Minnesota United has a bye week this week, but the week after, it's off to Carolina, the current league leaders. The RailHawks scored not once but twice in injury time on Saturday to beat Tampa Bay and go to the top of the standings, one point ahead of Minnesota and Atlanta.
In the meantime, Carolina has to play twice. Wednesday, they take on Chivas USA in the US Open Cup - a very winnable game for the RailHawks, considering Chivas is terrible (last in the West in Major League Soccer), the game is in Carolina, and that the RailHawks beat MLS champions Los Angeles in the last round. They then play Sunday in Edmonton, before having five days off ahead of the home game against Minnesota.
Maybe a Carolina win on Wednesday is the best thing United could hope for; that would give Carolina another midweek cup game, four days after the Minnesota game. I'm sure the RailHawks would insist that their focus would be uncompromised, but if they had a quarterfinal coming up, possibly against another MLS team - how could they fail to be a little distracted?
The state of play in the NASL
Atlanta won't be happy with their own result on Saturday. They came into the weekend leading the league and had Edmonton at home. Even the match started going their way; Eddies defender Chris Nurse was sent off for two yellow cards, just a half-hour into the match, and in the second half the Silverbacks took a 1-0 lead.
But ten minutes later, former Minnesota midfielder Neil Hlavaty buried a free kick to tie the game at 1-1, and Edmonton held on for the draw, knocking Atlanta down into a second-place tie with Minnesota.
It's also important to note that Carolina and Atlanta both have four games remaining, while Minnesota has only three - but two of those three are against the RailHawks and the Silverbacks, games that are both probably must-wins, for United's title hopes.
Closing the book on the Metrodome
Minnesota got its second-best attendance of the year on Saturday - 5,754, the only game with more than 5,000 fans other than the season opener, which drew 6,754 to the Metrodome.
The team ended up averaging just over 5,100 fans for its five downtown games. On the one hand, that’s a far cry from the 10,000 that the team was hoping to draw to the Dome; on the other hand, 5,000 fans at the National Sports Center in Blaine would pretty much pack the stadium out.
To put it in perspective, the first leg of last year’s championship match - one of the wildest, most raucous games I’ve experienced in Blaine - drew 4,642 people. Getting fans to make the drive to Blaine is always a challenge, but if United could get 5,000 fans to the National Sports Center, it would be a fun atmosphere - and a major success.
At Saturday's game, I ran into Damian Petrou, the founder and president of Brave New Media, a content development company that helps United out from time to time. He's pretty realistic about his marketing efforts as a soccer fan. "15 years in marketing, and this is the hardest sell I've had," he said, referring to the challenges of selling soccer in a saturated sports and entertainment market like Minnesota.
He was speaking as a fan, not on behalf of the team. For United, though, there's no doubt they're about to enter the most challenging portion of the season, marketing-wise. Minnesota now moves out to the suburbs - and because of the schedule, and the split season, they have only one more home game between now and August 3.