Today, groups from Las Vegas, Sacramento, and Minneapolis-St Paul are in New York, making their pitches for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise. Minnesota actually has two groups making pitches – the Minnesota Vikings, and a Minnesota United-led consortium that appears to (but does not officially) involve the owners of the Twins, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, and Hennepin County.

Much has been debated about what MLS is looking for, but financials will likely play a big part in the decision. Here now, a few statistics, comparing the three cities.

POPULATION – A decent proxy for the potential market for fans. (source)
14. MINNEAPOLIS-ST PAUL
24. SACRAMENTO
30. LAS VEGAS

TOP TV MARKETS – A measure of how attractive would a city be for a TV contract, given that this is one of the prime drivers of league-wide revenue. (source)
15. MINNEAPOLIS-ST PAUL
20. SACRAMENTO
42. LAS VEGAS

FORTUNE 500 COMPANIES – A proxy for the corporate base in each area, given that corporate clients are the prime market for premium seating – perhaps the biggest source of gameday revenue for a team. (source)
MINNEAPOLIS-ST PAUL – 20
LAS VEGAS – 4
SACRAMENTO- 0 (source)

If you assume that money is at the heart of this decision – and if it’s not, it would be a first for big-time sports – then the choice seems pretty straightforward.

We have not always been good at audio, at the Sportive. We had a laptop die in the middle of a recording once, for one; we recorded an episode in a tile-floored basement that was sans furniture once, as well. (The result was like listening to a Walkman in a metal bucket.) We also have struggled with how to audio-engineer a podcast while not having any audio engineer skills of any kind.

Really, though, our main problem has been the internet, and the inherent difficulties of recording a podcast via Google Hangout, which requires a good internet connection for good audio. This will happen, and is unfixable, and has also given our podcast a somewhat-deserved reputation for terrible quality.

I mention all this because Stu and I recorded an episode in a bar on Saturday night, and it went perfectly on the first try. You can hear us and everything. Episode 81 doesn’t sound that bad, and I think we should be proud, for once.

When the news covers a negative event, quite often you will hear a news anchor say, “So-and-so is searching for answers.” It’s a cliche that speaks to a truth about all of us. We know, intellectually, that life is not fair and doesn’t make sense… but we really, really want it to.

This is why we would refuse to accept nonsense in our narratives. We would dismiss a film in which the hero, having made his impassioned speech and saved the family business and won back his woman, was pecked to death by a heretofore-unseen flock of seagulls. That makes no sense, and we want the stories we tell each other to make sense.

Sports, after all, are their own kind of narratives. We struggle to make them fair in all sorts of ways – new rules, salary caps, drafts in reverse order of previous league finish, et cetera. We even set up frameworks so that fairness can undoubtedly follow; games last a predetermined amount of time, and just to be on the safe side, we put a referee or an umpire on the field of play, making sure that everything runs smoothly.

And yet, stubbornly, annoyingly, sports refuse to stop being exactly like real life. Sometimes – often, if you’re a Minnesotan – your team loses. Even when the season chugs along unswervingly, following the course of the narrative that makes the most sense, sometimes it can take a hard turn, right at the end.

For most of 2014, Minnesota United’s season followed the narrative. The franchise rescued from the brink of folding, and the team on the field re-formed around a group of veterans, Minnesota had transformed from the plucky “team that nobody wanted” into an all-conquering powerhouse. They sprinted to a spring-season title. They clinched the league’s best overall record with two games still remaining in the year. Christian Ramirez emerged as the league’s best young striker, tying a league record with 20 goals. Miguel Ibarra came into his own, earning a call-up to the USA national team in the process. The veteran core – Tiago Calvano, Cristiano Dias, Juliano Vicentini and Aaron Pitchkolan chief among them – formed the backbone of a juggernaut that could not be stopped.

When Ibarra knifed in behind the Fort Lauderdale defense in the first half of the NASL semifinals, stealing the ball from a defender and lobbing the Strikers keeper to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead, things made sense. When Minnesota’s defense held firm through the second half, things made sense. When Fort Lauderdale coach Gunter Kronsteiner lost it and screamed at the referee until he was sent off, things made sense.

Even in stoppage time, when Strikers midfielder Mark Anderson poked a ball through the United line that deflected off of United defender Kevin Venegas and to a waiting Martin Nuñez, things still made sense, because even as Nuñez smashed the ball into the net, the linesman was raising his flag, denoting that the Strikers forward was two yards offside.

It was only then that the narrative fell apart, as Nuñez and his teammates surrounded the assistant referee to argue the call, as referee Fotis Bazakos walked over to confer with his assistant and to decide that yes, in fact, the goal would count. While Nuñez was clearly offside, the referee had adjuged that the ball had not simply deflected off Venegas, but instead had been kicked by Venegas into Nuñez’s path.

Was it the right call? The debate rages, even now. But, from a narrative standpoint, whether the call was correct made very little difference.

There was one final chance to restore that narrative, after extra time had produced no tiebreaking goal. Venegas had missed his penalty in the shootout, opening the door for Fort Lauderdale to take the game. The Strikers’ Jenison Brito, needing only to score the fifth and decisive penalty, instead clanked his shot off the left-hand post, and the Minnesota crowd jumped and shouted and screamed, the narrative redeemed. Pablo Campos – the returning hero, he of the torn ACL and MCL in preseason, returning to the field – scored his to send the shootout into sudden-death overtime.

Moments later, Pecka made his penalty, giving the Strikers the lead. Moments later, Pitchkolan’s effort was saved. Fort Lauderdale moves on; Minnesota’s season comes to a halting stop. From a narrative standpoint, it makes no sense.

Is that a flock of seagulls?

We’re left searching for answers.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

We recorded the podcast at Brandon’s house for the first time ever. It started with Twins and Wolves talk, then degenerated into a lot of yelling, in which I found out that everything I believe is wrong and also everyone else on the podcast thinks I might kill humans for sport. Fun one!

I covered Saturday night’s game for the Star Tribune; here’s my game story.

Minnesota United’s 0-0 draw with New York really isn’t that concerning, in and of itself. The Cosmos were well-organized defensively, and though United had a number of decent chances, none were particularly galling, apart from Christian Ramirez’s missed penalty. Had it been the first game of the year, Minnesota maybe would even have looked at the draw as a positive, having completely smothered New York’s attack.

The worry now, though, is that United is starting to feel like they can’t beat New York, no matter what. They lost twice against the Cosmos last year. Their only loss of the spring season this year was in New York. Their previous fall-season game was a 1-1 draw in which the Cosmos played virtually the entire match with ten men, and United were still so comprehensively outplayed that New York should probably have won it.

After yet another disappointment, with Ramirez firing wildly in the closing moments last night, United is looking at a record of P5 W0 D2 L3 against New York, all-time. Minnesota has scored one goal in those five games, a Ramirez penalty earlier this fall.

Last night’s results meant that the Cosmos clinched a playoff spot and United clinched the #1 seed, and while it’s very unlikely that New York will drop to the #4 seed, that just means that the possibility of a New York visit for the championship game is looming. Do you think there’s anybody in the United locker room that wants to see that happen? The Curse of the Cosmos may not exist in reality, but I guarantee that it’s starting to exist in a few players’ heads.

A word, then, for Ramirez. Last night was his first penalty miss of the year, and also the first time this season I’ve seen him look dejected. I interviewed him after a different draw earlier this year, and I was a little bit surprised and impressed by his mental state; he was laughing, joking, happy. Five minutes after a disappointing draw, he’d already put it behind him. That’s impressive mental resiliency in a young player, to recognize that the game was already in the past and couldn’t be changed.

Last night, though, he looked beaten down by his miss. He sent Jimmy Maurer the wrong way with the penalty, but it flew well high and wide. “I just knew he thought I was going to go that way [to the left] because last time we played them I went that way,” he said. “I knew I was going to have him beat, I just went a little higher than normal in case he dove that way. That’s the game. I’d be kicking myself if we were down 1-0 and that happened.”

I asked how long it would take him to stop thinking about something like that. “Just until I get to the locker room,” he said. “Then I’ll be done.”

I also asked Manny Lagos if he’d feel the need to pump up Ramirez, after a miss like that in an important game. “No, I really don’t think I have to,” said the coach. “Nobody will be more down than him. It’s important that he understands that [the penalty miss] wasn’t the game. We had a lot of chances, we had a lot of moments, and we had times we could have played better.

“He’s a goal-scorer. It’s like a good shooter in basketball. You have to keep shooting.”

With San Antonio losing to Indy* 1-0, United was just that one goal away from wrapping up the entire 2014 season. San Antonio’s loss meant that Minnesota clinched the NASL’s best 2014 record, an achievement that NASL fans call the “Woosnam Cup,” named after original NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam. United already won the spring title, and clinched the Woosnam midway through the second half; a win would have brought the third of four trophies home, and left only the Soccer Bowl to win.

Lagos was proud of his team for clinching the season’s best record, and home-field advantage in the playoffs. “It’s a great honor for these guys,” he said. “It would have been very easy to become complacent this second half of the season and just get home field for the first game. We’ve continued to push the league and push the points, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

The fall championship, then, is a little meaningless for United; even if they lose the last two games of the year and San Antonio wins the final two to edge them out, it won’t actually matter for playoff seeding. I asked Lagos if it was important, and he hesitated. “You’re throwing a question at me that’s too soon,” he said. “I’m not sure psychologically. Two of our goals have been accomplished; that was winning the spring championship and getting home-field advantage. Right now, we should absorb those and think about that one later.”

*A word of support for Indy, which drew a ton of fans but had a remarkably awful team for most of the year. Indy didn’t win a game in the spring season. It took them until a week ago to win a home game in the fall. But now, on consecutive Saturdays, they beat Minnesota 2-0 and San Antonio 1-0 – two wins over the league’s best two teams. Good for them, and good for their fans, and good for team president Peter Wilt, the American soccer Gandalf, who creates great teams (and adventures) wherever he goes.

Home-field advantage for United means November soccer is coming to Minnesota. The average high for November 8 and 15, the dates for the playoff games, is in the low 40s; by kickoff time, the sun will have long dipped below the horizon, and it should be pretty frigid. If it snows*, the teams will use an orange ball. There is no contingency plan; they’ll shovel the field and play in the mud, if they have to.

*There is a part of me, perhaps a large part, that wants to see a freak blizzard. Given that half of United’s team is from Brazil and much of the rest is from California, I can’t imagine Minnesota would have much of a home-field advantage. Except for the Kallman brothers. Somehow, I imagine Brian Kallman wearing shorts and shirt-sleeves, screaming at his teammates about the Halloween blizzard of ’91. But I digress.

It will be interesting to see how Minnesota handles this latest success. The trophy cabinet continues to fill up, but the team’s mental state for the playoffs could potentially be less than assured. Perhaps next Saturday’s game, at home against San Antonio, would be a good time for the team to recover a little bit of confidence before the postseason.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Saturday night, Minnesota United beat Atlanta 1-0, in a game that featured just a solitary goal and yet never seemed in doubt. Atlanta is terrible – last in the fall standings, behind both expansion teams, and dropping like a stone following a midseason coaching change. The Silverbacks basically failed to trouble the Minnesota goal, save for one chance for Deon McCaulay – who managed to swing and completely miss, from six yards away from goal and with only the keeper in front of him. Christian Ramirez scored for Minnesota, bulling in a goal following a Juliano Vicentini chance that the Atlanta keeper could only deflect, and that was it. Edgar Espinoza was sent off for Atlanta for a pair of silly challenges. It seemed fitting.

Your blogger, then, spent much of the game wandering around the National Sports Center, home of Minnesota pro soccer for so many years, thinking about the past and what has changed in Blaine. The track is an afterthought now, though half of it still encircles the south and east stands; once upon a time, it loomed in front of the main stand, making the entire crowd feel as though binoculars should have come standard-issue. Now you can sit in the main stand and feel that, given a mis-hit pass, you might be called upon to head the ball back onto the field, potentially as a pass to the right wing.

The wooden beer garden that used to squat behind the north goal is gone, too, having gone the way of the Thunder nickname that former owner Dean Johnson dragged through the mud on his way out of town. The color has changed, too, as a couple of coats of paint have transformed the stadium to wear United’s black and light blue.

Maybe the biggest change is that there are more people around these days.  Almost exactly two years ago, in October 2012, United – then the Minnesota Stars – drew 2,006 people for the first leg of a playoff series against San Antonio. Even in the championship series, two weeks later, the team drew just 4,600 people. Saturday, the announced attendance was 5,744 – and even if that number appeared to be inflated by a thousand people or so, it’s still notable that the team drew that many people to Blaine, on a night when the wind chill dipped to 35 by game’s end. Time was, your typical Thunder game was attended by 1200 people, including a few dozen Dark Clouds and two hundred or so distracted parents, all of whom seemed to be there only to corral an ever-shifting number of children.

Talk to the right people, and they’ll reminisce about the old days, when the Thunder were really popular (or so they say). The team drew 10,000 fans to the 1999 championship game, when Gerard Lagos and Pawel Novak scored either side of halftime as Minnesota won the league title. But both the year before and the year after, the Thunder failed to draw 4,000 fans to league semifinal games. Even the all-conquering 2000 side, which scored 74 goals in 28 regular-season games, could draw only 3,400 fans for a 5-0 win over Milwaukee in the league semis – in late September, no less.

Even with the number of people at the game, though, the current NSC nights can’t quite help but feel like an overgrown high school football game. Maybe it’s just the weather, which screams football this time of year. Maybe it’s the number of kids that are running around with soccer balls, which can’t help but remind me when I was seven, and I could go an entire high school football game without once seeing part of the game, busy as I was in the kid football game / unsupervised rolling brawl that was taking place simultaneously on the adjacent baseball field. But maybe it’s the accessibility; apart from the side of the field that’s bordered by the main stand, you can walk up to the field’s perimeter and stand and watch the game, close enough to reach out and collar a linesman, should you so choose.

If the rumors are true, and Major League Soccer comes to Minnesota someday, I’m sure the team would play in a state-of-the-art stadium. There would probably be stands in the concourse selling merchandise, not a state-fair-style tent within a corner kick of the north end line. There would probably be comfortable seating, not the metal bleachers that somehow manage to be colder than the October air temperature. The stands would probably have a roof. The wind would probably be less likely to turn you into a human icicle. You wouldn’t have to drive all the way to what feels like near Canadian border to get to the game, and there probably would be transportation options other than the automobile. These would be hailed as steps forward, and rightly.

But there would be something missing, too. You wouldn’t see the kids running around with soccer balls anymore. You wouldn’t be able to belly up to the fence behind the goal, the better to shout insults at the opposing goalkeeper. The players probably wouldn’t walk over to the fence to talk to the fans at the end of the game. You’d pay for parking. You wouldn’t be able to tailgate, and especially not a hundred feet from the stadium entrance. There would be no more waiting at your tailgate spot to hear the lineups announced over the loudspeaker, before heading for your seat.

Would MLS, the biggest change of all, be better? Sure. Everybody wants to be major league, not minor league. And since the possibility of MLS was announced, fans in Minnesota have been waiting on tenterhooks to find out if we will be the next market for big-time soccer.

If it does happen, though, I wonder if we’d miss nights like this. I wonder if the Dark Clouds would miss crowding the bleachers. I wonder if families might miss the chance to let their kids roam free. I wonder if the bond between fans and team would be broken.

Maybe we’ll find out someday. For now, though, maybe we should appreciate 1-0 wins in the Blaine cold, and the feeling of a big October night at the NSC Stadium.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

We talked a lot about Ron Gardenhire’s firing on the Sportive this week, with occasional asides to cover the wanton stupidity of Ned Yost, Gopher football, the Vikings, and who to cheer for in the MLB Playoffs. Also: my plan to make the new Twins managers the entire 1987 team.

According to a report from ESPN’s Doug McIntyre, Minnesota United midfielder Miguel Ibarra will be called into the US men’s national team for mid-October friendlies against Ecuador and Honduras.

Ibarra, 24, would be the first player called up to the national team from the USA’s lower leagues since Clyde Simms, nearly ten years ago – and Simms was almost immediately snapped up by DC United, following his call-up by the national team, and would go on to play nine seasons in MLS.

The call-up, though as yet unofficial, would be a major step forward for Ibarra, who in his third professional season has come into his own as a player. After showing flashes of potential during 2012, Ibarra struggled mightily in the first half of 2013, before recovering in the second half to position himself for a breakout 2014. Paired with Christian Ramirez as the focal point of United’s attack, the duo has become the most dangerous combination in the league, combining for 24 goals – eight from Ibarra, impressive given that he scored just once in 2013.

It would also be a major feather in the cap for United, as a club, and for head coach Manny Lagos. It’s no secret that Minnesota wants to be competitive on the American soccer landscape as a whole, not just within NASL, and to develop a talent like Ibarra for the powerhouse USA national team would stand as an impressive achievement – potentially one that the club and the coach could point to when recruiting other players.

Ibarra has never made a secret that his desire is to play at the top level – in Major League Soccer or even in Europe. If he is called up to the national team, there’s no doubt that potential suitors will come sniffing around. That said, United has made it clear that any potential buyer will have to pay – something that represents somewhat of a change for the team. In early 2013, Minnesota allowed several players, Ibarra among them, to try out for various MLS teams. To a man, those players had disappointing seasons, especially early in 2013. By the beginning of this year, United made it clear that the practice of letting MLS teams “borrow” players was over; New York wanted to bring Ibarra in for a trial in the preseason, but desisted when told that Minnesota was looking for compensation.

It’s a desire that likely represents the best for both Ibarra and Minnesota. The team won’t let him go without a fight, but any MLS team that’s willing to pay the price is thus likely to give Ibarra a better chance, having already invested to bring him in. Though there are success stories, like Luke Mulholland this season at Real Salt Lake, the lower divisions are littered with players who have failed to make their MLS mark for one reason or another. Ibarra, though, is positioned to potentially beat the odds.

The potential callup could put a dent in Minnesota’s fall championship chase, though. Should Ibarra be part of the squad, it’s likely he would miss several United games. He’s unlikely to miss this Saturday’s game, at home against Atlanta – but Minnesota plays three league matches in eight days the following week, with the final one being an all-important home date with New York. From a United standpoint, there are probably better weeks for Ibarra to get the national-team call – not, of course, that anyone from the club is likely to mention anything but excitement.

While there’s no doubt Ibarra is excited for the potential chance, it also must be noted that he is fond of his Mexican heritage – to the point that he cheered for Mexico during a friendly between Mexico and the USA in early 2013, something that his teammates were not exactly thrilled about. “I told them if I had a choice I would play for either one,” he said, “so I went for Mexico, and it was 0-0, and the next day at practice they were just letting me have it.”

A callup for Ibarra would be the latest in a line of surprises from USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Earlier this month, Klinsmann called up Stanford University striker Jordan Morris for the team’s friendly in the Czech Republic, the first time in many years that a college player had made the squad. While Morris didn’t play in the game, it got plenty of Seattle Sounders fans excited, as Morris is a Seattle native and homegrown Sounders product.

Again, nothing is official, but the reports have people talking. And if the callup comes to fruition, it’ll be yet another milestone for Ibarra, for United, and for Minnesota soccer.

NOTE: This post appeared at SoccerCentric.

For the 73rd consecutive podcast, we complained about the Twins and Minnesota sports owners. We also talked grouse hunting.

by Darko Milicic

People of Minnesota! I have been meaning to tell you: I, Darko, have taken up kickboxing!

Please, hold on to all of your horses. I am sure that you are surprised to hear that I, Darko, am still making news. “I thought he retired to a life of luxury on the Serbian Riviera,” you are probably saying to yourself. First of all, Serbia has no coastline, you stupid Swedes. It is a landlocked country. I am not surprised you did not know that, given the manifold failures of the American educational system.

Oh yes! Darko is politically active, which is why I, Darko, am now a kickboxer! I viewed a charity auction for a kickboxing belt, but I said to myself, “Darko, how is it that you believe you are worthy to purchase a kickboxing belt? Surely you have more self-respect than this. Surely you cannot think that you should use your vast American riches to buy something as silly as the championship belt you have always deserved.” And then I ate some meatballs. Damn you Swedes, but I cannot stop eating your meatballs. They are bland but addictive. Just like some of the games that Darko likes to play on his brand-new smart phone! That’s right, Darko is living the high life with the phone on the World Wide Web! 2048, am I not correct? Yes? No?

As I chewed your tasty damnation, I, Darko thought to myself, “Darko, you are worth more than just your vast storehouse of American dollars. You have good in you. You can accomplish anything you put your mind to, yes? Then you should go out and win that kickboxing belt! And after that, you will punch hunger to the ground as well! Or kick hunger to the ground! Whatever the rules of kickboxing are!”

So I, Darko, went on to YouTube and watched some kickboxing videos, and I must tell you: this is an easy sport. All of the kickboxing people are the size of famous American basketball player Stephen Curry. They look like they have never seen a delicious meatball in their entire lives. I, Darko, do not wish to brag, but I am over seven feet tall and have several times rung the bell when challenging the strongman at the local carnival / supermarket. I can clean up these scrawny little non-Darkos with my eyes closed. I often took my basketball shots this way, and I see no reason that my kickboxing skills should be any different.

I, Darko, do not do things without being devoted to them 100%, at least until I get bored with them, like I did with basketball. Basketball, it is such a long game. One must sit on the bench for hours at a time, literally hours, thinking about meatballs and moustaches and how I can get my extra-special friends to like me. I have been calling Kevin Love every day to congratulate him on getting to play in Cleveland, which is a real American city, not like that Stockholm-by-the-river that you Minnesotans live in. He will not answer my calls. I suspect he is busy choosing from the luxurious accommodations available in Cleveland. Only sometimes is the river aflame! It is like a slice of heaven!

Now that the World Kickboxing Association has come calling, unlike some jerk so-called best friends, I am ready to commit myself to the sport of kickboxing. I, Darko, will not rest until the kickboxing world championship is mine for the taking. I have long been devoted to the humanitarian causes, and this is no different; there is no better way to spread goodness than by punching scrawny little people in the face.

So, Minnesotans, I ask you for your support. Please watch in awe as I, Darko, become the greatest kickboxing star of the world! And send me meatballs. You Swedes do not need those meatballs anyway. You are fattening up for winter, right? Yes? No? Ah, Darko, you scamp…