When the NASL schedule was released, Minnesota soccer fans were greeted with a familiar list of early-season road games. With the exception of Metrodome home games, United (and its predecessor teams) have generally always opened on the road, owing to the usual terrible April weather in the state.
This season, though, a two-game road trip to open the season seemed especially onerous. With just nine games in the spring season, a two-game slide would be enough to knock a team out of contention for the playoff spot awarded to the first-half winner; United couldn't afford to start slow, even though they were the only NASL team to play on the road in both of the first two weeks.
In the event, though, no one need have worried. After a 2-0 win at San Antonio, and a 2-1 last-gasp victory in Ottawa, United sits tied atop the NASL standings with New York. The odd number of games in the first half means that this has hardly provided Minnesota with an advantage - they still have three road games remaining, against four home games - but things could have been so much worse.
A look north of the border
Edmonton, Saturday night's opponent, began 2014 in their usual style - by which I mean they drew 1-1 with Tampa Bay. (11 of Edmonton's 26 matches last year finished 1-1, including five in a row at one point.) They changed things up with a 1-0 home loss to New York last week, though, and are ahead of just the league's two zero-point teams, Atlanta and Ottawa.
The 'Montons (as the local du Nord Futbol Show calls them) also are coming off a midweek match; they played Ottawa on Wednesday in the first leg of a Canadian Championship match. (For the un-informed: the five Canadian MLS and NASL teams play a tournament to not only determine the championship of Canada, but to determine the nation's entrant into the CONCACAF Champions League.) This was - perhaps expectedly - a draw; at least it was 0-0 instead of 1-1.
Edmonton divested itself of talented malcontent Shaun Saiko in the offseason, and lost midfielder Chris Nurse as well. Their problem, however, has always been in scoring goals, and they've made several moves to try to combat that; they've brought in the 6'3" Frank Jonke as a target forward, and English League 2 veteran Ritchie Jones to play behind him as an attacking midfielder. Former Atlanta striker Horace James has also joined to play on the right wing, with Daryl Fordyce returning this year in a role on the left side. Former Minnesota midfielder Neil Hlavaty returns in a defensive-midfield role, and Albert Watson is also back to lead the Edmonton back line.
The Eddies, from Edmonton, also signed a player named Eddie Edward. I'm pretty sure this was a "Kids in the Hall" sketch.
Field looking good for Saturday night
Despite earlier assurances, I still had some concern about the National Sports Center field. Grass has yet to begin growing in earnest in most places in Minnesota, and it was legitimate to wonder if the Blaine field would be mostly green-painted dirt.
NSC spokesman Barclay Kruse reports, however, that the field is in excellent condition, and is already noticeably greener. He sent along the below pictures, which were taken before the midweek rains and today's sun; no doubt things will be looking even better by game time tomorrow night.
Slight changes at NSC for 2014
Apart from the field, the stadium is in similar shape to last year. One change, though, is that the bleachers on the north end of the field - the Building End - have been removed, and moved to the south "Airport End" of the field. (NOTE: These End names are works in progress. Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.)
The beer garden on the north end will be expanded, with the removal of the bleachers; in fact, the team's cheapest season ticket allows you to stand in the beer garden all year for $100, if you so desire. The beer garden itself will again be sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, and I'm told the beers available will be Bud, Bud Light, Shock Top Lemon, and Goose Island (possibly the 312 Pale Ale offering from the now-A/B-owned brewery.)
Gates open at 5:30 tomorrow night, with the game at 7pm. The first 5,000 fans will get a Star Tribune schedule poster. For those who can't make it to Blaine, the game, along with all of the team's home games this year, is on KSTC Channel 45.
No one from United dares speculate on the size of tomorrow night's crowd, possibly because they are afraid of jinxing things. Here's a few numbers for you, and you may judge them as you will:
- Last season, United drew 6,754 to their home opener against San Antonio.
- United's biggest crowd at the National Sports Center last year was for their July 4 game against Atlanta, in front of 6,507.
- Last year's home game against Edmonton - also in late April - drew 4,135 to the Metrodome.
- Indy leads the league in attendance, averaging 10,910 fans through two home dates.
- New York (7,906), San Antonio (7,381) and Tampa Bay (7,003) also drew more than seven thousand fans to their home openers.
- On the flip side, Carolina drew just 4,007, and Fort Lauderdale brought up the rear at 3,105.
Paul Douglas's Star Tribune forecast calls for a high temperature of 58 on Saturday, with clouds and a chance of some post-game rain.