Minnesota United opened their season on Saturday with an impressive 2-0 win at San Antonio. Christian Ramirez scored his first goal of the season in the first half, an excellent spinning effort from the penalty spot, and defender Kevin Venegas added the second from a second-half free kick.

You can watch the two goals, along with a clip of San Antonio defender Julius James getting himself sent off for shoving United’s Tiago Calvano, from the team’s 90-second-long highlights package:

If 90 seconds is too long for you: here’s a GIF of Ramirez’s goal.

The win gave United an unambiguously positive start to the season, something that’s in demand in the nine-game first-half sprint in the NASL. Only New York, who destroyed Atlanta 4-0 on Sunday, had a better beginning to the year.

Fort Lauderdale beat Ottawa 2-0 as well, leaving United tied for second in the table after one week of play. In the other two games, Indy and Carolina tied 1-1 in front of more than 11,000 Indianapolis fans, and Tampa Bay was held to a 1-1 draw at home by Edmonton, the reigning champions of the 1-1 draw.

NOTE: This also appeared at SoccerCentric.

Minnesota United FC opens the NASL season tomorrow, with a game in San Antonio. Their home opener is April 26, against Edmonton. Here now, a look at the team, as they attempt to improve from a disappointing 2013.

THREE STORYLINES

1. Veterans and Brazilians
United moved for experience and age in the off-season. Central defender Tiago Calvano, midfielder Juliano Vicentini, and attacking midfielder Daniel Mendes will all be 33 this season – and all are Brazilians, thanks in part to the scouting and acquisition work of the team’s incumbent Brazilian connection, Pablo Campos and Cristiano Dias. The team also brought in winger Jamie Watson, who is 28 but entering his tenth year in American pro soccer, as yet another veteran to support the team’s title chase.

It’s a calculated move on Minnesota’s part, designed to reduce the time it will take for the team to gel. The NASL season is split into two absurdly unequal “halves” this year, and the spring season is just nine games long. If United can come together quickly and open the season with a good run, they could clinch a playoff berth early.

2. Win now
Last season was a whirlwind for the team’s ownership and front-office staff. Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the team early in the spring, and the remainder of the year was a blitz of new names, new management, and new players. Given the change, it’s perhaps less than surprising that the result on the field was inconsistent – and ultimately, a failure.

This season, the group in the management suite has a year under its belt, and is expecting much better things. Head coach Manny Lagos is no doubt feeling the pressure; he’s one of just four NASL coaches still in place from Opening Day 2013. Another year of mid-table mediocrity will likely lead to changes.

3. Stadiums and MLS
United would prefer to focus on the product that’s on the field in Blaine, but hanging over everything is the ongoing discussion of the team’s future. No one sees the National Sports Center as the team’s long-term home, but any new stadium developments will be difficult in a Twin Cities market that is suffering from serious stadium fatigue. Tied up in the stadium question, though, are the rumors of a future in Major League Soccer; while Minnesota is considered the frontrunner for a franchise, will it be McGuire and United who make the leap, or will it be a Vikings-led group?

While the rumors are exciting for local soccer fans, they place United in the challenging situation of marketing to a fanbase that may be waiting for the big leagues to come to town. A stadium announcement, or an MLS franchise announcement, would clear up the uncertainty – but neither is anywhere near forthcoming.

PLAYER TO WATCH – MIGUEL IBARRA

Last season was the first NASL split season, a split which helped throw Ibarra’s Jekyll-and-Hyde year into sharp relief. Awful in the first half, Ibarra recovered enough in the second to be named to the NASL Best XI for the entire year.

His development could be the key to a United attack that, on paper, is less than potent. A likely-season-ending knee injury for Campos means that Minnesota goes into the season without any idea where the offense will come from; first-choice striker Christian Ramirez is untested at this level, and Mendes has yet to prove that he can be the attacking spark that the team needs.

Always quick, Ibarra has yet to find the touch to be either a consistent goal-scorer or a consistent provider. His move back to the wing in the second half of 2013 helped; now he has to prove that he can consistently create opportunities, as well as finishing his own.

POSITION-BY-POSITION

Goalkeeper
Matt Van Oekel returns as the incumbent between the pipes. The 27-year-old lost his starting job for the first six games of 2013, but came back strong and started the remainder of the season, except for the final two games, when he was injured. Mitch Hildebrandt has moved up to the #2 role, and may even push for the starting job; the two split time in the preseason, and either could conceivably start on Saturday.

Center back
Aaron Pitchkolan made last year’s league Best XI at center back, but for the moment, it looks like the Brazilian duo of Dias and Calvano will start in the middle of defense, with Pitchkolan moving to a role as a defensive midfielder. Dias played several games out of position at fullback last year, but is more at home in the center, while Calvano has slotted in there from the beginning of preseason. Pitchkolan probably remains the first backup in the center, with Brent Kallman returning as a reserve as well.

Fullback
On the left, Justin Davis appears set to resume being one of the first names into the starting lineup for every game. Davis struggled early last year, but came back strong, and has been an automatic choice throughout. On the right, Kevin Venegas started every game of the preseason, completing his transformation from wide midfielder to right back. Venegas played most of the second half of last year, supplanting veteran Brian Kallman, who doesn’t have the speed that Venegas has. Kallman will back up on the right, while new signing Tyler Polak – younger brother of striker Nate Polak – provides depth on the left.

Defensive midfield
If he isn’t playing center back, Pitchkolan is a virtual lock to play defensively in midfield. The rest of the options are up in the air; Juliano Vicentini may start there, simply to see what he can do as a new signing, but Kentaro Takada and Michael Reed both saw significant minutes in a defensive-minded role last year as well. The wonderfully-named Mozzi Gyorio could also see time.

Attacking midfield
Watson and Ibarra are likely to begin the season on the wing, though Simone Bracelello – who scored seven goals last year from out wide – and Omar Daley are also likely to push for places.

The real question may come from the center of the midfield, where United is still without someone who can take over as a playmaking midfielder. Floyd Franks is a possibility, though he was out of favor during the preseason; Takada, whose best skill is the ability to sprint for 90 straight minutes, may be tried there as well. Mendes is being promoted as a striker by the team, but was listed as a midfielder everywhere else he played; he may end up playing more as an attacking midfielder. The team could also move Watson or Ibarra to the center, and stick with Daley or Bracalello on the wing.

Forward
The weight of Campos’s injury falls squarely on Ramirez, who is thrust into a role as the team’s #1 striker. Ramirez showed flashes of talent during the preseason, but he’s yet to prove himself at this high of a level during his career. Backing up is Polak, who joined the team late in 2012 but missed most of 2013 with an injury. Should neither prove effective, United will be reduced to playing various midfielders as strikers, probably starting with Mendes and going down the list from there.

LEAGUE STORYLINES

1. Big Four and Little Six?
In the old days of the Big Ten, wags used to refer to the conference as the Big Two and Little Eight, with Michigan and Ohio State dominating the conference. The NASL seems to be splitting along similar lines, with four big-spending teams – New York, Tampa Bay, San Antonio, and Minnesota – distancing themselves from the other six in terms of dollars spent. That said, with the exception of the league-favorite-son Cosmos, money can’t always buy titles. Minnesota spent plenty last year, and it didn’t help them at all.

2. Still wobbly
Second-division soccer in the United States has always been a transient thing, and the NASL is no different. Ottawa and Indy join this year, bringing the league up to ten teams, and (for once) all eight teams from last season return this year – a modicum of stability for a league that’s seen very little.

Even so, worries remain. Virginia was supposed to begin play this year, but is pushed back at least until 2015, thanks to a combination of ownership and stadium concerns. Oklahoma City, too, was supposed to start next season, but at the moment seems to be bereft of ownership or direction.

The league office isn’t exactly rock-solid, either. The league changed its playoff format for the season barely six weeks before the opening kick, adding a layer of confusion to the playoff picture. The winners of each half of the season, plus the two teams with the best record throughout 2014, will make the playoffs – this despite the second “half” being twice as long as the first “half” of the season. Why have halves at all?

3. Three Predictions

Lock: The Cosmos will continue to be the darling of the league. The NASL clearly sees the Cosmos as the best way to promote itself, given the history associated with the Cosmos name – to the point that some have begun calling it the “North American Cosmos League.”

Guess: Indy Eleven, led by indefatigable fan-pleasing president/GM Peter Wilt, will lead the league in attendance this season. More than any other market, the expansion Indianapolis team seems to have embraced being in the second division, and that – combined with Wilt’s usual magic in selling soccer – have led to an enormous amoung of excitement among Indianapolis fans.

Wild Guess: Tampa Bay, led by the acquisition of 2013 Golden Boot winner Brian Shriver, will take the league championship.

WEBSITES

OTHER TWITTER FOLLOWS

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

This week on the Sportive, we name our Bottom 5 Twins prospects, and do a 30-second-long Frozen Four preview. It’s fun.

According to a report by SI.com’s Brian Straus, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank is on the verge of signing a deal to bring Major League Soccer to Atlanta. The report says that the deal will be signed and announced one week from today, bringing the number of MLS teams to 22 – not counting the David Beckham-led franchise in Miami that is still searching for a stadium deal.

Assuming Miami ever takes the field, there would be one spot left in the original “24 teams by 2020″ plan that MLS has bandied about. According to a league source mentioned in Straus’s report, the frontrunner for the final spot is Minneapolis.

It is worth noting that the construction timeline for the new Falcons stadium is already behind the new Vikings stadium. Atlanta is scheduled to open their new football palace in 2017; Minnesota, meanwhile, is still slated for a fall 2016 opening.

As always, the same questions about a potential MLS franchise in the Upper Midwest remain: Who would own the team, the Vikings ownership group or Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire? If McGuire, where would the team play – and who would pay for what would likely be yet another new stadium in Minneapolis? No details of any kind have been forthcoming.

That said, an Atlanta announcement next week would be the culmination of years of rumors. Right now, Minneapolis is at the center of similar rumors; it seems like it may just be a matter of time for MLS in Minnesota.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

San Antonio Scorpions president and general manager Howard Cornfield appears to have a bone to pick with Minnesota United team president Nick Rogers – and he’s not willing to settle things privately.

In a letter to San Antonio fans that was posted on the team website and promoted on the team social media accounts, Cornfield accuses Rogers of making what he calls “uncalled for [sic] comments by the Minnesota team president over the course of the past year about our fans and organization,” which the Scorpions executive claims are the source of an organization-wide hatred for the United organization.

Later in the letter, Cornfield went after United’s president personally, noting in an unflattering aside that Rogers is “the son-in-law of the team owner and has no prior experience or track record in the sports industry.”

Rogers reacted with bewilderment, offering a signed United jersey via Twitter for anyone who could find a recorded negative quote from him about either the Scorpions organization or its fans. (The closest I could come from the SoccerCentric archives was an interview in which Rogers referred to San Antonio’s ticket sales as “incredible.”)

“I have no idea what comments he’s referring to,” said Rogers, via text. “I don’t think I’ve ever made any negative comments about the organization, and I’m sure I’ve never bad-mouthed their fans.”

On Twitter, Rogers wrote, “I have nothing but respect for the Scorpions organization and their fans. I’m sorry Mr. Cornfield felt it necessary to write that letter. If someone on my staff wrote this, I’d make them take it down and apologize. We’ll have a further response on the field on Saturday.”

Cornfield’s letter appears to be the latest in a line of pro wrestling-style attempts to drum up interest in the Scorpions, which includes a mysterious egg appearing at San Antonio’s stadium. (This may well be a homage to one of the single silliest moments in pro wrestling history, which is of course a “sport” that has been fairly littered with silly moments.)

NOTE: This post appeared at SoccerCentric.

Last week, eagle-eyed Internet sleuths noticed that Minnesota United’s official website listed the team’s August 2 match against Ottawa as being played at TCF Bank Stadium, not the National Sports Center. That’s the date that Manchester City and Olympiakos are playing at the U in the International Champions Cup, making it an ideal date for United to promote the local eleven with a doubleheader of some kind.

The official website has since changed the schedule back to list the match at the National Sports Center. That said, it is true that the team is trying to finalize the details with ICC sponsor Relevent Sports to play its match following the Man City-Olympiakos game, and will make an announcement to that effect this week.

The ICC match will be the biggest soccer match in the Twin Cities since David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy visited for a friendly in November 2007. More than 20,000 people attended that match; if ticket sales go well, 50,000 soccer fans could be in attendance for the event this year. This would make it prime time for a team like United to market itself to a natural fanbase that may be less than aware of the team’s presence in the local market.

The ICC match is at 2pm, while the United match is listed for 7pm. While kickoff times can change, United’s battle may lie in convincing fans to stick around for the second match of the day.

Minnesota wins final preseason tuneup, and adds two players

United’s preseason slate ended on a high note, with a 6-0 win in Faribault over the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Jamie Watson, Christian Ramirez, Mackenzie Pridham (who is still on trial), Miguel Ibarra, and Nate Polak scored for Minnesota, with Ibarra bagging a pair of goals. Four of the six goals came after 60 minutes, as UNO – who is simply playing some spring soccer, and is not in preseason training – began to tire.

The club also announced that triallists Tyler Polak (Nate’s younger brother) and Greg Jordan had signed deals to join the squad for the season. Jordan, a defensive midfielder, and Polak, a utility player, were both part of the squad for much of preseason, including the team’s trip to England. Both were also 2012 MLS draftees who have so far spent their careers on loan in the third-division USL Pro, gaining experience. Either, of course, could make their presence felt on the field this season. However, they also bring the United squad up to 22 players, which allows the team to play full 11-on-11 training matches.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Minnesota United announced Thursday evening that midfielder Miguel Ibarra has signed a contract extension. The 24-year-old, who was already signed for 2014, is entering his third professional season, with both of his previous years being played in a Minnesota shirt.

As is usual for United, terms, length, or useful information of any kind were not disclosed. It is rare for United to sign a deal that does not allow the team to get out of the contract each year, though, so one can only speculate how many years of team options this deal has attached to it.

Ibarra struggled in the first half of 2013, but a strong second half saw him named to the NASL Best XI for the season. He scored just one goal all year, after scoring five in 2012.

The end of the preseason

United’s final match of the preseason will take place tomorrow – but not in its original location.

The team had originally hoped to play the University of Nebraska-Omaha tomorrow at the National Sports Center, on the stadium field, but despite the field being in good shape, it’s currently buried under a foot of snow. Consequently, the friendly has been moved to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, in Fairbault, in their domed fieldhouse. The game is at 5:30pm, and it’s free and open to the public.

Ask your question

United’s supporters group, the Dark Clouds, are holding a Town Hall meeting at Amsterdam Bar next Tuesday night, from 7-9pm. Fans, front-office personnel and United players will be in attendance; each will have a chance to speak, and fans will have a chance to ask questions and mingle and generally get to know others. It’s an excellent chance for newer fans, who might not be well-versed in the team or its supporters culture, to learn something about what goes on with United.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

NSC_Field

In 2013, the stadium field at the National Sports Center encountered huge turf problems in the spring, to the point that a Minnesota United match on May 21 had to be played at the U of M’s Robbie Stadium instead of in Blaine. This year, however, the crew at the NSC reports that the field will be ready to go.

NSC Chief Communications Officer Barclay Kruse snapped the above picture yesterday, before the snow began; despite the harsh winter, there is already a bit of green in the field, a good sign.

Through Kruse, NSC turf superintendent Curt Conkright reports that the field – which had just melted off, before today’s snow – has come through the winter in good shape. It was covered with snow all winter, which helps protect the grass; it’s the swings in temperature and freeze-thaw cycles, which we had none of this year, that cause havoc with the turf.

Conkright says that with some water and warmth, the field should green up nicely. He also said that the giant pile of snow that fell this morning will be helpful, counter-intuitively, as it will be wet snow that will melt into the turf quickly.

United’s first home game of the spring is April 26, against Edmonton. By then, we all hope that the grass will be a little greener, and a little less snow-covered.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

The North American Soccer League finally announced the details of their video subscription package for 2014. It’ll cost you $5 for a 30-day pass or $30 for the full season, and you will be allowed to sign up for a 10-day free trial in April.

As I said when this news first came out, this seems remarkably steep. The corresponding package for MLS is $65 for the season, for more than twice as many games, and the MLS broadcasts are professionally done; a few of the NASL broadcasts have been an insult to the word “amateurish” in the past. Here’s hoping the league will make an effort to improve the broadcast quality this year, especially given this new revenue stream.

That said, if you live in the local area, all of United’s home games will be on TV this year – and between the 10-day free trial and the 30-day subscription, it is possible to see every road game for less than the full $30 cost.

Overall, though, I’m sticking with what I originally said when this plan came out. Following a second-division soccer team is hard enough already; being able to watch league games online for free was the only thing that made it easier. The league is taking that ability away, and I don’t quite understand it.

Two Minnesotans continue run with U-18 squad

Local standouts Mukwelle Akale and Jackson Yueill are once again part of the United States under-18 setup, with both part of the squad for a training camp in California that includes friendlies against Canada and Mexico.

Akale and Yueill, both midfielders, were also part of the team for February’s Copa Atlantico in the Canary Islands. Akale was named the standout player of that tournament, despite the USA losing all three matches by a single goal. The midfielder played all 90 minutes in all three matches; Yueill started one match, and came on as a substitute for the final half-hour in the other two.

Both Akale and Yueill just had their 17th birthdays, and they’re among the next crop of rising American players. US Soccer posted short video interviews with both on YouTube; here is Akale’s, and here is Yueill’s.

Also in the squad is young Jonathan Klinsmann, son of national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. While his father was once one of the best strikers in the world, young Jonathan – no doubt rebelling against his father – is a goalkeeper.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

NOTE: I hope you enjoy this.

Minnesota United has been on the lookout for veteran talent for the entire 2014 offseason, so perhaps it was inevitable that eventually, they would turn the looking glass inward. Tuesday, the club announced that head coach Manny Lagos would return to a playing role in 2014, becoming the NASL’s first player-coach of the modern era.

Since taking over as Minnesota’s head coach, Lagos has often been frustrated at his inability to find players to live up to the standard that he set during a career that spanned five different MLS teams. His 170 MLS appearances, and three for the national team, immediately vault him to the top of the experience list for United; perhaps only Aaron Pitchkolan, who turned out for Dallas and Colorado 77 times, can rival his coach and now-colleague’s experience.

In 2013, Lagos had to participate in training as a player fairly regularly , given the rash of injuries that hit the club during the first half of the season. Perhaps it was those sessions that convinced Lagos that, with a proper off-season preparation, he still had what it took to play at the top level.

The move is just the latest in a swarm of veterans that have taken over Minnesota in the offseason. New signing Daniel Mendes is 33 already, and off-season signings Juliano Vicentini, Omar Daley, and Tiago Calvano will all turn 33 during the season. Lagos, at 42, will be the senior player for Minnesota.

Assistant coach Carl Craig will likely take over match-day responsibilities from the sideline, at least while Lagos is on the field.

Lagos, who last saw the field in Minnesota in 1996 as part of the old Thunder, will likely slot in near the front of the United attack – perhaps at the top of a midfield triangle. At six feet tall, the veteran coach and player might also work as a target forward, should Christian Ramirez go down or disappoint in that role.

“I’m very excited to be able to play in Minnesota once again,” said Lagos in a press release. He was unavailable for comment, in either a playing or a coaching role.

The move opens the door for Atlanta Silverbacks coach Eric Wynalda, at 44 only two years Lagos’s senior, to make a similar return to the playing field. Wynalda, who famously will be with Atlanta only part-time this year, boasts an even more impressive playing resume, with 107 caps and 34 goals for the national team to his credit.

The team released a video interview with Lagos: