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…

Minnesota’s 2-0 win over San Antonio on Saturday sent a message to the rest of the NASL: this is United’s season to control.

The team still has seven games to go in the fall season, but not only does Minnesota have one more game still to play than most of the league, they have the league lead – a two-point gap over San Antonio in the fall season, and a five-point margin in the combined standings.

With Minnesota already in the playoffs, thanks to a first-half championship, it’s the combined standings that really matter; a first-place finish means a #1 seed, and the chance to potentially host both the semifinals and the finals in the playoffs. Given that the games will take place in mid-November, it could mean a significant weather-related home-field advantage for Minnesota, as well as a chance to play in front of a raucous home crowd.

Minnesota also gets both second-place San Antonio and third-place New York at home yet this season, and plays the three worst teams in the league – Ottawa, Atlanta, and Indy – over the next three weeks. It’d be difficult to arrange a more favorable schedule for a United team that’s potentially in line to win both halves of the NASL season – and set itself up for a run at the league championship.

Saturday’s 2-0 win in San Antonio was the team’s most definitive positive statement yet. The Scorpions have been the only other consistently good team in the league this year, and now Minnesota has beaten them twice at home in 2014, both times by a pair of goals. Miguel Ibarra scored both goals for United, one either side of halftime, including a second  ( where he makes the entire Scorpions team appear to be standing stock-still. Throw in the fact that United had the two best chances of the game that didn’t lead to goals, and you start to see a picture of a Minnesota team that’s coasting at the head of the pack.

Besides San Antonio, the only other team even remotely near Minnesota in the combined standings is New York, nine points adrift – and the Cosmos are reeling, having slipped to sixth in the fall standings after losing 5-4 in Carolina on Saturday. The rest of the league is at least 14 points behind United, and with only seven games to go, it would take a collapse of historic proportions for any of the league’s bottom seven to get anywhere near Minnesota.

There’s no doubt that United head coach Manny Lagos would put the kibosh on any such speculation; he has so far succeeded in getting his team to treat the second half with respect, even after clinching a playoff spot. Even after a mini-swoon of three games without a win, nothing about Minnesota suggests a complacent side that’s looking forward to November. By all appearances, Lagos has succeeded in getting United to focus on dominating the league.

Anything can happen during the playoffs – something that Minnesota fans well know, after a pair of championship-game appearances following sixth-place finishes in 2011 and 2012. No matter what happens in the postseason, though, one team winning both halves of the season would stand as a dominating performance – and right now, Minnesota appears on track for that type of season.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

On this week’s Sportive, we talked mostly NFL – including the Vikings’ win, our sleeper team (the Bills), and whether we should be watching the NFL at all.

Then later in the week it turned out that Adrian Peterson likes to hit his kids. So, good job NFL!

Christian Ramirez’s shooting has been wayward, but give the Minnesota United striker credit – he’s finding other ways to find the back of the net. He chested in a goal, from a beautiful bounding Kevin Venegas free kick, and Miguel Ibarra added a long-distance strike in the second half as United came from behind to win 2-1 over Fort Lauderdale.

It was United’s first win since August 17, a welcome shot of momentum for a team that appeared to be stuck in the early-fall doldrums. With a visit to San Antonio on tap for next Saturday, and the Scorpions and Minnesota vying for first place in the overall NASL standings, any tailwind will be welcomed

31 minutes in, Fort Lauderdale took the lead – one of the few times they’ve managed to do so on the road this year. Striker Pecka volleyed home a Stephane Guillaume cross, a good-looking goal that was greeted with nothing short of jubilation from the Fort Lauderdale sideline.

Seven minutes later, though, Ramirez brought United back level. Venegas’s free kick from the right was perfectly placed – too far for the goalkeeper to come out to get it, but with enough pace and bend to flummox the Fort Lauderdale defense. It took one wicked hop, straight into the chest of the onrushing Ramirez, and the striker had only to let the ball deflect off his chest to get the goal. It gave Ramirez 15 goals for the season and three in United’s last four games – though the first two were from the penalty spot.

Ibarra took less than ten minutes in the second half to find the winner, a long-range blast that flew into the bottom right-hand corner, perhaps Ibarra’s best goal of the season – and his first since mid-July, to boot. It was enough to reduce the Strikers to a long-term policy of shin-kicking and roughhousing, one that proved unable to produce any particularly notable chances.

Ramirez, though, had a gift-wrapped through ball fall to him, three yards from an open net; sadly, he ballooned his chance over the crossbar. It was the latest in a stretch of near misses for the striker. Yet, give him all the credit in the world; he’s found other ways to score, including – tonight – with his chest.

In other NASL results, New York led Atlanta 2-0 after ten minutes, blew the lead, then scored in the 84th minute to win 3-2; Carolina whacked San Antonio 3-1; Indy and Edmonton drew 1-1; and Tampa Bay lost 2-0, at home, to last-place Ottawa, and responded with a monumental “sore loser” moment on Twitter.

Might hurt less given the circumstances, Tampa Bay.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Just by looking at the box scores, you’d start to think Minnesota United FC had lost their offensive magic. They’ve scored just three goals in three games – two of them penalties, one a free kick, none from open play. That’s led to their worst stretch of the year in the results; three games without a win, including their first loss of the fall season. A terrible 1-1 draw at New York was followed with a loss at Edmonton and a draw at home with Tampa Bay, and now San Antonio has crept ahead of Minnesota in the standings; United now trails by four points in the fall table, and one point in the combined spring & fall standings.

The games themselves, though, paint a different picture. The highlight reels are filled with United chances that have skidded just wide or glanced off the woodwork; Christian Ramirez, the league’s leading goal-scorer, has been especially snakebitten. If the goal were a couple of feet wider on either side, United would have won its last two games, and Ramirez would have about five more goals to his credit.

Minnesota has controlled possession and outshot its opponents. Head coach Manny Lagos spoke of pain following United’s 1-1 draw with Tampa Bay. “It hurts,” he said. “The ball’s not quite bouncing our way, and we’re playing some good soccer. We should be finishing our chances and we’re not.”

Perhaps tonight’s visit from Fort Lauderdale can get Minnesota untracked. United put three past the Strikers in both of the meetings between the two this year. Simone Bracalello, Ramirez, and Miguel Ibarra scored in the first game; Daniel Mendes, Ramirez, and Ibarra scored in the second. It’s an almost complete list of the players that Minnesota needs to find the magic scoring touch, beginning with tonight’s game.

United’s squad will likely be the same as last week, with backup striker Rafael Burgos still gone with the El Salvador national team on Copa Centroamericana duty. He’s scored twice in three games for El Salvador, who play Panama tonight in the competition’s third-place match. On the injury front, defensive midfielder Juliano Vicentini took a knock in training this week, but is expected to play tonight.

Minnesota has gone to a keeper rotation over the past few games, and if that continues, it would be Mitch Hildebrandt in goal tonight. No changes are likely to the team’s back line, nor is the all-conquering Ramirez likely to leave the lineup up front, but the midfield poses an interesting question. Sometime SoccerCentric analyst Bill MK looked at this dilemma, over at The Loon Call, and came to the conclusion that Minnesota needs to stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation, rather than pushing Ibarra out to the wing and bringing Aaron Pitchkolan and Greg Jordan forward. If the team does revert to the 4-2-3-1, then Jamie Watson or Bracalello might come in for Jordan, in order to run the left wing.

The difference for United, though, might not come from creating more chances. All Minnesota might need to do is finish the ones that they get.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Jesse Lund of Twinkie Town stopped by for Episode 70 of the podcast.

Then, on Episode 71, we recorded a two-part Vikings preview.

Podcasts: like blog posts for your ears.