Minnesota United FC officially joined the MLS expansion ranks in March, prompting endless talk about the team’s future — especially in the area of stadium discussions. On the field, though, United’s season was exciting and disappointing in equal measure. The Loons broke the league record for goals, packed record numbers of fans into the National Sports Center and finished a strong third in the standings. And yet they ended the year without a trophy, lost to a lower-league team in the U.S. Open Cup, and bowed out in the first game of the playoffs for the second year in a row.
The biggest non-MLS story of the year might have been the play of midfielder Miguel Ibarra, and the team’s midseason decision to sell him to Mexico’s Club Leon. The sale has to be considered an overall win for Minnesota, and not just because of the seven-figure fee the United collected for transferring Ibarra’s rights. Having earned a spot on the U.S. national team, Ibarra needed to play on a bigger stage to further his career, and Minnesota chose to support him by letting him leave — an attitude from the team that should pay dividends when trying to recruit other players.
Midfielder Ibson, who in some ways was Ibarra’s replacement after an injury-hit spring season, was another bright spot for the team. The veteran midfielder was the key in United’s league-leading offense, bridging the gap between defense and attack. Striker Christian Ramirez flourished in the fall season after finding himself on the bench in the spring, tallying 12 goals after the break, in part because he worked so well with Ibson.
On the flip side, the United defense struggled all season to hold leads. Minnesota gave up 39 goals, 16 more than NASL leader Ottawa, including a number of backbreaking late goals. While fullbacks Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas were excellent offensively, the back line as a whole struggled — so much so that center back Cristiano Dias, who started the entire spring season, was removed from the first-team roster by the end of the year.
The 2016 edition of the Loons may need a few new faces to bolster the team. Minnesota was led by veterans in 2015, and seven of the 14 players who played for the Loons in the NASL semifinals are at least 31 years old — a little long in the tooth for a team that’s looking toward the future. With the move to MLS imminent, this may be a good offseason for Minnesota to sign some young, developing players, and perhaps unearth the next Miguel Ibarra. Regardless of who provides the boost, though, more will be needed from United to reach the pinnacle of the second division. The 2016 season looms as perhaps the team’s final chance to again win the Soccer Bowl, and potentially, to leave the NASL on top.
Soccer short takes
• Bloomington native Jackson Yueill was named to the Pac-12 all-conference first team, following a seven-goal freshman season. He might have had a shot at the conference’s Freshman of the Year award, except his UCLA teammate Jose Hernandez led the conference with 11 goals and four assists — more even than U.S. striker Jordan Morris, who scored eight times for Stanford.
• The U.S. men’s national team’s 0-0 draw at Trinidad and Tobago in midweek was disappointing, but it was not the disaster that some have made it out to be. Games in Trinidad never have been easy, and T&T hasn’t been a pushover this year, with two high-scoring draws against Mexico to its credit. Team USA’s next qualifier isn’t until late March — perhaps a nice break after an ugly 2014.
• Keep an eye out this weekend for Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, who could tie the Premier League record by scoring in a 10th consecutive game.
Vardy, who was playing in England’s fifth division just three seasons ago, has been the best story in the Premier League — and the main reason Leicester is in third place in the standings.
Weekend watch guide
La Liga: Barcelona at Real Madrid, 11:15 a.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. As is so often the case, the game they call “El Clásico” is a battle of first vs. second in La Liga. Lionel Messi could play for Barcelona for the first time since an injury sidelined him in mid-September; despite his absence, Barcelona still has a three-point lead over Real.
Premier League: Liverpool at Manchester City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Manchester City returns after a break for international games with the Premier League lead — but with its last game, a draw with lowly Aston Villa, still on its mind. Oft-injured but exciting Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge could make one of his yearly cameos, a boost to Liverpool.
MLS: New York at Columbus, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Columbus striker Kei Kamara scored 22 goals this season, and two in the conference semifinals, but was held off the scoreboard in three games against New York this year. The Red Bulls, the MLS regular-season champions, have made the playoffs 15 times — but have reached the MLS Cup final only once.
MLS: Dallas at Portland, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports 1. Portland’s history stretches back to 1975, when the Timbers joined the first incarnation of the NASL. They reached the championship game that season; they haven’t been back since. Portland boasts an excellent defense and exciting midfielder Darlington Nagbe. A home win in the first leg would be key.