Minnesota United begins pre-season training this week, with trips to Arizona and Brazil planned for summer-like soccer activity. Forget about the advent of spring training and baseball being in the air – soccer’s already going again. Heck, Montreal and D.C. are just two weeks away from each’s first quarterfinal games in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Minnesota won’t start quite that quickly – their first NASL game isn’t until April 11 – but that doesn’t mean that the team won’t be busy. Here’s a quick primer about what has happened with United this offseason – and what to look for in 2015.
Another pivotal year in store for Miguel Ibarra
Ibarra, who will turn 25 in March and thus can no longer properly be called a “youngster,” had virtually his best possible season in 2014, being named league MVP and earning a surprise call-up to the USA national team. His stock has only risen during the offseason, thanks to his inclusion in the January national team training camp, in which he was one of a very few American players praised by USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. After making his first start for the national side in a 2-0 USA victory over Panama, it’s fair to say that Ibarra was one of the breakout stars of the two January friendlies, alongside LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes.
Expectations couldn’t be much higher now for Ibarra, who will be at the forefront of virtually anything you see this year from the United marketing department. Can he handle the pressure of being the only US national team player in the NASL, and the face of the Minnesota franchise to boot?
New arrivals, few departures
United has retained virtually the entire core of last year’s team, and added two players to the mix, as well. The team added Northern Ireland international midfielder Jonny Steele, a veteran of both MLS and the second division, as well as attacking midfielder / forward JC Banks from the USL ranks.
Steele, who like center back Tiago Calvano comes to Minnesota via Australia's A-League, is probably best known in America for his year in Salt Lake City and his two in New York, where he made a total of 77 MLS appearances over three years. Prior to his first-division stint, though, he was one of the second divison's stalwarts, spending five years with some of Minnesota's rivals, like Carolina and Tampa Bay. He's an attacking midfielder, often deployed on the wing but also capable of playing a more central role - and despite a decade in America, is still just 29 years old.
Banks, who like Ibarra is 25, is a Milwaukee native who jumped at the chance to return to the Midwest after four years with Rochester, where he'd become the face of the Rhinos franchise. He too is an attacking player, who can play on the wing or as a striker; he'll likely begin the season by providing depth at both places.
Questions between the pipes
Erstwhile keeper Matt Van Oekel departed in the offseason for Edmonton, leaving only Mitch Hildebrandt as an experienced option in goal for United. While backup Andrew Fontein has promise, Hildebrandt would be the clear #1 choice.
In both of the past two seasons, United has lived with constant competition – and change – at goalkeeper. In 2013, Daryl Sattler began the season as first choice, before a series of gaffes, and then a hip injury that kept him out for the remainder of the year, derailed his season and handed the starting shirt back to Van Oekel. Last season, Van Oekel battled both injuries and inconsistency, giving Hildebrandt a chance to show off his own skills.
Hildebrandt will be looking to establish himself, but given Manny Lagos's history of competition in goal, it'd be a surprise if the team didn't sign at least one more keeper. Cameroonian international keeper Sammy N'Djock is currently on trial with the club, meaning that United could have at least one more available option.
Club looking for depth in the preseason
United is awash in forwards and attacking midfielders, but still needs to fill a few depth roles. Lagos will remember that just two years ago, his team had so many injuries in the spring that he was fielding semi-serious queries about whether he would be ready to play if needed.
The team lost five midfielders in the offseason, as Simone Bracallelo, Floyd Franks, Michael Reed, Omar Daley, and Kentaro Takada all left for other teams. All except Takada and Reed made double-digit appearances last year, with Franks and Daley both starting in a third of the team's games. Bracalello and Daley's prowess on the wings has probably been replaced, but the team has yet to bring in any central midfield depth.
Expectations are high
United is expected to be one of the NASL's top teams again in 2015. They are favorites to again finish with the league's top record, and to once again compete with New York, San Antonio, and possibly Tampa Bay for league honors. Anything less would be a major disappointment for everyone involved with the club.
With weeks to go, much is still likely to happen in terms of player signings, and as the team starts to play friendly matches we'll start to get a better idea of Lagos's thinking in terms of lineups and formations. Minnesota will play Seattle on February 19th and Kansas City on February 28th as part of their Arizona trip, our first two chances to get a sense of how things are looking for United this season - and the first chance of excitement for soccer fans who've endured the short soccer winter.