Saturday’s results in the NASL had a familiar ring to them. Minnesota, won. San Antonio, won. New York, won.

While the NASL season was split this year into two ridiculously unequal “halves,” Saturday’s 3-2 win over Edmonton was the midpoint of Minnesota United’s 27-game league schedule. With the season half gone, it’s become clear that the Loons, the Scorpions, and the Cosmos are the teams to beat.

The league’s imbalance was on full display last year, as the relentlessly-promoted Cosmos won the league title despite having participated in just half the season. Coming into 2014, though, there were whispers that both Minnesota and San Antonio had ambitions – and finances – to match their New York brethren. And while the Cosmos have struggled slightly,  while also seeing a major dip at the ticket counter, the other two have blown right by.

Minnesota has lost just once all year and has a nine-game unbeaten streak. San Antonio has won eight of its last 11 matches. United has 33 points on the year, the Scorpions 32 (with one more game played than Minnesota) – and then comes a major drop-off. New York, with 27 points, is the only other team near the top two. Fort Lauderdale, in fourth place, is eleven points adrift of San Antonio – nearly a point per match.

Combine that with the box office, where Minnesota and San Antonio top the season attendance list (apart from Indy’s incredible numbers), and the obvious ambitions of both to eventually play at the top level of American soccer, and you begin to sense the difference. New York has had trouble scoring goals and drawing fans, it’s true, but they’re rumored to be trying to spend nearly $5 million to buy striker Roque Santa Cruz from Malaga – more than the annual salary budget for every team in the league (possibly more than all of them combined – they aren’t public). And their other plan appears to be to sign Spanish legend Raul to play in front of countryman Marcos Senna.

It’s all representative of a sea change in how the NASL runs itself. For years, second-division soccer was mostly a competition between evenly-matched teams. In 2012, San Antonio won the league championship with 1.67 points per match; in the spring of 2013, Atlanta took the first-half title with 1.75. As long as a team won slightly more than they lost, and didn’t draw too often, they had a chance at the league title.

In the fall of last year, though, New York came in and blew everyone away, winning nine times and losing only once on the way to 31 points in 14 games – 2.21 per match. United had to repeat that number to edge San Antonio in the spring, and currently leads the fall standings with four wins and one draw in five games – 2.6 points per match.

Four teams will make the playoffs this season, and anything can happen in the playoffs – something Minnesota fans well know, having seen their team finish sixth but reach the league final in both 2011 and 2012. That may paper over the cracks a little bit, especially if one of the league’s weaker teams manages to pull an upset in the playoffs. But right now it looks virtually certain that the top three seeds in the playoffs will be the three big, ambitious, financially-well-set teams.

Tampa Bay has also shown a willingness to spend, without much to show for it, and if Indy can reinvest the funds from their outstanding gate receipts into the team, they may become a force as well. But right now, it would appear that it’s a three-team race in the NASL – and as long as the finances and the ambitions stay in place, it may be that way for awhile.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Former USA international cricketer Bhim George was the star in Florida’s four-wicket win over Florida Southeast in the ACF Champions League. You can read my recap at the official ACF site.

For the fifth time this year, Minnesota United scored three goals in a game, this time in beating FC Edmonton 3-2. Christian Ramirez put away a first-half penalty, and Daniel Mendes scored twice in eleven minutes in the second half, a neat near-post flick and a blast from near the penalty spot.

It’ll make for a good highlight reel, but the United video team could equally put together a reel of Minnesota defensive blunders. There was the wayward Juliano Vicentini pass that led directly to the game’s first goal, by Edmonton’s Lance Laing; there was a similar wayward pass in the second half from Aaron Pitchkolan that loosed Eddies striker Frank Jonke alone on goal, forcing goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt to come out and commit the foul that got him sent off. Perhaps most shockingly, there was the innocuous-looking ball that bounced to Hildebrandt that defender Tiago Calvano chose to chest past his own keeper, off the post, then tantalizingly along the goal line, where Calvano cleared it – though a subsequent TV replay indicated that the ball may have crossed the line.

It’s no wonder that head coach Manny Lagos looked distinctly unhappy, even after his team had closed out the win one man short. “This is an imperfect game and you have imperfect moments,” he said. “Tonight, to walk off the field having played some good soccer, but at times having showed some shockingly poor concentration, is disappointing. We started out sluggish, and we had to get back into it and we exerted a lot of energy and got back into it – and seemingly thought we were controlling it. Our concentration kind of let us down and made it a tough night.

“We just made some poor mistakes. We’ve got good quality guys in the locker room that would put their hands up and say it should have been better. As a group, as a team, we’d be stupid not to acknowledge those mistakes.”

Team captain Aaron Pitchkolan acknowledged the mistakes – and hoped that the team had got them all out of its collective system. “There’s really no rhyme or reason for it, they came all at once,” he said. “We’ll learn from them and move forward. Manny and [assistant coach] Carl [Craig] and the coaching staff, they won’t let us be complacent. We know what we’re up against.”

Lagos was happy, though, that the team handled the adversity of giving up an early goal and a late red card. “There were some great moments in the second half and some great goals. I certainly was proud how we changed how we started from the first half in the second half, and I thought that was the difference in the game.”

Mendes scores twice more

Mendes is on a bit of a hot streak; two goals tonight brings his tally to four in five fall-season games. More notable, perhaps, was the fact that he scored both goals in the center of the field from open play. Given that United generally plays with its wide midfielders starting very wide, it’s not always normal to see a winger in the penalty area.

As it turns out, it’s all part of Minnesota’s plan to get its fullbacks forward into the attack, and get as many potential goalscorers in the penalty area as possible. “I try to go inside to give the space to Viva [Kevin Venegas],” said Mendes. “We train a lot of that – give him space. I get more involved in the game when I get inside, and we created some good play in the wide part of the field. The coach wants the wide players to cut inside and give the space for the fullbacks to come up.”

Venegas did have plenty of space – some of that probably due to Edmonton’s relative exhaustion. The Eddies were playing their third game in seven days, and eight of the team’s starting eleven played all three. Once United went down to ten men, the Eddies showed an offensive spark, but were otherwise mostly passive – not surprising, as there were likely a few dead legs on the field.

Juliano limps off

Vicentini limped off the field ten minutes into the second half, grimacing after a challenge left him down on the field. Postgame, Lagos said that it appeared to be a groin injury, but that the team wouldn’t know more about the severity for a day or two.

Should Vicentini miss next week’s game against Indy, the team would likely be left with two choices – either play Greg Jordan alongside Floyd Franks in midfield, or bring Pitchkolan forward into the midfield alongside one of the two and slot Cristiano Dias back into the defense.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

I’m not sure anyone actually discusses sports around the water cooler, any more. Somehow, the idea of water-cooler conversations entered our collective minds, but with the rise of computer communication, the idea of having to wait to talk to a co-worker until you see him at the water cooler seems touchingly quaint. If water cooler conversations exist, though, sports fandom is fragmented enough that there isn’t just one “Game of the Week” that’s part of our common knowledge. (Except for the NFL, I mean. Everybody watches the NFL.)

With that fragmentation in mind, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to find multiple Games of the Week, listed out by sport. Maybe you know your co-worker loves racing, or golf; here’s what he or she is likely to be talking about come Monday.

Soccer: Minnesota vs. Edmonton, 7pm Saturday (Channel 45)
United has lost just one game in 2014, and has five wins and a draw in six home games – and that doesn’t even count home wins over Premier League side Swansea City and the Mexico U-21 team. Edmonton, though, has beaten high-flying San Antonio and tied powerhouse New York in the span of a week, and will be looking to do the same to the Loons.

Basketball: Lynx at Phoenix, 9pm Saturday (NBA TV)
Make your jokes about the WNBA if you wish, but your hometown team is an astonishing 24-6 and has won eleven straight – and is still a game and a half behind Phoenix, which is 25-4. The Lynx beat the Mercury last week at home, but now have to head south to attempt to repeat the feat – and Phoenix has lost just one home game all season.

Golf: PGA Championship, Saturday/Sunday (TNT / CBS)
The PGA is the major that looks most like golf does the rest of the year, something that’s confirmed by the red numbers that have been hitting the scoreboard at Valhalla. Maybe the course will toughen up this weekend… or maybe Rory McIlroy will shoot 264 and dust the field.

Euro Soccer: Arsenal vs. Manchester City, FA Community Shield, 9am Sunday (FS1)
Man City won the Premier League last year and Arsenal won the FA Cup, and so the two square off in the traditional season-opening exhibition between England’s two champions from last year. Meaningless in the standings, maybe, but both clubs can set a tone for the season to come with a victory.

Football: Cleveland at Detroit, Sat 7:30pm (NFL Network)
Remember when Tim Tebow was the biggest story in the league, except he’d never do anything interesting except play his hardest? Johnny Manziel isn’t like that. Johnny Manziel could do anything. This is why you’ll probably flip on a preseason football game today, just to check in; Johnny Football will be there.

Baseball: Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee, Sun 1pm (TBS)
Clayton Kershaw is pitching.

Racing: NASCAR Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen, noon Sunday (ESPN)
Dale Jr. won last week, he said with an impossible-to-resist Southern accent, and is leading the Cup. But Jeff Gordon loves himself a trip around the road course at the Glen. Tune in to see what NASCAR looks like when it turns both ways!

This appeared at RandBall.

Major League Soccer’s All-Star game is tonight at 8:30pm on ESPN2, as the league’s best come together, have a couple of practices, and then play against Bayern Munich in Portland. Liga MX, the Mexican first division, is also in full swing for the fall. European leagues, though, start up later this month, with a few beginning as soon as Friday. Here is your quick-and-dirty SoccerCentric guide to the season ahead.

LIGUE 1
Begins: August 8
TV: beIN Sports, which might be a little hard to find on your channel lineup
The season ahead: Paris St. Germain is owned by Qatar. They have an enormous amount of money, have won two consecutive Ligue 1 titles, and are the heavy favorites to win a third straight. Monaco, owned by a Russian billionaire, is the only other team with a real chance to unseat PSG. (In European soccer, cash is king, let’s be honest.)

PREMIER LEAGUE
Begins: August 16 (though the traditional season-opening exhibition, the Community Shield, is Sunday)
TV: NBC Sports (occasionally NBC, always NBC Sports Network and always online at nbcsports.com)
The season ahead: The oddsmakers have installed Chelsea as the favorite, just a nose ahead of Manchester City. Behind the two uber-rich clubs, though, there are a host of interesting stories. Manchester United were a disaster last year, but the mercurial (and quite possibly insane) Louis van Gaal is now in charge; can they right the ship? Arsenal, for once, signed big players (most notably Alexis Sanchez) without losing anyone; can they finally make the jump? How will Liverpool handle losing Luis Suarez? Can Everton maintain their magic? Will Burnley win a game this season?

BUNDESLIGA
Begins: August 22
TV: GolTV – sorry, but unless you speak Spanish and have DirecTV, you probably can’t watch this channel at home
The season ahead: Bayern Munich are once again the favorites for the German title. Borussia Dortmund, like Monaco in France, are probably the only team that have a chance of challenging them in any real way. While many American soccer writers have tried to compare various English teams to the Yankees and/or Cowboys, it’s probably Bayern that are the closest European comparison, so feel free to use that in your rooting interest.

LA LIGA
Begins:
August 24
TV: beIN Sports
The season ahead: Atletico Madrid beat the odds, and both Barcelona and Real Madrid, to claim last season’s crown. While this is a little like getting excited about the Mets beating the Yankees and the Red Sox for the World Series, it’s still nice to see someone other than the big two on top; it hadn’t happened since 2004. That said, Barca and Real are the heavy favorites to take the title this year.

SERIE A
Begins: August 30
TV: beIN Sports
The season ahead: Juventus are favorites, but Roma and Napoli are also in the mix, as is AC Milan. The once-all-conquering Italian league has dropped off a bit in recent years, probably due to the money that has flowed into other leagues and to the weakness of the Italian economy; no Italian team has made the semifinals of the Champions League since 2010, and last year, only Milan even made it through the group stage. That said, though, Italy is always a riot, only partially because on any given day, both teams may be paying off the referee.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Begins: Qualifying has already started; final playoff round begins August 19, with group stages starting September 16
TV: Fox Sports, especially FS1
The season ahead: Nobody knows anything in the Champions League; Bayern are the favorites, but that hardly matters. As with the World Cup, the group-stage draw (August 28) can determine a lot of things. Juventus, PSG, and Manchester City are lurking as potential #2 seeds, with Liverpool and Roma are even further down the draw; any of the top teams could draw a cakewalk to the final 16, or could be eliminated before even getting to the knockout round. And of course, once the knockout round begins, anything could happen.

OTHER LEAGUES
Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (starts August 9 on FOX Soccer Plus and the FOX Soccer 2Go app), but it’s worth mentioning because Scotland is the home of Inverness Caley Thistle, the Official European Team of SoccerCentric… FOX Soccer Plus also carries games from the Europa League, UEFA’s second-tier continent-wide competition – as well as the Australian A-League, which begins October 10…  UEFA’s ranking system has the Portuguese Primera Liga ranked as the continent’s fourth-best – ahead of both Italy and France. It begins August 17, but does not have a USA TV deal I can find, so you might be out of luck.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Tune into this week’s throwback edition of the podcast to find out who we wished Ebola on (and immediately took it back).

I wrote a recap of Washington’s one-wicket, last-over win over Philadelphia in the American Cricket Federation Champions League. You can see it at www.acfchampionsleague.org.

With Christian Ramirez still flying high at the front of the Minnesota United attack, the team has signed an impressive insurance policy, bringing in El Salvador international Rafael Burgos on loan for the remainder of the NASL season. Burgos, who was with Austrian side SV Reid, was loaned to Hungarian champions Gyor in 2013. The 26-year-old has made 31 appearances for El Salvador’s national team, scoring ten times, and while El Salvador is a second-tier CONCACAF team, it’s still a good pedigree for a second-division striker.

Perhaps more importantly, the signing is an indication that United is no longer counting on striker Pablo Campos to return in 2014. When Campos tore his ACL and MCL in preseason training, the team said he would return for the fall season – an impressive timetable, to say the least. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson took nine months to return from the same injury, and while Germany international Sami Khedira made his return from the dual ligament tear even more quickly – going from his injury last November to starring in the World Cup this summer – it always seemed unlikely that Campos could do the same.

The NASL season stretches into November this year, so it’s always possible that Campos – with three more months ahead of him – could still come back. But with Burgos now in the fold, it would appear that Minnesota no longer expects that return anytime soon.

While Burgos should be a good weapon, it also seems unlikely that the Loons would break up the partnership between Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra, one that’s produced three goals in three games this fall. It’s more likely that United simply wanted another goal scorer on the roster that has a little more experience than Nate Polak, should the team need a second striker late in a game, or to spell Ramirez.

Burgos will arrive in the Twin Cities tomorrow, meaning that he’s unlikely to be available as soon as Saturday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium. The rest of the team is healthy, however, as United looks to continue a seven-match unbeaten streak.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Saturday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium between Manchester City and Olympiacos is fast approaching, but the friendly competition that the game is a part of – the International Champions Cup – is already underway. Olympiacos has a win and a loss in Group B, after beating Milan 3-0 in Toronto before losing to Liverpool 1-0 in Chicago, while Manchester City currently tops Group B after destroying Milan 5-1 in Pittsburgh. (I don’t know that there’s much good to say about Milan so far.)

City plays again on Wednesday in Group B’s marquee matchup, vs Liverpool at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. It’ll be a good test run for soccer at Yankee Stadium, given that New York City FC starts play there next season as they continue to search for a permanent MLS home in the city.

Nine World Cup players highlight the two teams’ rosters – three from the Greek champions (all from Greece) and six from the English champions. Greece is led by midfielder Andreas Samaris, fresh off his first World Cup goal in Greece’s 1-0 group-stage win over the Ivory Coast. Man City, meanwhile, has a wealth of talent throughout the roster; its six internationals are goalkeeper Joe Hart, defender Bacary Sanga, midfielders David Silva, Yaya Toure and James Milner, and striker Edin Dzeko. Throw in players like Stevan Jovetic (whose Montenegrin side didn’t make the World Cup) and Samir Nasri (who just missed out on making the French squad), and it’s a safe bet that Man City will have plenty of star power on Saturday.

The full rosters, as sent to me (though, as befitting a friendly, always subject to change):

OLYMPIACOS
Goalkeepers: Roberto, Megyeri, Choutesiotis,
Defenders: Maniatis, Elabdellaoui, Holebas (Greece), Papadopoulos, Abidal, Siovas, Manolas (Greece), Masuaku, Salino, Bong, Avlonitis.
Midfielders: N’Dinga, Dominguez, Kasami, Kolovos, Samaris (Greece), Bouchalakis, Fuster, Ghazaryan, Yatabaré, Dossevi.
Forwards: Saviola, Diamantakos, Papazoglou.

MANCHESTER CITY
Goalkeepers: Hart (England), Caballero, Wright, Lawlor.
Defenders: Richards, Sanga (France), Bossaerts, Denayer, Rekik, Nastasic, Boyata, Clichy, Kolarov.
Midfielders: Fernando, Nasri, Sinclair, Garcia, Huws, Rodwell, Zuculini, Milner (England), Silva (Spain), Navas, Toure (Ivory Coast).
Forwards: Negredo, Guidetti, Ihenacho, Jovetic, Dzeko (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

United, Ottawa set for second half of doubleheader

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the second half of Saturday’s doubleheader, as Minnesota United takes on the Ottawa Fury in a regular-season NASL game. The friendly game will be fun, but if it’s true meaningful soccer you’re after, perhaps you’ll want to stick around. United and Ottawa begin at 4:30, following the Man City-Olympiacos game at 2pm.

United is flying high, having defeated Swansea City 2-0 and the Mexican under-21 team on penalty kicks, plus beginning their fall NASL slate undefeated through three games. The Loons have allowed just one goal in the three games, and that controversially, with the referee awarding Atlanta a questionable penalty kick late in the teams’ 1-1 draw last Saturday. Nevertheless, United are one of just two NASL teams without a loss through three fall-season games – though the other, San Antonio, has already posted four wins out of four and is laying early claim to controlling the fall season.

Ottawa, meanwhile, has yet to score a goal in the fall season, and has just one point; probably their only success was in the stands, where they drew nearly 15,000 fans for their first game in the new TD Place in Ottawa.

In other words, Minnesota needs to win on Saturday – and they’re hoping to do so in front of a large crowd.

(FINAL EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry for the lack of posts lately. My wedding, two Saturdays ago, put a real damper on my ability to pay attention to soccer. Semi-normal service should resume soon.)

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

So, new soccer fan: you’ve watched, and enjoyed, the World Cup. You’re thinking that this soccer thing seems pretty fun, and you don’t want to wait until the next World Cup – in June 2018, whole years from now! – to watch more soccer.

But what to watch? The USA men’s team doesn’t have meaningful matches again until next summer, and the women’s CONCACAF championship isn’t until October. It’s a long time until you can again don your red, white, and blue scarf, and forget the words to “America the Beautiful.” You need something now. It’s time to dive into the glorious world of club soccer.

Years in the past, this meant pestering the kid who studied abroad one semester and came back with a Manchester United jersey and an annoying habit of saying “cheers” instead of “thanks,” but I’m happy to report those days are long gone. You are awash in soccer choices. It’s important to pick the right one. That’s where SoccerCentric comes in; let us be your faithful Sherpa, guiding you among the mountains and helping you pick the right league for you.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: Cheering for the Americans! U-S-A! U-S-A!
What you should watch: Minnesota United FC and the NASL

Minnesota’s home team plays in Blaine; if you can’t make it up there, their home games are broadcast on Channel 45, which you get at your house. The Loons are the home team, the local squad, and while it’s true that the NASL is the American second division, it’s also true that this doesn’t mean Triple-A soccer. United’s players aren’t property of MLS teams, waiting for a callup to the big leagues; they’ve got their own championship to win. If you enjoyed being part of cheering for the home team, it’s America and Minnesota for you.

(A word to anyone who complains about the quality of American soccer, or says they won’t get invested in Minnesota soccer until MLS comes here, or anything along those lines: oh, sorry this game isn’t good enough for you, Bobby Robson. While you’re over there pontificating on whether the game is worthy of your attention, the rest of us are going to be over here, actually watching soccer and having fun.)

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: That, unlike baseball or football or basketball, the games are over in two hours
What you should watch: MLS

Love American sports, but hate that an American League baseball game now takes four hours to play? Allow Major League Soccer to step in. You can transfer over all of your usual prejudices: it’s still safe to hate New York and Los Angeles (though not the second LA team, which is in terrible shape because of a crazy owner.) If it’s local prejudice you want, you can cheer against Chicago and Kansas City, and it’s always fun for a Minnesotan to cheer against Dallas. Plus: Hate Boston? Well, New England is terrible and their owner (Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner) is the worst in the league! Ah, delicious schadenfreude.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: Drinking in the morning and yet feeling normal
What you should watch: The Premier League

NBC Sports Network shows all the English games, either live or online, which is great for those of us who are looking for something to watch at 9am on Saturdays. It’s the most popular and richest league in the world, and no matter what team you choose to follow, you will easily find someone else in the area who will watch games at the bar with you. In some ways, the English league is the easiest league for Americans to follow – especially if you like a beer with your morning sausages.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!
What you should watch: Liga MX

It is hard not to be taken by the irrepressible goofiness that is Univision during the World Cup. Spencer Hall covers it better here, but if you’re a fan of zaniness and don’t mind a Spanish-language broadcast, go ahead and find Univision or Telemundo on your dial.

Be aware when you do, too, that you’ll be watching North America’s best league, filled with entertaining, attack-minded players – and be aware that more of your fellow Americans are tuning in to watch along with you than are watching any other league. You may not know it, but the Mexican League is the popular pick among your countrymen.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: That it doesn’t come around that often
What you should watch: The Bundesliga

The German league is the best-attended in the world, and boasts Europe’s current best team in Bayern Munich. Unfortunately, it’s saddled with a TV contract with GolTV in the USA, a channel that nobody gets. It thus follows that if you’re a Bundesliga fan, you don’t have to bother with watching games until 2015-16, when FOX picks up the rights and you’ll start seeing German matches everywhere.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: The superstar players – Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, etc.
What you should watch: La Liga

Real Madrid and Barcelona seem to have endless funds, which is why the world’s biggest stars all seem to end up with one of the two. And last year, neither one managed to win the league, losing out to Atletico Madrid, which had fewer superstars but a better team – just like what happened to Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, etc. at the World Cup.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: The allegations of match-fixing.
What you should watch: Serie A

In general, the Italian league is beset by a scandal of some type at least every other year. This being Italy, nothing is ever resolved, and any punishments handed out are overturned on appeal. If you loved the dramatics of the Cameroonian match-fixing probe – or even the story of the Ghana’s players potentially going on strike if they weren’t paid – you’ll love Italy.

We here at SoccerCentric hope that this guide has helped you, and may we say in closing: Go [insert name of your new favorite team in whatever league matches your interest]!

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.