Minnesota United begins pre-season training this week, with trips to Arizona and Brazil planned for summer-like soccer activity. Forget about the advent of spring training and baseball being in the air – soccer’s already going again. Heck, Montreal and D.C. are just two weeks away from each’s first quarterfinal games in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Minnesota won’t start quite that quickly – their first NASL game isn’t until April 11 – but that doesn’t mean that the team won’t be busy. Here’s a quick primer about what has happened with United this offseason – and what to look for in 2015.

Another pivotal year in store for Miguel Ibarra

Ibarra, who will turn 25 in March and thus can no longer properly be called a “youngster,” had virtually his best possible season in 2014, being named league MVP and earning a surprise call-up to the USA national team. His stock has only risen during the offseason, thanks to his inclusion in the January national team training camp, in which he was one of a very few American players praised by USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. After making his first start for the national side in a 2-0 USA victory over Panama, it’s fair to say that Ibarra was one of the breakout stars of the two January friendlies, alongside LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes.

Expectations couldn’t be much higher now for Ibarra, who will be at the forefront of virtually anything you see this year from the United marketing department. Can he handle the pressure of being the only US national team player in the NASL, and the face of the Minnesota franchise to boot?

New arrivals, few departures

United has retained virtually the entire core of last year’s team, and added two players to the mix, as well. The team added Northern Ireland international midfielder Jonny Steele, a veteran of both MLS and the second division, as well as attacking midfielder / forward JC Banks from the USL ranks.

Steele, who like center back Tiago Calvano comes to Minnesota via Australia’s A-League, is probably best known in America for his year in Salt Lake City and his two in New York, where he made a total of 77 MLS appearances over three years. Prior to his first-division stint, though, he was one of the second divison’s stalwarts, spending five years with some of Minnesota’s rivals, like Carolina and Tampa Bay. He’s an attacking midfielder, often deployed on the wing but also capable of playing a more central role – and despite a decade in America, is still just 29 years old.

Banks, who like Ibarra is 25, is a Milwaukee native who jumped at the chance to return to the Midwest after four years with Rochester, where he’d become the face of the Rhinos franchise. He too is an attacking player, who can play on the wing or as a striker; he’ll likely begin the season by providing depth at both places.

Questions between the pipes

Erstwhile keeper Matt Van Oekel departed in the offseason for Edmonton, leaving only Mitch Hildebrandt as an experienced option in goal for United. While backup Andrew Fontein has promise, Hildebrandt would be the clear #1 choice.

In both of the past two seasons, United has lived with constant competition – and change – at goalkeeper. In 2013, Daryl Sattler began the season as first choice, before a series of gaffes, and then a hip injury that kept him out for the remainder of the year, derailed his season and handed the starting shirt back to Van Oekel. Last season, Van Oekel battled both injuries and inconsistency, giving Hildebrandt a chance to show off his own skills.

Hildebrandt will be looking to establish himself, but given Manny Lagos’s history of competition in goal, it’d be a surprise if the team didn’t sign at least one more keeper. Cameroonian international keeper Sammy N’Djock is currently on trial with the club, meaning that United could have at least one more available option.

Club looking for depth in the preseason

United is awash in forwards and attacking midfielders, but still needs to fill a few depth roles. Lagos will remember that just two years ago, his team had so many injuries in the spring that he was fielding semi-serious queries about whether he would be ready to play if needed.

The team lost five midfielders in the offseason, as Simone Bracallelo, Floyd Franks, Michael Reed, Omar Daley, and Kentaro Takada all left for other teams. All except Takada and Reed made double-digit appearances last year, with Franks and Daley both starting in a third of the team’s games. Bracalello and Daley’s prowess on the wings has probably been replaced, but the team has yet to bring in any central midfield depth.

Expectations are high

United is expected to be one of the NASL’s top teams again in 2015. They are favorites to again finish with the league’s top record, and to once again compete with New York, San Antonio, and possibly Tampa Bay for league honors. Anything less would be a major disappointment for everyone involved with the club.

With weeks to go, much is still likely to happen in terms of player signings, and as the team starts to play friendly matches we’ll start to get a better idea of Lagos’s thinking in terms of lineups and formations. Minnesota will play Seattle on February 19th and Kansas City on February 28th as part of their Arizona trip, our first two chances to get a sense of how things are looking for United this season – and the first chance of excitement for soccer fans who’ve endured the short soccer winter.

NOTE: This also appeared at SoccerCentric.

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This episode is a milestone for me, because I think it’s the first of 92 in which we actually talked about soccer in a non-let-Marthaler-talk-himself-out kind of way. Thanks, upcoming MLS players’ strike!

Also, at one point we talk about the infamous “fans throwing objects at Chuck Knoblauch” game in the Metrodome. Many claim they were there; all I have to prove that I was also in the stands that night is my ticket stub:

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My two ongoing memories of that night were that a) the thing that made Knoblauch run off the field was the fact that somebody hucked a golf ball at him, and b) the panicked reaction of the Twins bullpen to clear the field when, following the stoppage of the game and the lecture from Metrodome PA announcer Bob Casey, a fan launched a wrapped hot dog all the way from the upper deck into the left field corner.

Ah, memories.

The Major League Soccer season kicks off March 6 – well, that’s what the schedule says, at any rate. At the moment, it seems far more likely that some sort of work stoppage, whether player’s striker or owner’s lockout, will force a postponement or cancellation of opening day. The league’s collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union expired on January 31, and at the moment, the sides seem much too far apart to reach an agreement before taking the field in March.

The main sticking point in the negotiations is the league’s free-agent policy, which is remarkably backwards for this day and age. Even after a veteran player’s contract is up, said player can’t choose which MLS team he’s going to play for; instead, he has to go through the league’s “re-entry” draft. For those who know the whole history of American sports and the reserve clause and Curt Flood, it’s all very old-school; even with this re-entry draft, Major League Soccer is effectively nearly fifty years behind the times.

If you know about Flood, you know that baseball fought free agency, lost, and then later was slapped down in the 1980s for collusion among the owners to reduce the price of free agents. Yet MLS is able to do effectively the same thing, because of the league’s curious structure. Technically, every MLS team is owned by the league and each MLS player signs a contract with the league instead of with a team, a setup that has come to be known as “single entity.” In 2002, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the league, as a quasi-single entity, technically could not conspire with itself and so was able to take collective action with regard to players.

The court, though, deliberately remained vague about whether MLS actually was a true single entity. And since the decision 13 years ago, the league has increasingly started to look like an NFL-style collection of “distinct economic actors,” as they were called by the Supreme Court in its landmark ruling in the American Needle vs. NFL case. Teams have begun signing their own Designated Players, a rule introduced in 2007 to allow teams to sign star players to larger contracts – and compete independently for their services, just as any other team would. Read the Toronto Sun’s account of Toronto FC capturing Italian international Sebastian Giovinco – it certainly makes Toronto owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment sound a lot more like a distinct economic actor, not part of a single entity.

The battle for free agency isn’t really about free agency, then. At its heart is really a battle over the single entity. To grant the players free agency would be to set the teams up to compete over not only superstar players but over MLS veterans, and would call into question every one of MLS’s confusing structures – like the allocation order, a priority ranking for deciding which team returning US Men’s National Team players will sign with, or the “discovery claims” process, an absurd mechanism in which teams can submit secret claims on potential MLS players that they might want to sign, or at least call dibs on.

The players, for their part, appear to have had enough of the current system. Before 2010, they didn’t even have the small consolation of the re-entry draft – they had to re-sign or leave the league for other pastures. It’s worth noting, too, that the sums being offered for any players are still remarkably small – the league’s salary cap was $3.1 million last year, and though that doesn’t include Designated Players or a few other minor categories, most teams still are paying their entire squad about the average salary of one major-league baseball player. MLS has just signed a new television contract; it just gave the now-defunct Chivas USA franchise to a group of investors for a $100 million pseudo-expansion fee; and its teams are increasingly spending huge amounts of money to build stadiums. Is it any wonder that the players aren’t buying the league’s claims of financial difficulty, and are ready to demand a fairer slice of the ever-expanding pie?

For their part, the teams still fear the failure of the league above all else. Chivas USA’s folding, at the end of last year, was a sign that even after twenty years, and despite rampant expansion, all is not right with MLS. The offseason has seen a number of league-wide embarrassments, not least the signs that NYC FC – yet to even begin play at Yankee Stadium – appeared to be nothing but a farm team for Manchester City, a distinctive echo of the problems that plagued Chivas on the opposite coast.

All reports indicate that the sides are so far apart on the question of free agency that they’re not even bothering to talk about it. The players say they won’t play without it. The league dismisses the mere idea as completely out of the question. It’s hard to see how this gets worked out. Last time, the sides needed the help of a mediator, and even with that help, we were within a week of opening day before a deal was signed. This time, it looks like that deadline will come and go before anything is decided.

Note: this appeared at SoccerCentric.

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The app that we use to record the podcast cut out during the recording, twice. We therefore missed out on a half hour of this week’s episode. It was good, too. Sigh.

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It’s rare that we have actual information on the podcast, but our good friend Josh Fiedler came armed with three pages of notes about the 2014 Vikings, their draft and free agent needs, and what to look out for this offseason. Plus, he told one of the best stories we’ve ever heard about slow-pitch softball. Check this one out.

Minnesota sports are still depressing, but at least there’s Mo Williams. Our good friend Michael Rand joined us to talk about what’s new this week.

In the hopes of getting off the mark in 2015, here’s a link to our last podcast, which was posted ten days ago.

We’re recording Episode 88 tonight. I’m sure it’ll be much less positive.

In contrast to the Minnesota Vikings’ very public push for a Major League Soccer franchise, the group being led by Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire has conducted its bid for a franchise almost entirely out of the public view. Where United has tread softly, the Vikings have paraded; while McGuire and United team president Nick Rogers have offered little comment, Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley and other Vikings officials have been frank.

While the Vikings unveiled renderings of a system to curtain off the new Downtown East stadium for soccer, even the merest suggestion of a stadium for the United bid met with uproar, at least in the Star Tribune comments section. Bagley, and the rest of the Vikings publicity team, aren’t shy about stating their team’s desire for MLS; meanwhile, Rogers was quoted in the City Pages suggesting that his team “wasn’t itching” to get a deal done.

We’ve seen pictures. We’ve heard stories. Because of this, it’s natural to feel that we know a lot more about the Vikings bid, led by team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, than we do about McGuire’s. But it’s worth remembering that there is more to a successful first-division soccer franchise than just a stadium. It’s also worth remembering that Major League Soccer is the only group that has a vote in this process, and that the league will consider much more than just stadiums in the process. And so, in some ways, it’s United’s bid we know the most about.

For one thing, we know a lot better how a United-led franchise would manage a soccer team. It’s one of the biggest open questions about the Vikings’ bid – would they do well as an MLS owner? It’s been a problem for a number of MLS teams recently, from the “worst owners in the league” in New England, to Seattle, where the Sounders ended their association with the Seahawks ten years earlier than scheduled. Last week, an article by Mike Kaszuba in the Star Tribune confirmed that the Wilfs passed on a chance to buy United, before McGuire purchased the team. While the Vikings’ decision may have been understandable – as Bagley has stated, the team was engaged fully in stadium design at the time – it also would have been a chance to learn the soccer business on the ground, managing the day-to-day operations of a team.

At the time, late in 2012, the three most recent MLS expansion franchises – Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal – were teams that had made the jump from the second division to the first. Stadium project or no, it’s impossible to believe that the Vikings didn’t at least consider that the best way to prove themselves to MLS was to own a second-division team. Even ignoring the NASL route, Atlanta – which will join MLS in 2017 under the aegis of the NFL Falcons – managed to both design a stadium and discuss soccer at the same time, which is why Falcons owner Arthur Blank already has an expansion franchise, with tens of thousands of season ticket deposits placed.

As I’ve said before, the Vikings deserve credit for their efforts to turn around public perceptions, and they’re making a strong push to convince both the league, and local soccer fans, that they’d do well owning a soccer team. But their past doesn’t speak well for them. And United doesn’t need a public-relations push to convince us of their credentials, given that they’ve now been proving things on the field and in the front office for two years.

While the Vikings have held press conferences and unveiled renderings, United has sold tickets, built relationships, and won soccer games. They were the NASL’s best team in 2014, finishing with a first-half title and the league’s best record overall. They regularly drew more than 5,000 fans all the way to Blaine for home games, far and away the best regular attendance for pro soccer in Minnesota since the days of the Minnesota Kicks at Met Stadium. Though some might have a perception they haven’t reached out to the local community, they have a partnership with the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, one that’s close enough for Rogers to have been the keynote speaker at the group’s fall Recognition Banquet. They’ve developed international relationships, as well, one that led the team to do their preseason training in England, and later bring Swansea City of the English Premier League to town for a friendly match that drew nearly 10,000 people.

We don’t need United to show off a PowerPoint presentation to know about that part of their bid.

As for stadiums, it’s worth mentioning that financing aside, two key considerations make the Downtown East stadium less attractive. For one, the Vikings’ comments indicate that they would be aiming a field that’s the MLS-minimum 70 yards wide. Most soccer fans like the field to be as wide as possible, which allows for a more free-flowing matchup – part of the reason that FIFA mandates a field that’s at least 75 yards wide.

Second, the field surface is a key consideration in a league whose 2014 MVP, Robbie Keane, was quoted as saying, ” If this league wants to progress, turf has to go. It’s very simple. Very, very simple. It’s not good enough. In this day and age, playing on turf, it’s not good enough.” While ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told us that certain turf fields in the league have gotten better, we also know that recently-retired superstar Thierry Henry simply refused to play on the artificial fields – a silent endorsement of grass.

While the new Downtown East stadium would be able to accommodate a 75-yard-wide field for a FIFA event, thanks to the movable north stands, the turf makes it unlikely we’d see a FIFA event or a national team match for the foreseeable future. Recent experiments to lay sod fields over artificial turf have been almost uniformly disastrous, including the event at TCF Bank Stadium last summer; it’s unlikely that either US Soccer or FIFA would want to take a chance with the new stadium, not when there are so many proven alternatives available around the country.

There are many discussions to be had about stadium financing, of course, and the battles will continue to rage here and elsewhere. Given that, it’s no wonder that United has been keeping their stadium plans quiet. As for the remainder of their bid, though, it’s not a secret by any means. It’s not hiding. It’s there for everyone – including Major League Soccer – to see.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

This week on the Sportive, Stu and Brandon and I talked about the Vikings (better than we thought, worse than average), the Twins (worse than I think, better if I realize this) and the Wild (worse than they should be, worse for our lives).

Now, that sounds like it would take about twenty minutes, but the podcast is over an hour long. So you figure out what to expect from that.

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