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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David La Vaque's preview box from today's paper is here.
Injury update and squad for tonight's game
United midfielder Floyd Franks, who is carrying a bit of a hamstring injury from last week, has been ruled out of tonight's game against the Cosmos. He had started the past five games for United, a streak that will come to an end tonight.
Perhaps the other surprise in the team for tonight's game is the omission of Kevin Venegas from the bench. Venegas, a starter at right-back for five games in the fall, has started on the bench in the past three matches, but will be unavailable for this game.
Here's the 18-man squad for tonight's game:
G: Matt Van Oekel, Mitch Hildebrant
D: Justin Davis, Cristiano Dias, Aaron Pitchkolan, Brian Kallman, Connor Tobin
M: Simone Bracalello, Michael Reed, Kentaro Takada, Calum Mallace, Omar Daley, Miguel Ibarra, Sinisa Ubiparipovic
F: Pablo Campos, Mike Ambersley, Max Griffin, Travis Wall
Soccer is played for those who show up
Not only are the famous New York Cosmos in town, and not only does United want to pack the stadium for a home-field advantage, but they want to reverse a troubling September trend. The team drew its two smallest crowds of the year in September, and last Saturday's attendance of 2,028 against San Antonio was less than half the team's average attendance for the year.
Team president Nick Rogers suggested that a combination of dire weather forecasts and opposing Gopher football and Twins games was what held down last week's attendance, but ultimately spoke of this year being a transitional year for the team, in terms of marketing and promotions. "We said from the beginning that we were going to experiment a lot this year, and find out what works and what doesn't," he said.
United defender / assistant coach Kevin Friedland reminded me that the team has usually drawn better late in the year, but so far that hasn't been the case this season. The team averaged more than 6,000 fans per game for their three July/August home games at the NSC, but fewer than 3,000 for the two September home dates.
Given the weather, and the trends of fans in the stands, Rogers isn't expecting to see a huge spike in attendance for the Cosmos's visit tonight. "I wouldn't bet on that, to be honest," he said.
Tonight's game is at 7pm at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Paul Douglas's Star Tribune forecast calls for temperatures in the 50s by game time, with the possibility of showers lessening.
If you want to watch the game from home, you can do so at mnunitedfc.com.
One look at the fall NASL standings confirms Minnesota's trouble at home this season. They're the only team in the league yet to win a home game in the fall, and in four tries in Blaine, dating back to July, they've managed just two draws and two losses.
The calendar, though, says September, and historically, that means that it's time for Minnesota to start stringing home wins together.
Since the team moved back to the National Sports Center for the 2008 season, they have played 19 home games, winning 11 and losing just two. After September 15, the effect is even more pronouned; in ten games, Minnesota has seven wins, two draws, and just one loss.
Since the Minnesota Thunder lost 2-3 to the Charleston Battery on September 20, 2009 - the last game, in fact, that the team ever played as the Thunder - Minnesota has gone seven post-September 15 games without a loss (five wins, two draws.)
Defender/coach Kevin Friedland, who has been part of every team since 2004, was a little bit surprised when I read him the numbers. "I didn't realize it was that strong," he said.
Friedland identified a couple of reasons for Minnesota's late surges. For one, come fall, summer camp season ends, allowing the players to focus only on their own games rather than spending their days coaching kids. Comfort level also plays a big role. "It’s the kind of thing where you get more comfortable and you kind of learn your element and how you like to approach a home game, and it could take awhile for you to do that," said the coach.
Perhaps the better explanation, though, is that Minnesota has almost always needed a late run to get into the playoff picture. "I think it was when you’re up against it you really have to get the results, and over the course of the years, we’ve been fortunate to get those results," said Friedland.
In 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012, the Thunder / Stars made late-season runs to squeak into the playoffs.
Said Friedland, "This season, everything’s so short - a twelve-game season, a fourteen-game season, and it’s hard to get in a rhythm or a groove. You compare that to seasons past, we had those bad grooves when we were seven, eight, nine games without a win, then we hit that groove of winning a few games in a row, and that’s what kind of propelled us into the playoffs those years, and then obviously into the championship the last two years."
The caveat this year, of course, is that only the fall-season winner will make the "playoffs." Minnesota won't have the opportunity to finish sixth and make a playoff run, as they did in 2011 and 2012.
The comfort, though, is that Minnesota has four home games left - more than any other team in the league. And since the calendar's already on the verge of turning over to October, Minnesota can take heart in another stat: since the Thunder became a professional team in 1995, near as I can tell, Minnesota's pro soccer teams - whether Thunder, Stars, or now United - have never lost a National Sports Center home game after September 20.
Minnesota United has had a couple of heartbreakers this year - Carolina at home, Tampa Bay at home, and especially Carolina away, when United threw away a 2-1 lead in the span of three minutes and lost 3-2.
This one, though. Tampa Bay stole a point with literally the last kick of the match, which you have to admit, isn't something you see every day.
Manny Lagos was not, in any way, happy with the referee; he had some rather testy quotes about how the game ended in the game story. It looked to be a pretty heartbroken group on the field postgame.
On the other hand, Andres Arango, who got the equalizer for Tampa Bay, couldn't have been more thrilled. His wife's family is all from Minnesota - he played here from 2008-2010 - so he had a bunch of family and friends at the game. During the first half he took an inadvertent elbow to the face, which drew blood and left him with an angry welt under his eye, but he was all smiles after rescuing a draw. "We were battling, battling, we had a couple of chances, we weren’t really getting obvious chances but we were pushing forward," he said. "To go home with a point, we’re still undefeated this season. It’s huge."
A new defensive partnership
One of the positives United can take from the game, and really the last two games, has been the play of Connor Tobin and Aaron Pitchkolan in the center of defense. Pitchkolan played mostly in midfield in the spring season, but he and Tobin looked very strong - especially against massive Tampa Bay striker Carl Cort, who looks like he always should have villagers with torches chasing him.
"I thought they had a great game," said Lagos. "They worked hard and limited Tampa’s chances, and dealt with some really big boys who threw a lot of balls into the box, and I thought they did a great job of navigating those."
United's now allowed a goal in all three games in the fall season, but not one has come from open play; all three were from set pieces. Obviously, that's been the team's Achilles heel all season on defense, but they can take some consolation that they've mostly shut down three teams in a row - especially Tampa, which just two weeks ago put seven past San Antonio.
Not much heat in Barbara's return
I wondered if Etienne Barbara would get a frosty reception from the fans of his former team, after he ripped the club on the way out. The boo-birds mostly stayed away, though, and he played the final 30 minutes of the match without making much of a dent.
The player he was traded for, Mike Ambersley, probably had more of an impact in a third of the time on the field. Ambersley had one scoring chance, which ended up going straight at Rowdies keeper Diego Restrepo, but he looked like a possible force. It'd be interesting to see what he and Pablo Campos could do with some extended time together; Ambersley seems like a natural complement to Campos, who is much more of a target forward.
You won't find Minnesota United's 2-0 win over Edmonton on Wednesday night anywhere in the NASL standings, but for head coach Manny Lagos, it was important all the same - if for no other reason than to help erase the memories of the team's collapse at the end of spring's first half of the season.
"I just thought it was important for us to get a win, in a weird way," he said. "Even if it was an exhbition and not the league, I thought it was important that the guys came out and reminded themselves that they are good players. That’s the thing about this game, the stress sometimes causes you to forget that."
Max Griffin scored moments before halftime, and Simone Bracalello added another near the hour mark, just seconds after coming on as a sub. Maybe more importantly, the Matt Van Oekel-led defense kept a clean sheet, their first since April 20.
Griffin continued his record of scoring in preseason games, and was just happy to get back on the scoresheet after struggling in the first half of the season.
"Now that I’m healthy again, I’m trying to stay that way, because once I get on form I know I have the ability to score goals," said the forward, who said he was at 100% after his first-half injuries. "I just have to stay healthy and the goals will eventually come."
Asked how he could get his confidence back, Griffin said, "It’s just a matter of scoring goals and not losing not losing the ball. If I do those two things it should be good. Whenever I score goals, I’m happy. "
It's worth noting that Edmonton played what was basically its starting lineup, though they substituted freely in the second half. Still, this was virtually the same Edmonton team that waxed Minnesota 3-1 just a few weeks ago, and Lagos wants his team to get back into that competitive mindset. "I think the team has got to reboot and get excited about the second half of the season," he said. "It was a good test to play against a team that was playing its first eleven, and came into it playing hard. I was proud of the guys; I think we came through well and played really well."
Twenty minutes after Atlanta had finished off its 3-0 win over Minnesota United in Blaine last night, a roar went up from inside of the National Sports Center tunnel. It came from the Silverbacks, who entered the night needing both a win and a Carolina loss to claim the NASL first-half championship. The San Antonio-Carolina game started twenty minutes after Minnesota's game, but the roar was confirmation that the Scorpions had finished off a 2-0 home win, giving the first-half title to Atlanta. The Silverbacks charged out of the tunnel to celebrate on the field, wearing commemorative T-shirts and chanting in the goalmouth at the Airport End.
It wouldn't have been the first time a visiting team celebrated in an empty opposing stadium - except that the stadium was by no means empty. With a Fourth of July fireworks show beginning at 10pm, most of the crowd had stuck around, and most of the Minnesota players were still behind the goal, signing autographs. Atlanta's dash out for an on-field celebration rankled, to say the least.
United vice-captain Brian Kallman made no bones about his displeasure. "It's ticking me off, hearing Atlanta sitting right in our stadium, saying 'Championes'," he said. "You haven't won [anything] yet. You won the first season. We're going to win the second season, we're going to play you in the finals at your place, and we’re going to beat you. And then I’m going to be cheering that in front of all your fans, right in front of your whole team, being even more disrespectful than you were to us."
Suddenly, the opening game of the fall season - between Atlanta and Minnesota, right back in Blaine, on August 3 - looks like a serious grudge match.
Reaction from the Atlanta sideline
Not surprisingly, Silverbacks coach Brian Haynes was over the moon about his team grabbing the first-half title on the season's final day. "That was unbelievable, this is incredible," he said. "To know that we did our best and the guys gave everything they had to get the results that we got in that game, I’m just thankful."
It's a huge turnaround for Atlanta, accomplished in a short period of time. The Silverbacks were far and away the league's worst team in 2011, and were headed the same way in 2012, leading to the entire coaching staff being fired in early July. Former US Men's National Team standout Eric Wynalda took over as technical director, and hired Haynes this season as coach - a move that already appears to have paid off.
Said Haynes, "He [Wynalda] came up with a plan for what we were going to try to do, and he brought me in, he gave me some players, and I brought in a couple here and there. Basically, I call it – what’s that yellow brick road story, the Dorothy story. Some of the guys didn’t have hearts. Some of the guys didn’t have the courage and everything, and that’s what we tried to put in them. The one thing we did is we brought in some guys with character. We weeded out the ones that we didn’t think were going to make it. We had a specific way we were going to do things."
"It’s a bunch of guys that believe in each other and fight for each other. I’m proud of them. We’ve done the business on the road, I think we’ve only lost one game on the road, and that speaks character."
The structure of the NASL this year, with the first-half champion winning the right to host November's championship game, made me wonder all along whether the first-half champion would rest on its laurels for the second half. Haynes, however, didn't think that would be a problem. "Now they’ve got something to prove," he said, referring to his team. "Before they didn’t. They were in last place last year. Now they got something to prove. People are going to be coming after us, we’ve got to be ready."
I guess Blaine's not that far, after all
Maybe United should have fireworks after every game. Faced with a Thursday night game, in Blaine, on a holiday on which families traditionally go out of town or celebrate otherwise, Minnesota drew 6,507 people - one of the largest crowds they've had at the National Sports Center in a very long time.
It was Minnesota's second-largest crowd of the year, behind only the season opener at the Metrodome. It was also nearly 2,000 more people than the team drew for last year's championship match in Blaine.
I talked to one old-timer, who could remember 10,000 fans packing into the NSC for the Minnesota Thunder's 1999 A-League championship match. At least going by Thursday's numbers, United is on the way back to rebuilding that kind of crowd.
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