Four consecutive matches without a loss clinched the North American Soccer League spring season title for Minnesota United.
A five-match unbeaten streak to open the fall season shows United, while guaranteed a playoff spot, is not coasting. Minnesota aims to stay on track beginning Saturday night against Indy Eleven at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
“We’re still aware we have to get better but, at the same time, I’m proud of the way the guys are handling the beginning of the second half of the season,” United coach Manny Lagos said.
Unbeaten does not mean unscathed. Last week’s 3-2 victory against FC Edmonton offered its share of teachable moments. Veteran United defenders Tiago Calvano and Aaron Pitchkolan got the worst of tentative play in the face of Edmonton pressure — gaffes leading to the Eddie’s goals.
“The goals we conceded were not group mistakes, they were more individual mistakes we can correct,” Calvano said.
Said Pitchkolan: “You could call that win a wake-up call a little bit. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
While pleased to see positive results, Lagos hasn’t put away his wish list. Minnesota ranks second this fall with 10 goals scored, but Lagos yearns to see more potency late in matches.
The team has scored only three goals during the final 20 minutes during its nine-game unbeaten streak. Opponents have scored four in that same time period, with two of those goals salvaging ties and costing Minnesota points in the standings.
“That kind of stress can take its toll,” Lagos said.
Minnesota will be without goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt, who is serving a one-game suspension for a red card against FC Edmonton. So Matt VanOekel, who entered the season as Minnesota’s starter before losing the job to Hildebrandt, gets the call.
Locker room issues hurt the team last season. But by all accounts, the goalkeepers have avoided a potentially contentious situation by training hard and accepting their roles. Minnesota is tied for fewest goals allowed (four) in the fall season.
“We’ve got two No. 1s,” Lagos said. “Matt’s been a vital part of the team the last couple years. I think he’s ready to step in and do well.”
Another 1-2 punch has fueled Minnesota’s offense. Forward Christian Ramirez and midfielder Daniel Mendes, who have combined for nine goals in five fall season games, garnered consecutive NASL player of the week awards.
Mendes lauded the confidence of Minnesota’s offensive-minded players, which allowed them to rally after an early deficit last week. With his team down 1-0 in the fourth minute, Ramirez knotted the game in the 15th minute.
Mendes, who added a pair of second-half goals, noted an increased intensity to fall season matches. Teams know each other better and everyone is eager to measure themselves against Minnesota.
“We won the spring season and they want to beat us,” Mendes said. “And we want to be unbeaten as long as we can.”