Minnesota United may be six weeks away from its regular-season opener, but fans’ first look at the 2016 team comes this week, as the team travels to Portland for three preseason games against Major League Soccer opposition. The Loons play the MLS Cup champion Timbers on Sunday, Chicago on Wednesday, and Vancouver on Saturday.
While the games are a chance to make a statement against MLS teams, according to head coach Carl Craig, it’s more of an opportunity to see how the squad is progresing. “If we’re carrying out the things we’ve done in training and the parts are coming together, then I’ll be happy,” he said. “If results are going horribly wrong, then what we’ve been doing in training isn’t working. Certainly it’d be lovely to come away with the prize of winning the tournament, but my personal goal is purely to get minutes in the legs and get experience for the fellas, and gauge where we’re at.”
This will be far from the team’s only option for preseason showcases. After returning from the West Coast, United will be home for a week, before heading off to Mexico on a second preseason trip. That will give the coach plenty of time to decide on a first-team lineup — which also helps keep team spirits up.
“The atmosphere around the team’s been first class, and the guys are putting the effort in,” Craig said. “But I haven’t picked a first team yet, and once that happens then everything changes. I probably will disappoint people when I start picking a team to go out on the field. That’s a big part of what I’m responsible for, and that’s yet to happen.”
Craig is planning to play virtually everyone on the squad over the three games. Half the team will play 60 minutes Sunday and 30 minutes Wednesday, with the other half doing the reverse; only the rotation for next Saturday’s match against Vancouver is still up in the air. The team is extremely short on center backs, with just two on the roster. Apart from that, though, the Loons are two-deep at every position, and the coach is excited to use the roster’s versatility. “It really gives me options to tweak what I do in terms of shape, in terms of tactics and opponents,” he said. “It’s a lovely position to be in right now. And then we just have to make it happen on the field.”
All three games will be live-streamed on Minnesota’s website, giving Loons fans a chance to look in. For the coach, all the pressure is on the three MLS teams. “If they lose, red flags start flying all over the place and they start questioning themselves,” he said. “I’m just hoping at the end of the week that’s how things are for them, and not for us.”
• Montreal traded Woodbury native Eric Miller to the Colorado Rapids this week, for a draft pick and some cash. Miller is going from a playoff team to perhaps the league’s worst franchise, but he’s also moving to a Rapids side that desperately needs defensive help – and may slot him in immediately at right back.
• The first legs of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals are this week, with four American teams matched against four Mexican sides. Given that Liga MX is in full swing, while MLS has yet to kick off for the season, it’s not out of the question that all four American teams could lose simply based on fitness.
• The United States’ and Canada’s women’s teams cruised through the group stage of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying, combining to win six games, score 37 goals, and give up zero. The lack of women’s soccer development in the rest of North America and the Caribbean, especially in Mexico, is distressing. Europe is improving, but can’t carry the burden of future women’s soccer development alone.
Weekend watch guide
FA Cup: Hull City at Arsenal, 6:45 a.m. Saturday, FS1. The last time these teams met in the FA Cup was in the 2014 final, when Hull City took a very early 2-0 lead but lost 3-2 in extra time. Arsenal is the two-time defending FA Cup champions, with a 15-game undefeated streak – but for once, the Gunners are distracted with a bid for the league title. Can Hull City get revenge for 2014?
Liga MX: Cruz Azul at Club América, 5 p.m. Saturday, Univision. El Clásico Joven matches two of the three Mexico City teams in Liga MX, making this battle between the capital’s upper class (América) and its working class (Cruz Azul). Both teams struggled at the start of the spring season, but three-game undefeated streaks have both dreaming of playoff runs at the end of the year.
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Bayer Leverkeusen, 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Fox Soccer Plus. With the top two in Germany more or less decided, the focus is shifting to the race for third and fourth place. Leverkeusen, thanks to the prolific goal-scoring form of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, is third – but six clubs are within six points of Bayer, and Chicharito is out injured for two more weeks.
FA Cup: Manchester City at Chelsea, 10 a.m. Sunday, FS2. Manchester City seems more preoccupied with complaining about its overstuffed schedule than finding a way to lift a trophy in manager Manuel Pellegrini’s final year. Chelsea is coming off a midweek Champions League loss, but seems much more focused on a victory – and doesn’t have any schedule-related distractions.