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.