On this week’s Sportive, we talked mostly NFL – including the Vikings’ win, our sleeper team (the Bills), and whether we should be watching the NFL at all.

Then later in the week it turned out that Adrian Peterson likes to hit his kids. So, good job NFL!

Christian Ramirez’s shooting has been wayward, but give the Minnesota United striker credit – he’s finding other ways to find the back of the net. He chested in a goal, from a beautiful bounding Kevin Venegas free kick, and Miguel Ibarra added a long-distance strike in the second half as United came from behind to win 2-1 over Fort Lauderdale.

It was United’s first win since August 17, a welcome shot of momentum for a team that appeared to be stuck in the early-fall doldrums. With a visit to San Antonio on tap for next Saturday, and the Scorpions and Minnesota vying for first place in the overall NASL standings, any tailwind will be welcomed

31 minutes in, Fort Lauderdale took the lead – one of the few times they’ve managed to do so on the road this year. Striker Pecka volleyed home a Stephane Guillaume cross, a good-looking goal that was greeted with nothing short of jubilation from the Fort Lauderdale sideline.

Seven minutes later, though, Ramirez brought United back level. Venegas’s free kick from the right was perfectly placed – too far for the goalkeeper to come out to get it, but with enough pace and bend to flummox the Fort Lauderdale defense. It took one wicked hop, straight into the chest of the onrushing Ramirez, and the striker had only to let the ball deflect off his chest to get the goal. It gave Ramirez 15 goals for the season and three in United’s last four games – though the first two were from the penalty spot.

Ibarra took less than ten minutes in the second half to find the winner, a long-range blast that flew into the bottom right-hand corner, perhaps Ibarra’s best goal of the season – and his first since mid-July, to boot. It was enough to reduce the Strikers to a long-term policy of shin-kicking and roughhousing, one that proved unable to produce any particularly notable chances.

Ramirez, though, had a gift-wrapped through ball fall to him, three yards from an open net; sadly, he ballooned his chance over the crossbar. It was the latest in a stretch of near misses for the striker. Yet, give him all the credit in the world; he’s found other ways to score, including – tonight – with his chest.

In other NASL results, New York led Atlanta 2-0 after ten minutes, blew the lead, then scored in the 84th minute to win 3-2; Carolina whacked San Antonio 3-1; Indy and Edmonton drew 1-1; and Tampa Bay lost 2-0, at home, to last-place Ottawa, and responded with a monumental “sore loser” moment on Twitter.

Might hurt less given the circumstances, Tampa Bay.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Just by looking at the box scores, you’d start to think Minnesota United FC had lost their offensive magic. They’ve scored just three goals in three games – two of them penalties, one a free kick, none from open play. That’s led to their worst stretch of the year in the results; three games without a win, including their first loss of the fall season. A terrible 1-1 draw at New York was followed with a loss at Edmonton and a draw at home with Tampa Bay, and now San Antonio has crept ahead of Minnesota in the standings; United now trails by four points in the fall table, and one point in the combined spring & fall standings.

The games themselves, though, paint a different picture. The highlight reels are filled with United chances that have skidded just wide or glanced off the woodwork; Christian Ramirez, the league’s leading goal-scorer, has been especially snakebitten. If the goal were a couple of feet wider on either side, United would have won its last two games, and Ramirez would have about five more goals to his credit.

Minnesota has controlled possession and outshot its opponents. Head coach Manny Lagos spoke of pain following United’s 1-1 draw with Tampa Bay. “It hurts,” he said. “The ball’s not quite bouncing our way, and we’re playing some good soccer. We should be finishing our chances and we’re not.”

Perhaps tonight’s visit from Fort Lauderdale can get Minnesota untracked. United put three past the Strikers in both of the meetings between the two this year. Simone Bracalello, Ramirez, and Miguel Ibarra scored in the first game; Daniel Mendes, Ramirez, and Ibarra scored in the second. It’s an almost complete list of the players that Minnesota needs to find the magic scoring touch, beginning with tonight’s game.

United’s squad will likely be the same as last week, with backup striker Rafael Burgos still gone with the El Salvador national team on Copa Centroamericana duty. He’s scored twice in three games for El Salvador, who play Panama tonight in the competition’s third-place match. On the injury front, defensive midfielder Juliano Vicentini took a knock in training this week, but is expected to play tonight.

Minnesota has gone to a keeper rotation over the past few games, and if that continues, it would be Mitch Hildebrandt in goal tonight. No changes are likely to the team’s back line, nor is the all-conquering Ramirez likely to leave the lineup up front, but the midfield poses an interesting question. Sometime SoccerCentric analyst Bill MK looked at this dilemma, over at The Loon Call, and came to the conclusion that Minnesota needs to stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation, rather than pushing Ibarra out to the wing and bringing Aaron Pitchkolan and Greg Jordan forward. If the team does revert to the 4-2-3-1, then Jamie Watson or Bracalello might come in for Jordan, in order to run the left wing.

The difference for United, though, might not come from creating more chances. All Minnesota might need to do is finish the ones that they get.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Jesse Lund of Twinkie Town stopped by for Episode 70 of the podcast.

Then, on Episode 71, we recorded a two-part Vikings preview.

Podcasts: like blog posts for your ears.

Minneapolis native Mukwelle Akale is winning international awards yet again – this time, in the Czech Republic. Akale was named Player of the Tournament at the Vaclav Jezek Tournament, and scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Ukraine in the tournament final. It’s another award for the youngster’s shelf; he won the same Player of the Tournament award at the Copa del Atlantico earlier this year.

Akale, who signed with Spanish giants Villareal earlier in the year, has long been a part of the USA youth setup, as well as the Minnesota Thunder Academy that’s based in Woodbury. He started in the USA’s tournament-opening 3-1 win over Hungary, and came on as a substitute in the team’s 3-2 win over the Czech Republic. His winning goal, in the 47th minute of the title match, capped off yet another starring performance for the youngster.

Should you want to see him in action, you can also see him here, scoring for the Villareal U-18 team against the Southampton U-18 team.

Nor was Akale the only local on the field in the Czech Republic. Jackson Yueill, who has also featured for the U-18 team in the past, was again in action with the squad as well. He started the team’s opening game, but missed on out the game against the Czech Republic; no box score is yet available for the championship match, so there’s no telling whether he made the field for that one. Yueill, also a Minnesota Thunder Academy product, is still part of the Woodbury program.

On the women’s side, Woodbury native Kassey Kallman is one match away from her first championship ring in the pro ranks. Her NWSL team, FC Kansas City, beat the Portland Thorns 2-0 on Saturday. Kallman started and played all 90 minutes, taking three shots, one of which was on goal. KC will face the winner of Seattle next Sunday for the NWSL title. The 22-year-old Florida State grad has started 18 of Kansas City’s 24 games this year, and has plenty of international action to her credit as well, last featuring for the USA U-23 team at the Six Nations tournament in March.

Goalkeeper Cody Cropper has also been featuring for the U-23 team, on the men’s side. The Maple Grove native started at keeper in a 5-1 win over the Bahamas senior team in early August, the culmination of a five-day training camp for the team that’s likely to feature at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Cropper, who was born in February 1993, will just meet the age limit for the games, and is on track to start at keeper – should the United States qualify, as they failed to do in 2012.

Cropper remains at Southampton, where he started for the U-21 side on Friday in their second game in the U-21 Premier League, a 2-1 win over the West Ham U-21s.

Cropper’s sometime USA youth teammate, Woodbury’s Eric Miller, has been back in the picture for the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer. Miller started the first seven games of the year for Montreal, and has been back in the lineup recently, starting three games in August as the Impact search for a combination that will keep them off the bottom of the league. His teammate Calum Mallace, a Henry Sibley HS alum, has also been featuring for the Impact; Mallace started last Saturday against New York and picked up an assist, though Montreal lost 4-2 to New York.

And finally: Prior Lake native Teal Bunbury has started almost every game this season for the New England Revolution, generally playing on the right side of midfield. He’s scored twice and has four assists, in his first season since leaving Sporting Kansas City, where he played for four years.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

It would have been reasonable to expect Minnesota United, the NASL leaders, to dominate a game in which they had a man advantage for virtually the entire match. Instead, United were run off the field by the New York Cosmos, and were lucky to escape New York with a 1-1 draw.

Christian Ramirez scored from the penalty spot just eight minutes into the game, after Cosmos keeper Joe Maurer took down the onrushing Daniel Mendes in the penalty area. Maurer was sent off for the challenge, and Ramirez slotted home his 13th goal of the season.

Thereafter, though, Minnesota was nothing short of terrible, even given the lead and the man advantage. Mads Stokkelien finally scored for the Cosmos to knot the game in the 74th minute, but by then, United should have already been a goal or two down. Andres Flores should have scored just 20 minutes in to the game, when a bounce beat United defender Justin Davis, and keeper Matt Van Oekel had to parry away a close-range shot from Flores. Van Oekel was on display again, twice in two minutes in the early second half, denying both Hagop Chirisian and Stefan Dimitrov from close range after both had found their way through the floundering Minnesota defense.

As the second half wore on, the Cosmos grew stronger and United flailed even harder. Cosmos right back Hunter Freeman should have scored from a header, with the net wide open in front of him, but mistimed his leap. On the other end, Ramirez pulled a shot just wide – in what was really Minnesota’s only chance of the game, a sad statement of just how punchless their offense was.

After Stokkelien had turned home the cross, Minnesota collapsed completely. Davis ran over Flores in the Minnesota area, a fairly clear penalty that was somehow ignored by the referee. One minute later, Van Oekel had to come rushing out to clear a long ball that had escaped the inert Minnesota defense, and his sliding clearance rebounded to Freeman, who was unlucky to see his long-range blast rebound off the post.

In the end, United was more than lucky to escape with a draw. The end of the game saw a sight that perhaps has never before been seen on a soccer field – Giovanni Savarese, the coach of the team that was down to ten men, berating the officials for not adding more time onto the end of the game.

It’s difficult to describe how hapless United’s performance was. Somehow, even though the Cosmos had one fewer player on the field, they were able to outnumber Minnesota on both ends of the field. United were neither able to control possession nor press the Cosmos defense; their only tactic was to attempt long balls over the New York defense. Penalty aside, Minnesota’s super attack was completely neutralized – not the result that United wanted to see, in what was a preview of a potential playoff matchup.

Somehow, the Cosmos had the freedom to run wherever they wanted on the flanks. Somehow, they were able to break up every United passing play in the middle of the field – and even turn them into counterattacks. Somehow, New York was first to every loose ball and highest for every header.

Minnesota can justly be proud of their spring-season title, and will point to their current eleven-game unbeaten run. It’s worth mentioning, though, that they’ve been comprehensively outplayed by the Cosmos twice this season, and though they beat San Antonio on the season’s opening day, they’ve yet to play the Scorpions in the fall.

For the moment, United remains atop the standings. But if it’s a championship they’re after, they’ll have to win it against San Antonio and New York, the other teams ahead of the NASL pack. After their performance tonight, it would seem that against those teams, even an extra player isn’t enough to make them the favorite.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Local Gopher football expert / Minnesota sports cynic / brother Dave Marthaler was back on the podcast this week. We talked Gopher football for an hour. This, after I’d failed to record about half an hour of talking.

This week on the podcast, old friends Michael Rand and Rocket stopped by Sportive HQ. Brandon was there. Stu showed up too. Eventually we had five people around the table, a new record; only Clarence missed out.

We recorded a podcast while we were there.

Minnesota United extended its unbeaten streak to ten games with a dominant 5-1 win over Indy Eleven last night. Aaron Pitchkolan, playing in midfield with Juliano Vicentini out injured, opened the scoring after 25 minutes, and Christian Ramirez and Daniel Mendes added goals before halftime to take the game out of reach at the halfway mark. In the second half, Jamie Watson added a fourth and Ramirez a fifth before the hour mark. Kleberson scored a consolation for Indy, 20 minutes from the end of the match.

I tell you all that so that I can tell you this: all anyone can talk about is Ramirez’s first goal, which came from a bicycle kick in the Indy area. You can see it below, beginning at about the 2:30 mark.

The win takes United, at least for the moment, to the top of the fall-season table. San Antonio plays at Ottawa later today, but after six games for both teams, United has 16 points and the Scorpions 15.

Ramirez’s two goals extended his lead atop the NASL scoring race; the young striker now has 12 goals in 15 games this year. To put that in perspective, only two players scored more than 12 goals in all of 2013, and only four players have ever tallied more in the three previous NASL seasons. And keep in mind that Ramirez has a dozen games to go this fall.

We all wondered how United could cope this year without injured striker Pablo Campos, who scored at least 12 goals in each of the three years of the NASL. It’s safe to say that Ramirez has filled those shoes admirably.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Saturday’s results in the NASL had a familiar ring to them. Minnesota, won. San Antonio, won. New York, won.

While the NASL season was split this year into two ridiculously unequal “halves,” Saturday’s 3-2 win over Edmonton was the midpoint of Minnesota United’s 27-game league schedule. With the season half gone, it’s become clear that the Loons, the Scorpions, and the Cosmos are the teams to beat.

The league’s imbalance was on full display last year, as the relentlessly-promoted Cosmos won the league title despite having participated in just half the season. Coming into 2014, though, there were whispers that both Minnesota and San Antonio had ambitions – and finances – to match their New York brethren. And while the Cosmos have struggled slightly,  while also seeing a major dip at the ticket counter, the other two have blown right by.

Minnesota has lost just once all year and has a nine-game unbeaten streak. San Antonio has won eight of its last 11 matches. United has 33 points on the year, the Scorpions 32 (with one more game played than Minnesota) – and then comes a major drop-off. New York, with 27 points, is the only other team near the top two. Fort Lauderdale, in fourth place, is eleven points adrift of San Antonio – nearly a point per match.

Combine that with the box office, where Minnesota and San Antonio top the season attendance list (apart from Indy’s incredible numbers), and the obvious ambitions of both to eventually play at the top level of American soccer, and you begin to sense the difference. New York has had trouble scoring goals and drawing fans, it’s true, but they’re rumored to be trying to spend nearly $5 million to buy striker Roque Santa Cruz from Malaga – more than the annual salary budget for every team in the league (possibly more than all of them combined – they aren’t public). And their other plan appears to be to sign Spanish legend Raul to play in front of countryman Marcos Senna.

It’s all representative of a sea change in how the NASL runs itself. For years, second-division soccer was mostly a competition between evenly-matched teams. In 2012, San Antonio won the league championship with 1.67 points per match; in the spring of 2013, Atlanta took the first-half title with 1.75. As long as a team won slightly more than they lost, and didn’t draw too often, they had a chance at the league title.

In the fall of last year, though, New York came in and blew everyone away, winning nine times and losing only once on the way to 31 points in 14 games – 2.21 per match. United had to repeat that number to edge San Antonio in the spring, and currently leads the fall standings with four wins and one draw in five games – 2.6 points per match.

Four teams will make the playoffs this season, and anything can happen in the playoffs – something Minnesota fans well know, having seen their team finish sixth but reach the league final in both 2011 and 2012. That may paper over the cracks a little bit, especially if one of the league’s weaker teams manages to pull an upset in the playoffs. But right now it looks virtually certain that the top three seeds in the playoffs will be the three big, ambitious, financially-well-set teams.

Tampa Bay has also shown a willingness to spend, without much to show for it, and if Indy can reinvest the funds from their outstanding gate receipts into the team, they may become a force as well. But right now, it would appear that it’s a three-team race in the NASL – and as long as the finances and the ambitions stay in place, it may be that way for awhile.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.