. I don’t want Liverpool to win it. Please, anybody but them. I don’t know if it is because I dated a Liverpool fan once and it ended poorly, or because Liverpool have never won the Premier League and that's kind of funny, or because their supporters are the leaders of the "Chelsea have no history" movement*. Probably a combination of the three.

*By the way, I love when someone around my age gives me the "Chelsea have no history line." Chelsea are creating history by lifting more trophies in the past three years than Liverpool have won in the last 20. Even better, I am alive for this, unlike all the history they love talking about. It is sad. They are like the young Packer fans that brag about Super Bowls I and II. Anyway. Moving on.

Credit where credit is due: Liverpool are playing incredible football and, I must admit, it is pretty to watch. They have a pair of 20-goal scorers for the first time since the 1960s, and look virtually indestructible. With a pair of matches at home against City and Chelsea, it is all there for them.

I think they make easy work of Spurs on Sunday. If anybody catches Arsenal for fourth place it won’t be them. It will be Everton. Timmy Howard in Champions League? How cool would that be.

This Spurs side lacks much conviction and spine. They don’t win big matches, and that isn’t going to change on Sunday.

Alright, kids. That will do it for this week. Remember to tip your bartenders at your favorite soccer pub. We need them more than they need us. Until next time, keep your oranges sliced and your juice boxes on ice.

Nuclear Wessel: What to watch in the Premier League

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: March 21, 2014 - 2:04 PM

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. Dana is our weekly guest here at the blog, and enjoys spreading his Premier League expertise around. Dana?


If last week’s matches were the Fourth of July fireworks, then this week is the Fifth of July hangover, with one big exception: Top of the table vs third in the table. London vs London. Chelsea vs Arsenal. It is a big one. One of the bigger ones of the year. The rest of the schedule is about as compelling for neutrals as the lecture Ben Stein’s character gave in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off", but with only seven matches to go and the title and relegation spots very much up for grabs, supporters will be nervously pacing around this weekend while watching their club. (If they are like me, will change jerseys at halftime because of superstition.)

Now onto the matches! I apologize for non-Chelsea/Arsenal fans, but I got very wordy in the preview for the big match on Saturday. Scroll past it if you must, I totally understand.

No. 1: Chelsea vs Arsenal at Stamford Bridge
When: Saturday at 7:45AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Chelsea beat Arsenal at the Bridge last January by a 2-1 tally. Lampard had one from the spot and Mata had the eventual winner. Walcott got one in the 58th minute but an equalizer wasn’t in the cards for the Gunners.

Go Chelsea! (Editor's note: Go Arsenal!)

No. 2: Cardiff vs Liverpool at Cardiff City Stadium
When: Saturday at 10:00AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Cardiff hasn’t been in the EPL for a while so these two teams didn’t meet at Cardiff City last year. They did play earlier this season at Anfield, where Liverpool took all three points by a 3-1 tally.

Now gather around and let Nuclear Wessel give you a history lesson. The last time these two teams met at Cardiff City was 1953. Here are some facts about what was happening in the world the last time these two teams played in Cardiff.

  • I Love Lucy was the No. 1 TV show
  • The first Chevrolet Corvette was built
  • Mr Potato head made his debut after creator George Lerner came up with the idea by throwing a baked potato and hitting his cousin Larry in the head
  • Gallon of milk cost 94 cents in a gallon, or 30 cents if you milked the cow yourself at the grocery store
  • Frank Sinatra wrestled Sammy Davis Jr on the roof of Caesars Palace in the main event of Wrestlemania 1
  • Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, age 4, wrote Born to Run
  • Marilyn Monroe was slammed in the media for tweeting scandalous pictures.
  • Tony, Sam and Frank Dorsa, all brothers, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing Eggo Waffles in California.

Man! How far we have come! Anyway, where were we?

Oh, yeah, Liverpool/Cardiff. You’ll be watching basketball anyway. Liverpool roll by multiple goals.

No. 1: West Ham vs Manchester United at Boleyn Ground
When: Saturday at 12:30PM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: The eventual champions only managed a point at West Ham a year ago in a 2-2 draw. Robin van Persie got the equalizer in the 77th minute. Not exactly kicking myself for missing this one last season.

What a week for United! Everything is all fine and dandy at Old Trafford! Newborn babies are being named Moyes! What a comeback in Champions League! Onto the quarterfinals!

Ahhhhh, not so much. I don’t mean to be the one to rain on United’s parade... Wait, yes I do. Let’s rain on some parades!

United's comeback from 3-0 down against Olympiakos was a glorious comeback ,and easily the most fascinating match of an otherwise dull Round of 16 in the Champions League. But how do you put yourself in that position to begin with? It was Olympiakos, not Barcelona. And van Persie gets the accolades, but if David de Gea doesn’t make those two saves on the goalline in the waning moments of the first half, then United is the laughingstock of football and David Moyes is filing for unemployment.

The win didn’t do anything but give Moyes, supporters and the United board a sigh of relief.. United got the worst possible draw today for the quarterfinals when they got paired with Bayern Munich, but it didn’t matter; they would have been underdogs to anyone they would have faced.

The saddest (or depending on your perspective, funniest) thing about United was the news earlier this week that they may be playing midweek friendlies next year to recoup the cash they will be losing from missing out on European play. That's one of the biggest clubs in the world, flying to Japan or the US on a Wednesday to make some cash. What’s next? A garage sale? Will they be charging for autographs at the team store? Maybe Rooney will wash cars outside Old Trafford over the summer.

Regardless, they’ll try to keep the good cheer going this weekend at West Ham. They can still definitely catch Spurs and Everton for the Europa Consolation Prize, which might mean club friendlies but no garage sales next year. And, as a supporter of Chelsea, I can’t crap on an underdog’s chances in Champions League. (For the non-Chelsea historians among you, Chelsea finished sixth in the league, but won the Champions League.) United have a chance against Bayern in the same way that I have a chance of marrying Shakira: since we are both human beings on the same planet and are both currently alive, it technically could happen, but let's not kid ourselves.

The overall point: while I'm sure Wednesday felt great, it was only one feel-good moment. It wasn’t a magic potion that makes Moyes into Sir Alex Ferguson, or makes his players care again. It was just another small victory in a season full of failures.

Has the parade officially been rained out? Awesome.

Enjoy the weekend! Don’t forget about the El Clasico, on Sunday at 3 o’clock or something. (I dunno. I don’t really care. Most overrated match in all of soccer. Watch MLS instead.)

Keep your oranges sliced and your juice boxes on ice. Talk next week.

United closes UK trip with 2-0 loss to Derby County

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: March 17, 2014 - 1:16 PM

Star Tribune special sections editor Paul Duncan is visiting family in the UK, and following Minnesota United's preseason tour of England. He filed this report from United's final game, against second-division side Derby County, who are currently third place and in position to play off for promotion to the Premier League.


Minnesota United lost the final game of its preseason tour 2-0 to a strong Derby County side that included six players from its first-team squad.

It was the best match-up of the trip, and for most of an entertaining game, both sides were equal in terms of fitness and competitiveness - an encouraging sign for the Loons, who are building up to their season, while the Rams are two-thirds of the way through theirs.

It was clear even during the warmup that this was going to be a different test from United’s previous games against Matlock Town and Pro Player Academy; the Derby players were physically a step up from the rest of the opposition. Coached by ex-Manchester City (and Derby) player Paul Stimson, the Rams made sure Minnesota’s first-choice side were kept on their toes for the full 90 minutes. After some early Derby pressure, Minnesota got into its game and started to piece together some quality approach play. Miguel Ibarra in particular was full of running in all areas of the pitch, and forward Christian Ramirez was a constant worry for the Derby defense. At the back, keeper Mitch Hildebrandt made a couple of excellent stops to deny Derby’s physically imposing attack, including one flying save and a brave dive at the feet of Derby’s center forward, a man most of us would not care to encounter on a dark night.

Ramirez got caught offside a couple of times when played into good positions, and if you are lying down, you will be ready to receive the news that Ibarra took a shot on goal, with his left foot. Jamie Watson was in full competitive mode, making sure everyone knew when he objected to a tackle or disagreed with a decision, on one occasion telling the referee in no uncertain terms, “I got the ball first, so [redacted] off”, to laughter from both benches.

On the Minnesota sidelines, the consensus was that the better players were stepping up, and clearly not afraid to play at this level. Team president Nick Rogers turned to me and said, with a mixture of pleasure and pleasant surprise: “We look good!” And they did.

It was only a contested (and potentially offside) 80th minute goal and a 90th-minute tap-in for Derby that separated the two sides. For Minnesota United, there was certainly no shame in defeat, and more positives than negatives can be taken from a match that was all the side could have wanted in preparation for an exciting season to come.

The squad fly home tomorrow. If anyone feels like welcoming them home, their flight lands at 4:30, so be at the far end of the baggage claim hall by 5.

Audio interview with team president Nick Rogers

Duncan caught up with Rogers before the game, and they talked about team bonding, the three players on trial with United, Rogers' visit to Liverpool (the team president's favorite European club), and what the team has built - in terms of relationships and experience - through the trip:

Report: United 8, Pro Player Academy 0

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: March 14, 2014 - 10:19 AM

Star Tribune special sections editor Paul Duncan is visiting family in the UK, and following Minnesota United's preseason tour. He sent along the following report from United's match that took place earlier this afternoon.


Minnesota United continued its preseason tour of England with a two-hour scrimmage against Pro Player Academy, a team of young Premier League prospects and hopefuls, at Stone Dominoes FC in Staffordshire.

Everyone expected Pro Player Academy to give Minnesota a stern test of the team’s skill and fitness - especially as it included three prospects from Manchester City, one of whom was an U-17 World Cup winner with Nigeria. But in the end, it was a completely one-sided 8-0 stroll for the Loons, against a team that at times looked like they just met yesterday. Certainly the opening 15 minutes against lowlier Matlock Town on Monday night was tougher than anything faced by United here.

From the first shot on goal after three minutes, Minnesota was in complete control of the match. Dominant in the air, quick of feet on the ground, more cohesive as a team and more committed to every ball, coach Manny Lagos will have been delighted with the shift put in by his players, even if he might have expected more from the opposition. The only downside to what ended up being a nice workout was an injury to Pablo Campos, who needed treatment after tangling legs with a defender and falling awkwardly. 

For the record: the goals were scored by Simone Bracalello, Campos, Tiago Calvano, Floyd Franks, Aaron Pitchkolan (who scored twice), triallist JP Pittman and Nate Polak.

The boys get a much deserved night off in Nottingham tonight, then tomorrow afternoon they get to meet the players and staff of West Ham United at the St. George’s Park complex. Next up: Derby County on Monday afternoon.

USA connection of the day

I met a Pro Player Academy coach’s dad, who took the day off work to watch the scrimmage against Minnesota United - and played pro soccer for Buffalo in 1977.

British humor of the day

This sign was in the train on the way to the match.

Match Report: United 3, Matlock Town 0

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: March 10, 2014 - 7:09 PM

Star Tribune Special Sections editor Paul Duncan is in the United Kingdom visiting family - and following Minnesota United's preseason tour. He filed the following report from the first match of the tour.


Minnesota United kicked off their preseason tour of England with a somewhat flattering 3-0 win against Matlock Town on Monday evening. Christian Ramirez, Cristiano Dias, and Nate Polak scored the goals, the latter two coming after halftime.

A closely contested opening 15 minutes saw both sides cancel each other out with no clear cut chances on goal. The best chance of the opening exchanges fell to Matlock, which curled a dangerous free kick into the box that Minnesota scrambled to clear. Matlock had the ball in the net on 17 minutes but it was ruled offside. Just two minutes later, United midfielder Miguel Ibarra was put through on goal by a neat pass from Kentaro Takada, but he scuffed his shot into the goalkeeper's arms.

As the game started to open up, both sides started taking shots on goal, but there was little to trouble either keeper. Minnesota's passing game broke down on a surface that was showing signs of wear from both a rainy English winter and several games over the previous weeks.

As the half wore on, Matlock started showing increased confidence going forward, but were unable to take advantage of a series of attacks that stretched the Minnesota defense. As a few signs of frustration started creeping in; Takada was given a warning by the referee for a lunging challenge. Minutes later, United keeper Matt Van Oekel had to be alert to push away a decent effort on goal on 40 minutes; at the other end, Ibarra wriggled through Matlock's defense, only to thump his effort over the bar.

The breakthrough finally came on 42 minutes when Ramirez, composure personified, scored with a fine curling finish into the top corner. The goal seemed to settle Minnesota, which probably had not been expecting their lower league opponents to be quite as well organized, combative and competitive as they were. It also gave United a 1-0 lead at halftime.

Within a minute of the restart, Matlock had a great chance to equalize as Shaun Tuton danced his way round a series of defenders, only to hoof the ball high and wide. The second half picked up where the first left off - a few meaty challenges, some hard running by both sides. Matlock were making sure Minnesota knew they were in a game. Of English football.

Ten minutes in, coach Lagos made multiple substitutions to give as many of the squad as possible a run out - utterly confusing the linesman, who lost track of who was coming off and who was going on. Among the replacements was triallist JP Pittman, who flew in today - and consequently played with no number on his shirt. Despite the substitutions, though, there was no sign of the competitive edge going off the game on a chilly Derbyshire evening - for which a surprising number of the Minnesota contingent were underdressed.

On 65 minutes, a powerful crossfield pass to Cristiano Dias resulted in a thumping finish past Matlock's recently introduced 18-year-old keeper. Minnesota visibly grew in confidence after the second goal, and some neat interplay in the penalty area nearly led to a third, but new signing Pittman blazed over.

Matlock continued to compete for every ball, but Minnesota looked increasingly comfortable on the ball, absorbing Town's pressure. A pushing and shoving match on 81 minutes - known here as "handbags" - showed that none of Matlock's competitiveness had deserted them. And a minute later, the young keeper allowed a speculative shot from Nate Polak to slip under his dive for Minnesota's third goal.

The result was harsh on Matlock, who matched Minnesota in all areas of the pitch for significant periods of the game. For Minnesota, it was a good confidence booster for what will likely be tougher tests ahead in Stoke on Thursday and Derby next Monday.

Postgame Q&A with head coach Manny Lagos

Paul Duncan: What did you think of the performance?
Manny Lagos: It was mixed. We had a big group play today, two separate groups, and I thought ... You know, listen, it's a long [way to] travel, it's a new environment for us, and I thought the first group at times was struggling with the tempo that Matlock started the game out with, the pressure they put on. They had a couple of long balls that I thought were really dangerous. They played aware of our gaps and how we organized ourselves defensively and I think that affected our possession. We really couldn't get a rhythm going in the first half. The field is what it is, and Matlock's used to playing on this field, and it took us a while to get used to both the tempo and to a field that's been a bit weathered through the winter, probably.

PD: Were you surprised by how competitive Matlock were as a team?
ML: No, not at all. I fully expected a tough challenge and as the game went on it was nice to see some of our quality start to dictate the tempo of the game. Particularly early on I thought they did a good job of putting stress on us. Once we got the ball moving I thought we did a lot better. ... The first goal [by Christian Ramirez] was one of those nice curling finishes that let the team know we have quality. I think it was an important goal for our confidence. Then we started playing some good soccer and creating some good chances.

PD: So a good confidence booster in advance of what may be possibly sterner tests against Stoke on Thursday and Derby on Monday. Do you feel like your team's in a good place to deal with those games?
ML: I think we're in a good place to build for what we're trying to do this week. We're trying to physically challenge ourselves to get fitter and I think that will help us to play well in those games. So the long-winded answer is: Yes!

PD: And what about Matlock Town, they've been great, haven't they?
ML: Since the moment we've got here they've welcomed us. It's nice for us Americans to hear the passion that the fans have for the sport, the cleverness and the wittiness with which they observe the game - it's been fun for me as a coach to listen to some of the banter.

PD: I was talking to one of the executives here and he said, Do you think they'd let us come over and play in Minnesota?
ML: We'd love it! Any time! Just don't come in the winter.

Weird Minnesota connection of the day

The guy selling pies in the concessions stand refereed a USA Cup match in Blaine in 2004.

Quote of the day

"In the interest of international relations, I've been asked to put together a playlist of country & western songs with a sports theme. However, I've discovered that they're nothing about sports - they're all about pickup trucks." --The Matlock Town stadium announcer
 

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