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 has basically no chance of winning the fall championship, but still has three games remaining on the schedule. In past years, the jockeying for NASL playoff spots and playoff position would be in full swing; in other sports, even the teams at the bottom of the league might be able to think about where their draft position might be.
The current NASL setup offers no such help for fans of teams who are out of the running. United is left just to play out the string, but captain Aaron Pitchkolan insists that this doesn't mean that his team isn't taking the rest of the year seriously. "If you look at it that way, you’ll find a lot of guys without jobs the next season," he said. "It’s a professional environment; it’s very competitive, and you’re always playing for your job."
This isn't to say that tempers aren't rising in the United camp. Pitchkolan and Pablo Campos exchanged some heated words at the end of Thursday's training session, regarding the latter's perceived exertion at the end of practice, and afterwards head coach Manny Lagos pulled the two of them aside, along with defender Connor Tobin, for a long conversation.
Said Lagos, "I just think that we have a legacy of good soccer here over the years. The reality is, we didn’t quite get it done this year. So this is a big three games for the club, for a lot of individual players, and for our fans, to show that we’re going to start working on an identity and the future of the club right now for next year. It’s not going to be easy, because there are a lot of personalities and things to get sorted out."
Pitchkolan echoed the manager. "It’s not a lost year just because we didn’t make the finals," he said. "You’re always building for something in the future."
It will be interesting to see how Lagos approaches the remainder of the year with his lineups. He's spoken several times of how important it is to put the best lineup on the field to try to win - especially at home, in front of the home fans, to get a few wins and send everyone home for the offseason without a bitter taste in their mouths.
That said, though, he also needs to evaluate talent for 2014 and beyond. That could mean more time for some of the younger players, like Michael Reed or Travis Wall, at the expense of the team's established veterans.
A Ubiparipovic update
Midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic, on loan from Montreal, has been dealing with an ankle injury - one that Lagos confirmed will keep him out for the remainder of 2013.
""It’s really bothered him," said the coach. "I think with this situation, being that he can’t really train, he’s going to head home and get some rest and just go on from there."
Ubiparipovic played seven games in the fall, four as a starter and three off the bench, and did not score. His 2013 tenure may be remembered most for the September 8 game against Edmonton, when he came on as a substitute in the 60th minute and was sent off in the 61st minute for kicking Montons midfielder Chris Nurse, a performance that prompted the team's supporters group to change its rating system so that he could be awarded an 0 out of 10.
In other injury news, Campos - who missed last week's game with a hip problem - trained all week, but will be a game-time decision for this afternoon's match.
The game is at 2:30pm, at the National Sports Center in Blaine - but if you can't make it to the north Metro, you can watch the game live on Fox Sports North. If you don't have cable, or just like watching games on the computer, you can still see an internet broadcast at NASL.com/live...Carolina hasn't won a road game in 2013, with five draws and eight losses in thirteen road games in all competitions. They also haven't lost at home. Carolina must be traveling on a rickety team plane, like the Indians did in the movie "Major League"; it's the only explanation for their road woes...David La Vaque's preview box for the game is here.
Following Minnesota's 1-0 loss to New York at the National Sports Center (David La Vaque's game story is here), it was difficult to find a United player who didn't feel like his team had played well - or one that wasn't crushed to have lost the game anyway.
Miguel Ibarra said he thought Minnesota had the better of the play. "I think we dominated the second half, attacking them," he said. "It’s just unlucky, we couldn’t get the ball in. I think the team gave it all they had. It’s just unlucky."
United had a number of chances; in the first half, Ibarra flashed a cross across the face of goal, but Pablo Campos couldn't find a touch on the ball, sliding in, to turn it into the net. Mike Ambersley was through on New York keeper Kyle Reynish in the second half, but couldn't get a shot away; later Ambersley had some space on the penalty spot to shoot, but his shot was blocked by a defender closing in.
"We couldn’t finish, we couldn’t put the ball in the net," said Campos. "That hurt us. That’s what happens when you don’t score the goal - you get scored on."
On the flip side, New York took advantage of Cristiano Dias slipping over on the rain-soaked NSC field, and Paulo Mendes smashed a shot past Matt Van Oekel for the game's only goal.
"I thought we had some chances, and unfortunately they snuck one of theirs in and we didn’t," said captain Aaron Pitchkolan. "It’s disappointing."
Head coach Manny Lagos couldn't fault his team's effort. Said the coach, "Certainly, I thought as a unit we really put everything on the field, and I think the fans kept us going and I thought our players kept the crowd going, because we still believed we were going to get one back and maybe even get a winner."
With four games to go, Minnesota is now seven points behind the Cosmos, and while mathematically it's possible for New York to come back to the rest of the pack, it's unlikely. The Cosmos have Carolina (which cannot win on the road) at home, along with a home game against Edmonton; they finish with road games at San Antonio and Atlanta, but by then, the fall title could be more or less wrapped up.
It gave the postgame a distinct end-of-season feel, like the playoffs were over and the offseason was starting. Nobody was ready to admit defeat for the fall season, but you could see on each of their faces that they know it's going to take a minor miracle to get back into the race.
"I was very disappointed, I’m pretty sure the whole team was," said Ibarra. "I think the whole team fought until the end, and I think we deserved a tie at least if not the win. It’s just soccer. Unlucky."
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.
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