NOTE: This appeared at RandBall, too, of course.

It’s the eighth birthday of RandBall! EIGHT! I don’t know how many people are aware of this, but when Michael started writing this blog, he was just fourteen years old. He has aged in blog years, and now, at age 52, spends his days complaining about millennials, watching the Big Ten Network, and telling people off on Twitter.

Yes, Mr. Rand is truly on the way to becoming Sid, just like we’ve long predicted. He’s already started recording his interviews on an ancient tape deck; soon, he’ll give up on the blog, and assign his Twitter to some intern, and start breaking some REAL news on Page 2, the way that Joseph Pultizer intended.

With that in mind, we should probably enjoy RandBall while it’s still around. Here’s an increasingly-unlikely list of things we have to look forward to in 2015, the blog’s ninth – NINTH! – year:

  1. The comments get turned off, temporarily
  2. Stu starts writing the blog every day
  3. RandBall starts appearing in print advertisements holding a basketball, just like old times
  4. Rocket starts writing a new hockey-themed post, only to be banned by Star Tribune higher-ups due to some unfortunate and ill-timed comments about somebody’s mom
  5. Yet another argument about buffalo wings escalates into Aaron Gleeman smashing a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot sauce over Michael’s head
  6. The comments get turned off, forever
  7. After RandBall’s fourteenth consecutive day writing about the Wolves during a Wild winning streak, a caffeine-crazed Michael Russo cross-checks Rand into the wall during a newspaper happy hour
  8. Rand quits the paper to pursue his dream job: the 1am-5am weekend slot on The Current
  9. A physical altercation ensues over who is really responsible for the enduring delightfulness of Nuclear Wessel
  10. RandBall draws an ESPN-style three-week social-media suspension for calling Brian Stensaas a completely unprintable slur, relating to a 1985 UND-Wisconsin donnybrook at the Dane County Coliseum
  11. The RandCast makes its return to the airwaves
  12. The blog pauses for a brief but heartfelt celebration, following the Twitter identification of the 500th person who looks a lot like RandBall
  13. Jeff Brady calls back
  14. John Sharkman starts writing the blog every day
  15. Aaron Rodgers flips Stu’s hat off his head, a la Matt Kalil
  16. RandBall quits to, quote, “Spend more time with my four enduring loves: My wife, my daughter, my pug, and of course my nearly-worn-out cassette compilation of LFTR PLLR B-sides”
  17. Michael finally gets his own KFAN show, tentatively titled “The Brett Favre / Johnny Manziel Old-Timey Radio Hour”
  18. RandBall adopts Dana Wessel’s hairstyle
  19. Michael goes on sabbatical after being knifed by Manny Lagos in a Blaine back alley
  20. Ken Chia starts wearing a cardigan and writing a blog, leading to an unfortunate, “Single White Female”-style incident in which he unsuccessfully attempts to replace Michael’s Page 2 column and headshot with his own
  21. The Great Baseball Road Trip visits no baseball games, instead choosing to spend four days sitting in a parked car in front of Dale Murphy’s house
  22. There is another Redactular, anywhere in the Twin Cities
  23. Clarence Swamptown starts writing the blog every day

It should be a great year! Happy birthday, RandBall! Here’s to years more of tremendous entertainment!


Reminisce! RandBall’s 1st Birthday | 2nd | 3rd | 4th | 5th | 6th | 7th

Forbes.com reported today that Major League baseball league-wide revenues jumped from $8 billion in 2013 to $9 billion in 2014, mostly due to the league’s new national TV contracts and to revenue from MLB Advanced Media, the league’s online streaming arm.

A look back: In 2001, revenue was $3.6 billion; adjusted for inflation, $4.66 billion in today’s dollars, according to Forbes. That year, three MLB teams had payrolls over $100 million; the Yankees led the way with just over $112 million. 16 more had more than $50 million in payroll that season. Since then, revenue has doubled, more or less. The Dodgers had a $235 million payroll last year, and the Yankees nearly cleared the bar to $200 million as well. 14 other teams had payrolls of at least $100 million.

$200 million is the new $100 million, when it comes to payroll. $100 million is the new $50 million.

Since Target Field opened in 2010, the median MLB payroll has gone from $85 million to $107 million – right in line with revenue, which just like the median payroll, has jumped 25% in that five-year span. During that same period, the Twins’ payroll has declined, from $98 million to $85million. Don’t let the Twins fool you; they will try to tell you that they’re spending plenty of money. They aren’t.

Remember this the next time Terry Ryan or Dave St. Peter talks about being “fiscally responsible.” Remember this the next time your neighbor complains about Joe Mauer’s contract being the problem with the Twins. Remember that MLB’s revenue explosion, and the great gobs of taxpayer money that funded Target Field, mean that the Twins are making more money now than they ever have before – indeed more money than they could ever have dreamed of.

They’re just pocketing it, instead of spending it on improving the team.

The Minnesota Vikings have long been accused of not taking soccer seriously. Though the team had the foresight to insert some questionable Major League Soccer-specific language in stadium-related legislation, until earlier this year, the franchise was simply intent on planning the gleaming new building – first getting it passed at the Legislature, then getting it designed and kicking off construction. By that point, they’d managed to infuriate a large number of local soccer supporters, mostly for what appeared to be a resolute desire to ignore questions and pleas from the ever-burgeoning cadre of fans, many of who had concerns that the stadium wouldn’t be fit for soccer.

With planning now mostly complete, and the new park shooting out of the ground, the Vikings are finally circling back to their stated MLS desires. To that end, last Tuesday evening the team hosted an event to bring together soccer and community leaders, giving the assemblage a chance to see the team’s new soccer-focused stadium renderings, and listen to ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman.

It’s all part of the team’s latest press for MLS, focused on righting the past’s perceived wrongs. The Vikings have tapped local PR and marketing firm One Simple Plan to help lead the push and the firm has run a number of events to try to connect with the area’s soccer fans – especially those who regularly gather to watch Premier League matches.

While Vikings VP of Public Affairs Lester Bagley is aware of the criticisms of the team, he asks for understanding, given the demands of the ever-rising stadium at the east end of downtown. Said Bagley, “I think some of the frustration came after the legislation passed, and we had to design and build a billion-dollar stadium, and we were spread thin and we did not have the bandwidth to put an organized effort together. Me personally, I thought after 12 years at the Capitol, that we were going to put it on cruise control and that we were going to build a great stadium and that the hard part was done. But [we found] out that it’s a major undertaking, it’s the biggest construction project in the history of Minnesota, and it’s complicated and our team is full-time on it. So that’s part of it too. I think some of the frustration we’ve heard in the community is, where were you [on soccer] when you passed the legislation?”

To that end, the team released renderings, showing a soccer-themed curtaining system that would drop vertical curtains to block off the stadium’s upper deck.  Vikings CFO Steve Poppen noted that this system will cost between 3 and 5 million dollars, much of that to add reinforcement to the roof to hold the curtain; obviously, the team would like an MLS decision to be made as soon as possible, so that they know if they can delete this feature from the stadium design if a team is awarded elsewhere.

For Poppen, the curtain is more proof that MLS has always been in the team’s plans. “We’ve been working hard from day one to design this for MLS,” he said. “The MLS has been part of our process from day one. I personally don’t believe that we’re late to the game on this. We’re trying to attract an expansion franchise to Minnesota, and we’ve been having discussions with MLS about it for years now.”

I had a chance to ask about field width, another concern that’s been on the minds of soccer lovers. FIFA’s recommendations state, “It is strongly recommended that new stadiums have a 105m x 68m playing field” – that’s about 115 yards by 74 yards. Most Major League Soccer fields are 74 or 75 yards wide, though both Houston’s field and the pitch that’s being shoehorned into Yankee Stadium for NYC FC next year are just 70 yards wide – the league’s minimum width.

Said Poppen, “The minimum for MLS is 70 [yards] wide. FIFA plays at 75. We have the ability to go out there. If you remember, the north side of the stadium retracts. As part of that development, we were able to design in that ability to expand the facility as well.”

This does, however, bring up the question: if the stadium was truly “soccer-specific,” a term the Vikings repeatedly used throughout the night, why is moving the stands to get to 75 yards wide even necessary? Why wouldn’t the field have been wide enough already? It’s a question that simply adds more fuel to the arguments that the Vikings do not understand soccer – a charge that’s been leveled at virtually every NFL owner that has dipped a toe into the MLS waters. Earlier this year, Boston Magazine famously accused New England Revolution and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft of being the worst owner in the league. While the Revolution reached this year’s MLS Cup Final, other NFL-affiliated teams, like Colorado and Dallas, have been mostly uninspiring through the years.

Tellingly, earlier this season, the Seattle Sounders – long twinned with the Seattle Seahawks, and fellow tenants of CenturyLink Field – ended their working relationship with the NFL team, ten years earlier than scheduled. While the team spun this as a move to refocus their organization on soccer, rumors were rampant that it was a move made to get away from an NFL team that did not care about the Sounders or the sport of soccer.

The Vikings, though, are still trying to win over soccer die-hards. They’ve promised plenty to fans in the new stadium – including offering to subsidize tailgating costs and bar tabs for supporters’ groups. They’re also promising to give fans input on the team’s name and badge design, something that other clubs in MLS have done as well. (“Vikings FC” is probably unlikely, I would think.)

Some fans have the perception that the Vikings don’t care about soccer, but they deserve credit – they may not have been experts in the sport, or in MLS, all along, but they are trying. They’re meeting with other MLS franchises. They’re bringing Twellman to town, to learn from him. They’re in contact with fans, they’re in contact with local soccer folks; at the moment, they’re certainly not ignoring the sport. They deserve a fair hearing – if for no other reason than they’re actually talking to people. Said former Kicks star Alan Merrick, who introduced Twellman at the event, of the competing bid from Minnesota United: “They haven’t reached out, as far as I can see, to anybody in the soccer world.” While United’s work is behind the scenes, the Vikings have been very public – in part, to try to right the perception from the past.

A number of local soccer stakeholders, from Minnesota Youth Soccer Association representatives to fans to those involved with local clubs, were in attendance on Monday. While the Vikings’ presentation can only have gone to convince people that there’s a chance that the Vikings could be successful where previous NFL / MLS partnerships have failed, most in attendance expressed a desire simply to see the area get Major League Soccer – regardless of the whether the team is owned by the Vikings or by Minnesota United FC. Apart from some very fervent fans of the Loons, “I just want an MLS team” seems to be the opinion of most local soccer fans.

And so: MLS has announced that an expansion decision is likely in the first half of 2015. All signs point to Minneapolis being a front-runner for a team in MLS. The Vikings may have been late in making their push for that franchise, but are coming on strong now. They would have to fight an uphill battle to make soccer workable in a stadium designed for an NFL team, and if they can make joint NFL/MLS ownership viable, they would be the first to do so. But ruling out the Vikings as potential owners, based solely on past perception, is foolish.

NOTE: This also appeared at SoccerCentric.

ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman doesn’t remember the days of the Minnesota Kicks, or being born in Minnesota in 1980 – but, after talking to his dad Tim’s teammates with the Kicks, he’s ready to count himself as a native. “Now that I’m in the world of soccer, I hear all of these ex-Kicks stories,” he said. “I feel like I lived here for 20 years of my life. I see the glow on my mom’s face when she talks about Minnesota and the time, the fun they had here. It’s amazing.”

With that in mind, there might have been no one better for the Minnesota Vikings to bring to town to enthuse about the possibility of the area getting MLS. Twellman was careful to note that he has no horse in the race between the Vikings bid and the competing bid that’s being led by the Minnesota United owners, but his enthusiasm for the league placing a franchise in Minnesota was palpable.

Said Twellman, “I’m asked constantly, if you had to expand Major League Soccer, where would you go? My first answer, for the last five years of my life, is Minneapolis. The knowledge and the enthusiasm of the fan base here is second to none. Soccer is a no-brainer here.”

The analyst, who recently signed an eight-year contract with ESPN to be the network’s lead analyst for soccer, was bullish on the potential for Minnesota in MLS during the span of his deal. “I fully expect Minnesota to be a part of that,” he said. “[The potential team] will challenge the Twins, the Wolves, and the Wild. This sport is here to say, and if Minnesota does this right, and treats it on the same level as the Vikings, Twins, Wolves, and Wild, and not as the ugly stepchild – and there’s many examples of it in the early days of the league – I can promise you that this will be one of the top five cities for Major League Soccer.”

Twellman also noted that there’s a good market for fans in Minnesota. “The truth is, there’s a hipster market in Minnesota,” he said. “Bikers, downtown – that’s where this needs to go. Soccer moms and club moms, they’re invited, but the supporter groups, that kind of stuff – that’s drinking beer and knowing how to tailgate. I’ve been to a University of Minnesota tailgate in my life. It’s one of the more fun tailgates I’ve ever been to. They know what they’re doing. Minnesota sports fans, they get it.”

With that in mind, though, Twellman also offered a pair of caveats, one that might apply to the Vikings-led bid, and one that might apply to the United-led bid. He admitted some trepidation on his part of seeing another MLS side that is owned by an NFL team – exemplified by the disaster in Boston, where the New England Revolution have long been considered second-rate, compared to the NFL, by their own ownership group. “It scares me, no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s got to be treated the same. Everyone says, why’d Seattle work? It’s because, on Opening Day, Pete Carroll and Sigi Schmid were on the same pecking order. The Sounders front office and the Seahawks front office were treated the same. Obafemi Martins is treated the same as Marshawn Lynch. That’s where it sends the message to the fans. As a fan, why do you want to be treated as an ugly stepchild, when you’re not? If you’re getting 20,000 people and ESPN’s paying $75 million a year for your broadcast, it’s got to be treated on the same level. I told them that today when I met with the Vikings. If you get it, you have to make sure it’s not the ugly stepchild, and from everything I’ve heard, it won’t be.”

Meanwhile, for United – which as yet has no approved or even public stadium plan – he offered some words of caution from recent league expansion experiences. “The struggles for stadiums in MLS – NYCFC, the debacle of what’s going on in Miami with the stadium – if Minnesota’s getting [a franchise], which I believe it is, the stadium’s first and foremost,” he said. “There are no ideas of stadiums. You need to have a stadium, it needs to be approved, it needs to be ready to rock, for a market like this to work.”

Ultimately, though, the former Revolution and US Men’s National team star can’t stop enthusing about the situation in Minnesota. “If you had told me ten years ago that there’d be two legitimate offers, two bids in Minnesota, I’d have told you that you were out of your mind,” he said. “I don’t technically need to sell MLS on Minnesota. The fact that there’s two bids with real money and stadiums – how many other markets have two real money groups going after the same thing?”

About that turf…

Artificial turf was in the news anyway, as LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane called for it to be outlawed for soccer on Monday, and with the Vikings unveiling renderings of how MLS might look on the artificial turf at their new stadium, the topic was naturally going to come up.

“I’m vocal about it. I hate turf. I hated playing on it,” said Twellman. “However, something’s changed over the past two years, because of what Portland’s brought in. You never hear a player complain about Portland. Whatever they’ve done there should be replicated, if the game of soccer is going to be played [on turf]. Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, they’ve both told me straight to my face that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that field. That’s turf.

“Now, Robbie Keane comes out today and says that turf should be outlawed in the game of soccer. That’s because [he’s referring to] Seattle. I’ve walked on that field. It’s one of the worst fields I’ve ever walked on. Seattle I like, they’ve got a great stadium, great ambience, great players; the game’s crap. The game’s crap, because if the turf’s crap, it kills the game. And that’s what Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry are talking about. But Henry told a couple of people at ESPN that New England’s turf turned the corner. They replaced it six months ago with what Portland had. As vocal as I am about turf, I listen to players currently playing – because I’m done, my life’s over – and their experiences are a little bit different now.”

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

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.