The Star Tribune is expanding its soccer coverage by adding Jon Marthaler's Soccer Insider column beginning today. It will cover all soccer at all levels and appear in the newspaper and on startribune.com every Saturday.
They called him the “Artful Dodger.” A Twin Cities-area columnist stuck Alan Willey with that nickname within the first month of his Minnesota Kicks career in 1976, thanks to his early penchant for stealing the ball from a defender and scoring, and it stuck with him throughout his nine-year NASL career. He tallied 129 NASL goals, the second-most in league history; 95 of those came in Minnesota, for the Kicks and later for the short-lived Strikers.
On Saturday night, Minnesota United FC will lead a celebration of Willey, who was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003. The team is selling throwback Kicks-style orange T-shirt jerseys adorned with Willey’s number 9, as well as cutouts of his head on Popsicle sticks. “That head’s pretty big, let me tell you,” said Willey of the design. “My wife just keeps looking at it and she’s laughing out loud.” The team will also honor him at halftime and give fans a chance to celebrate perhaps Minnesota’s best-ever player.
Willey sees himself in Christian Ramirez, last year’s top scorer in the NASL. “Christian is more like what I would be, working off a target man,” he said. Like Willey, Ramirez is not a traditional big, tall center forward. Pablo Campos, the team leader with four goals, is much better in that role — similar to Ron Futcher, Willey’s strike partner in so many Kicks lineups.
In those days, the Kicks would play the ball to Futcher, and Willey would read whether Futcher would flick the ball on or play it with his feet, and time his run to meet the ball. “He’d just lay it off and I’d have a shot,” Willey said.
Though the United tried to play Campos and Ramirez together for two games in the early season, à la Futcher and Willey, eventually coach Manny Lagos settled into using a single forward.
Willey, who took over as the color commentator on the team’s television broadcasts this year, understands the move. “They were losing the midfield battle,” he said. “I think what Manny did is he went to an extra midfield player and just played one up front. I can see where he went with Pablo, because Pablo is more of a target man.” Because of that single-forward look, Ramirez hasn’t started since the season’s fourth game.
Ramirez will likely get his chances; Minnesota has 20 games left in the season after Saturday night, and Campos is 32 and still returning from a major knee injury. Willey, who would know, is confident in Ramirez’s ability to steal a few goals of his own. “He’s just a natural goal scorer,” he said.
Soccer short takes
• Miguel Ibarra’s move to Mexican giants Club León might be good for his development as a player, and his sale is good for United’s bottom line. It won’t help Minnesota on the field, though. The team has no replacement for his speed on the wing or his newly developed finishing ability on the counterattack. Ibarra was the team’s best player, perhaps the best in the NASL, and losing him will make it that much harder for United to make the playoffs — and take away the club’s most marketable player to boot.
• After Saturday’s game against Fort Lauderdale, Minnesota has a break in the schedule until July 4. That should give Manny Lagos a chance to spend some of the seven-figure windfall the team received for Ibarra — preferably on a player to help replace him.
• It’s been a great month for the U.S. men’s youth teams. The U-20 team has reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup and is poised to go farther. The U-23 team took third place at the prestigious Toulon Tournament in France, beating England and the Netherlands along the way. Youth success doesn’t always translate to senior team success, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
• The NASL announced NBA star Carmelo Anthony would lead an ownership group to bring a team back to Puerto Rico, replacing the Puerto Rico Islanders, who suspended operations in 2012.
Previously, former AC Milan and Italy superstar Paolo Maldini announced they would help bring a team to Miami. If both teams happen, it would give the NASL 13 teams and some star power in the owner’s box. Still, it’s worth remembering that the NASL also confidently announced expansion in northern Virginia and in Oklahoma City; both teams vanished without a trace.
• The National Sports Center expects to break its record of 1,060 teams at the USA Cup youth soccer tournament this year.
Teams from five continents have already registered for the 31st edition of the gigantic soccer festival in Blaine.
Weekend Soccer Watch
Women’s World Cup: England vs. Mexico, 3 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. England needs a win to get back on track after an opening-game loss to France. Mexico is in the running for its first knockout-round berth ever and will be desperate for a result against one of the Group F favorites.
Women’s World Cup: Spain vs. Brazil, 3 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1. Spain’s draw with Costa Rica in its first game leaves it in a tough spot. Spain would like to avoid a loss to Group E favorite Brazil, as that could leave them needing to beat South Korea in their final group-stage game.
NASL: Minnesota United FC vs. Fort Lauderdale Strikers, 7 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 45. The Strikers haven’t won since April and fired their coach midweek. It’s a perfect chance for Minnesota to end a string of disappointing results and finish the NASL spring season on a high note.
MLS: DC United at Orlando City, 6 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports 1. Expansion Orlando and star forward Kaka haven’t lost in their last four and have climbed into the MLS playoff race. Their last loss, though, came at the hands of DC United, the Eastern Conference leaders.