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Jon Marthaler writes about the Minnesota United and sport of soccer.

SoccerCentric: Draw with New York ends rough week for United

What began as the biggest week of the season for Minnesota United FC turned into one of the worst. Wednesday, United lost on penalties to St. Louis FC, an upset win for the lower-division side and an abrupt, premature end to Minnesota’s 2015 US Open Cup campaign. Saturday, United drew with New York -  a 90th-minute Cosmos goal snatching one point from the jaws of three, effectively removing Minnesota from the spring-season NASL title race as well.

Minnesota has had any number of excellent US Open Cup memories – most recently, a 3-1 drubbing of Real Salt Lake in 2012 – and so perhaps our expectations are set a little too high. I tend to think at least making it to the fourth round where MLS teams enter, and possibly a chance to make it to the quarterfinals, is not unreasonable. For the second time in three years, though, United couldn’t even get past their first game and into the bracket with the MLS sides.

The US Open Cup also offered the opportunity to bridge the NASL’s goofy June break in the schedule. United’s last game of the spring season is June 13, their first of the fall on July 4; US Open Cup games on June 16 and June 30 would have fit nicely into the calendar. Instead, the nicest month of the summer has very little local soccer.

The one benefit of the NASL’s odd split season is that there’s a pennant race already in late May; it gave Saturday’s match a late-season feel.  A win would have moved Minnesota within three points of New York, with a game in hand, giving United an excellent chance at the spring title. The draw means that Minnesota is all but eliminated; New York would have to lose its final match, and Minnesota would need a pair of multiple-goal wins to close both the standings gap and the goal-difference gap.

The two games add up to a tough week for the home eleven – not the week they wanted when last Monday dawned. It’d be a bad time for any sort of letdown, though. Given that two playoff spots go to the teams with the best overall records over both the spring and fall NASL seasons, United would do well not to let off the gas; at the moment, they are the same six points away from last-placed Indy that they are from the first-placed Cosmos.

 A road game at Carolina awaits this Saturday. Minnesota hasn’t won in Cary since the 2011 playoffs – and the RailHawks are fresh off a four-goal drubbing of Jacksonville. Rough weeks aside, it won’t get any easier for United.


For much, much more on United's difficult week, including recaps, photos, and player ratings, check out Northern Pitch.

Soccer Saturday: Cup Finals highlighted by similar teams, different coaches

In a curious bit of harmony, today sees the three European clubs most closely associated with aesthetically pleasing play – Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal – play in their countries' respective Cup Finals. At all three clubs, the manager in charge has transformed the team. But the three are in very different phases of their careers – one in the ascendancy, one at the end of his reign, and one hanging on to keep chasing vindication for all he's worked for.

In Barcelona, Luis Enrique is bringing his first year as Barca manager to a close. He has already clinched the La Liga title. Today, he goes for the Copa del Rey title against Athletic Bilbao (2:30pm, ESPN2), with his team heavily favored. Next week, Barcelona plays Juventus for the Champions League crown, again as favorites. To win all three would be especially sweet for the man who went against Barcelona tradition.

Enrique has not let himself be overwhelmed by the club's ingrained tactics: quick passing, slow build-up and midfield play. This year's squad is much more focused on counter-attacks, and space for forwards to run at defenders. If Enrique pulls off the treble, he'll have done it without bowing to the Barcelona philosophy.

Over in Germany, today serves as the swan song for Jürgen Klopp, the man who created the new, exciting Borussia Dortmund. His team plays VfL Wolfsburg for the DFB Cup (1:00pm, ESPN3). After a disappointing 2014-15 season, Klopp is stepping down, despite bringing unprecedented success to the club.

His philosophy, especially his exuberant passion for soccer and his commitment to entertaining fans, made him a favorite both in Germany and around the world. Klopp took on, and beat, a better-funded rival in Bayern Munich, giving him underdog credentials even at Dortmund, one of Germany's biggest clubs. Yet he moves on after today, having determined that his revolution is out of steam after eight years – trophy or no trophy.

In England, Arsenal is attempting to win a second consecutive FA Cup, against Aston Villa (11:30am, FOX) – chasing another trophy for manager Arsene Wenger, who has been in charge in North London for 19 years. A win would be more vindication for the man whose free-flowing philosophy seemed poised to revolutionize the English game in the early 2000s.

In a four-year span, Arsenal won the FA Cup three times and the Premier League twice, highlighted by the 2003-2004 "Invincibles" that became the only modern English team to go through a season undefeated. After taking home the 2005 FA Cup, though, the Arsenal trophy case gathered dust for nine years.

There are plenty of Arsenal fans who wish that Wenger might step down, as Klopp did at Dortmund – or go against tradition, as Enrique did at Barcelona, and focus on winning rather than beauty. Today, the three clubs intersect in another way.

Biggest Saturday of the year for United, too

Minnesota United FC plays its biggest game of the spring season today, against the New York Cosmos. A loss will all but give New York the NASL spring-season championship; a win would give Minnesota a fighting chance for the trophy – and small redemption, after being knocked out of the US Open Cup this week by third-division St. Louis FC.

The NASL's changing league format seems to have put a damper on Minnesota's tradition of US Open Cup runs. In both 2011 and 2012, Minnesota finished sixth in the league but still made the playoffs. With the format change, only the spring-season and fall-season champions make the playoffs, alongside the two best teams apart from the champions in the overall season.

While head coach Manny Lagos insists that he prioritizes the cup equally with the league, he generally fields a weakened team in United's first game against a lower-league side – something that has contributed to two upset losses in three years. Given that there's little margin for error in making the league playoffs these days, it's no surprise.

Notes

* The fallout from the dramatic indictments of major FIFA figures stretches to the NASL, whose chairman, Aaron Davidson, is among the accused. Davidson is the president of Traffic Sports USA, who owns the NASL, but Traffic is at the center of many of the bribery allegations. The league suspended Davidson and announced that all business activities between the league and Traffic had ceased, but left un-explained is how the league can possibly cut off business with the group that owns it.

* This week, EA Sports announced that the 2016 edition of its immensely popular FIFA video game would, for the first time, include women's national teams. It's welcome news, as the soccer world gears up for this summer's Women's World Cup – but you have to wonder why it took until 2015 for this to happen.

What to Watch

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa, 11:30 (FOX): The FA Cup Final pits powerhouse Arsenal against Aston Villa, who fired their manager in February and finished just one spot from being relegated.

Borussia Dortmund vs. VfL Wolfsburg, 1:00 (ESPN3): A DFB Cup for Jürgen Klopp would be a fitting end, but Wolfsburg are the favorites.

Barcelona vs. Athletic Bilbao, 2:30 (ESPN2): Bilbao haven't won a trophy since 1984; Barcelona has a very good chance of winning three this season alone.

Minnesota United FC vs. New York Cosmos, 7:00 (Ch. 45): United, winners of three straight, needs another victory to stay in contention for the spring-season title.

Local Schedule

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  • Saints at Grand Prairie

    7:05pm on 1220-AM

  • Saints at Grand Prairie

    7:05pm on 1220-AM

  • Sioux Falls at Saints

    7:05pm on 1220-AM

  • Minnesota United FC at Carolina

    6:30pm

  • Sioux Falls at Saints

    7:05pm on 105.1-FM

  • Sioux Falls at Saints

    5:05pm on 1220-AM

  • Joplin at Saints

    7:05pm on 1220-AM

Today's Scoreboard

  • Toronto

    Washington

    12:05 PM

  • LA Dodgers

    Colorado

    2:10 PM

  • Cincinnati

    Philadelphia

    6:05 PM

  • Toronto

    Washington

    6:05 PM

  • Oakland

    Detroit

    6:08 PM

  • Minnesota

    Boston

    6:10 PM

    FSN

  • Chicago Cubs

    Miami

    6:10 PM

  • Chicago White Sox

    Texas

    7:05 PM

  • Baltimore

    Houston

    7:10 PM

  • Cleveland

    Kansas City

    7:10 PM

  • Milwaukee

    St. Louis

    7:15 PM

  • LA Dodgers

    Colorado

    7:40 PM

  • Atlanta

    Arizona

    8:40 PM

  • Tampa Bay

    LA Angels

    9:05 PM

  • NY Mets

    San Diego

    9:10 PM

  • NY Yankees

    Seattle

    9:10 PM

  • Pittsburgh

    San Francisco

    9:15 PM