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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Gameday notebook: "We definitely should have done much better"

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: July 4, 2013 - 8:57 AM

This has been a disappointing first-half season for Minnesota United, which needs a tie or a win tonight against Atlanta to avoid finishing sixth in a seven-team league. It's a place that nobody associated with the club expected to be, and that includes head coach Manny Lagos. "I think it’s definitely frustrating because we definitely should have done much better," he said.

His one saving thought, though, is that no matter how bad the first half has been, the season as a whole is still just half over. "The last couple of weeks have been trying for the club, and frustrating," said Lagos. "I wish we could get back at it right away again."

Atlanta comes into tonight's game with an outside chance of stealing the NASL title, but Lagos insists his team isn't thinking about playing spoiler. "I look at the game being so important for us to bounce back from the lethargy that we showed in Edmonton," he said. "I’m not really thinking that much about Atlanta and their chances; I’m thinking about getting this team back on track for the second half of the season... [The game] doesn’t mean anything for the second half [in the standings], but it’s important that we step on the field and respond in a way that I think is appropriate, that I think that the club has in the past responded. "

Looking back at Edmonton, looking forward to tonight

Going into Sunday's game in Edmonton, Minnesota still had a chance of staying in the title race, which made it all the more surprising when the team came out completely flat. Within 24 minutes, United was losing 2-0, and their chances were effectively gone.

Lagos, when asked if he was surprised by this, chose a different word. "I would say a little more disappointed," he said.

The United head coach offered a couple of different theories as to what went wrong. "I think the heat was overwhelming the first 20 or 25 minutes," he said. "Mentally, maybe we haven’t been as strong as we need to be, and the game against Carolina really took a lot out of the team. From what we put into [that game], what it meant to us, and to lose the way we did - it’s never easy to come back from that type of loss. I fully expected we would [come back], but it’s not easy. Combine that with the kind of heat we were dealing with in Edmonton, and let’s be honest - it was a poor game for us, and I think a disappointing one that really kind of exposed that we need to get better in a lot of areas."

The one bright spot might have been the play of Miguel Ibarra, who came off the bench for the first time this season in Edmonton, and scored his first goal of the year. That's something we'll see again tonight, in an extended version, as Lagos said he'd bring both Ibarra and Simone Bracalello in off the bench against Atlanta. 

The injury report hasn't changed much from Sunday. Aaron Pitchkolan will miss out again, along with Connor Tobin. Both will me aiming for the summer exhibitions for their returns, the first of which is July 17. Midfielder Bryan Arguez, who did not play Sunday in Edmonton, is also questionable for tonight's game with Atlanta.

Back to Blaine

This is Minnesota's first game of the season at their home field at the National Sports Center in Blaine. They'll kick off at 7pm, with the game to be followed by some Fourth of July fireworks.

The team announced on Twitter yesterday, and confirmed via text, that the Reserved section of the stadium (basically, the two sections of seats with chair backs) is sold out tonight. I can't remember that happening for a long time, so that's an accomplishment. We'll see whether that translates into a large overall attendance for tonight's game.

United gameday notebook: So you're saying there's a chance

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: June 30, 2013 - 8:44 AM

Minnesota United FC still has a chance for the NASL spring championship - admittedly, a small one, but still a chance.

Carolina drew 1-1 with Atlanta last night, the RailHawks' first dropped points at home all of last year, leaving the door just slightly ajar for one of three other teams to slip through. San Antonio also won, 4-1 at home against Fort Lauderdale, so the standings right now have Carolina with 20 points, Atlanta with 18, and San Antonio with 17.

Minnesota can stay alive with a win today at Edmonton, which would give them 17 points going into the season's final week. If they win today, they would need to beat Atlanta at home next week, and San Antonio would need to beat Carolina at home - which would leave Minnesota, Carolina, and San Antonio all level at 20 points apiece.

The first tiebreaker is goal difference, and United has problems there. Carolina is +6, San Antonio is +2, and Minnesota is at 0 for the season. In other words, Minnesota needs not only two wins, but two fairly comfortable wins; they'll need to score at least five more goals than their opponents, possibly six, to win the title.

It's possible. Maybe not likely, but possible. First things first, though - they have to beat Edmonton today.

Avoiding the "end-of-game chaos"

This week, Minnesota United put out a video tribute to captain Kyle Altman, who is retiring at the end of the spring season and going to medical school. First, though, they have a bigger concern - getting him back on the field.

Altman sprained his foot/ankle during the first half of last week's loss at Carolina, and had to leave the game at halftime. "I tried to gut it out," he said, "but at some point I felt like I hindering my team, and was more of a liability than an asset."

According to the center back, he's been in a walking boot all week, and has been doing work in the pool and by himself to try to get back. He's in the travel squad for this week, but it's up in the air as to whether he'll play.

Head coach Manny Lagos mentioned Altman's absence as a factor that led to two late Carolina goals last week. "I think there was a little bit of disjointedness that happens when you have your center back and captain go out," said Lagos, who said this contributed to the "end-of-game chaos" in the 3-2 loss.

In two games this year, Minnesota allowed three goals to Carolina that came in the final ten minutes of the game, turning two potential wins into a draw and a loss. All three of those goals came from set pieces, and Lagos is as confused as anybody as to why that has happened. “Traditionally, we’ve been pretty darn good at them [defending set pieces], and this year at weird times we haven’t quite got what we needed to see the game out.”

“We do a pretty good job, I think, preparing and making sure [the players] are aware of their assignments,” said Lagos. “In that stress and fervor at the end of games, we have to make sure we’re organized and mentally sharp. Odd plays are going to happen, but we try to limit them, and we try to have that courage and intensity to try to keep from getting scored on.”

Certainly, the team could use Altman back - and certainly, he wants to be in the lineup, especially as his career winds down. "It would take a lot to keep me out of those last two games," he said.

Quietly, it’s Taka time

I haven’t written much about Kentaro Takada in the past few weeks; the central midfielder doesn’t appear often on the scoresheet, or in the highlights. Under the radar, however, he’s played every minute of Minnesota’s last four league games, serving as a defensive midfielder, usually behind Bryan Arguez, who’s a little more adventurous offensively.

What Takada does do, however, is pretty much run from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. Said Lagos of Takada, who is in his fourth year in Minnesota, “You look at Taka, he's consistent not only this year but over the years. He's a really unique individual that has embraced what the club's about. He is a unique person, because he's not from this country, but he just wants to experience this culture and this environment.

“He dedicates himself both on and off the field, to contribute however possible. It's that consistency and that dedication that comes out on the field in terms of the effort you see, in terms of the energy he puts forth to try to help the team win.”

Injury Report

Apart from Altman, the only other players of note who did not travel are center back Connor Tobin, who will be out until the fall season, and central midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan, who returned as a sub last week after a month out, but suffered a setback in midweek training this week. “Even in the game, he was playing through it a little bit,” said Lagos. “He’s a good pro, he was pushing himself.”

Wide midfielder Lucas Rodriguez is with the team in Edmonton this week, and he could return to the lineup as well to give Minnesota more of a two-way player on the wing. “I think we were missing some wide defending in that game [against Carolina],” said Lagos, “and Lucas can provide that.”

Though Lagos didn’t specify a lineup, the assumption might be that Rodriguez could supplant Miguel Ibarra in the lineup, as Ibarra has struggled mightily in his sophomore campaign.

Game details

It’s a rare Sunday afternoon game for Minnesota United, as they take on Edmonton at 3pm today. The game can be seen live on nasl.com; for the social among us, the team is holding a watch party at Brit’s Pub on Nicollet Mall, beginning at 2pm.

Minnesota FC United gameday notebook: Near-must-win in Carolina tonight

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: June 22, 2013 - 9:23 AM

Minnesota United FC head coach Manny Lagos refused to say that tonight's game at Carolina is a must-win game, given that the standings are tightly compressed enough that anything could happen. "There's a lot of parity in our league," he said, "but we know the importance in the game. It has a lot of ramifications. I don't think you can go to that extreme [of calling it a must-win], but I don't think you can make light that it's a big game."

With three games to play, United is third in the NASL standings with 14 points, two behind Carolina and three behind Atlanta. Minnesota plays both teams in the next three weeks, so technically they control their own destiny - but in order to stay in control, they need wins, not draws, and certainly not losses.

On the bright side for Minnesota, they have a number of players who have been through the playoff wars the past two seasons, when the team made the championship finals, both years as the playoffs' lowest seed. "It’s a little different because it’s a league game rather than a playoff game," said Lagos. "But we have a lot of guys that are the same core of guys that stepped up in big moments over the past couple of years, and I would like to think that they would be ready for the game this weekend. "

Two years ago, Minnesota defeated Carolina on penalties in a playoff game at WakeMed Soccer Park, the RailHawks' home field. Those who were part of that game should probably draw on that memory of winning a big game at Carolina - without remembering that they lost 4-3 that day, but went to penalties on aggregate, thanks to Minnesota's 1-0 win in the first leg.

The helpfulness of the bye week

United has had two weeks to heal up after a bruising win over Fort Lauderdale - and they're getting closer to having a full squad to choose from.

Midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan and striker Etienne Barbara are available tonight, having made the trip to Carolina. So too is winger Miguel Ibarra, who suffered a bruised knee two weeks ago but has recovered enough to be part of the squad.

Still missing is center back Connor Tobin, who will be out another 3-6 weeks with an ankle injury, according to Lagos. Goalkeeper Daryl Sattler, who has been dealing with a groin injury for several weeks, also did not travel, putting a damper on any possible goalkeeping controversy. Matt Van Oekel will get the start again tonight, backed up by Mitch Hildebrant.

For so long, injuries have been hanging over Minnesota's heads, forcing an uphill fight. At this point, though, the injury report can't be used as an excuse.

Game details

Tonight's game is at 6:00 pm Central time, and can be seen at NASL.com. If you're in a more social mood, the team is holding a watch party at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis.

For more on tonight's game, David La Vaque's game preview for the paper is here.

Tobin, Ibarra doubtful for Saturday; Barbara, Pitchkolan possible

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: June 18, 2013 - 9:21 AM

With all of Minnesota United's injuries this season, head coach Manny Lagos agreed that their bye last week came at a good time. "You never know from a competitive standpoint, with the kind of win we had two weeks ago," he said. "But from an individual standpoint, there are a lot of guys who are excited to get back in there."

Both midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan and forward Etienne Barbara could return on Saturday; both are back in training after injuries. Pitchkolan limped off in the first half against Tampa Bay on May 18, one month ago, with a sprained ankle, and the linchpin of United's midfield has been out since. Barbara last saw the field in the same game; he's been dealing with a sprained disk in his lower back since, and those of us who've had back problems know how fiddly those can be.

On the downside, it appears unlikely that center back Connor Tobin or Miguel Ibarra will be involved on Saturday, as both are doubtful with injuries suffered last week against Fort Lauderdale. Tobin, who missed significant time earlier this year with an ankle sprain, injured the other ankle near the end of the game against the Strikers, and he's looking at significant time out - probably enough to keep him out through the end of the spring season.

Ibarra picked up a very bad contusion on his knee in that same game, and didn't train on Monday. Lagos was hopeful that he might be able to get back to moving around today, but at this point, the winger has to be considered doubtful.

Lagos did mention that both Max Griffin and Simone Bracallelo were getting stronger and back to 100%, so on balance, it's looking like a positive injury report this week - the first in a very long time for Minnesota.

Tobin, Ibarra doubtful for Saturday; Barbara, Pitchkolan possible

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: June 18, 2013 - 9:21 AM

With all of Minnesota United's injuries this season, head coach Manny Lagos agreed that their bye last week came at a good time. "You never know from a competitive standpoint, with the kind of win we had two weeks ago," he said. "But from an individual standpoint, there are a lot of guys who are excited to get back in there."

Both midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan and forward Etienne Barbara could return on Saturday; both are back in training after injuries. Pitchkolan limped off in the first half against Tampa Bay on May 18, one month ago, with a sprained ankle, and the linchpin of United's midfield has been out since. Barbara last saw the field in the same game; he's been dealing with a sprained disk in his lower back since, and those of us who've had back problems know how fiddly those can be.

On the downside, it appears unlikely that center back Connor Tobin or Miguel Ibarra will be involved on Saturday, as both are doubtful with injuries suffered last week against Fort Lauderdale. Tobin, who missed significant time earlier this year with an ankle sprain, injured the other ankle near the end of the game against the Strikers, and he's looking at significant time out - probably enough to keep him out through the end of the spring season.

Ibarra picked up a very bad contusion on his knee in that same game, and didn't train on Monday. Lagos was hopeful that he might be able to get back to moving around today, but at this point, the winger has to be considered doubtful.

Lagos did mention that both Max Griffin and Simone Bracallelo were getting stronger and back to 100%, so on balance, it's looking like a positive injury report this week - the first in a very long time for Minnesota.

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