It has not been a good World Cup so far, for the conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom: Especially in the first week, everyone is still getting into the swing of things; look for a lot of low scores and draws.

What has happened: Every game has had a winner, and with the exception of Mexico beating Cameroon 1-0, every winner has scored at least three goals.

CW: Spain plays so well as a team that the Netherlands, who generally spend the lead-up to every major tournament getting in fights with each other in training, have no chance. And besides, Spain just play such pretty soccer.

Happened: Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie scored twice apiece and blew the doors off Spain, 5-1, including at least three of the type of goals that just make you happy to be alive, and one that made Spanish keeper Iker Casillas look like he’d been selected from the stands at halftime to play goalkeeper. Meanwhile, Spain’s only goal was a questionable first-half penalty.

CW: Uruguay are dark-horse tournament favorites; they’ve got a strong team, they’re playing next door to home, and they have Luis Suarez.

Happened: Uruguay led at halftime, but three second-half goals from Costa Rica – who hadn’t won at the World Cup since 2002, and have reached the knockout round once ever, in 1990 – put Los Ticos on top, improbably, in Group C.

CW: Greece may be having a little difficulty scoring lately, but they’re almost impossible to score against. Besides, Colombia are missing striker Radamel Falcao, and who knows who will pick up the slack?

Happened: Colombia was ahead 1-0 after just five minutes, and added a pair in the second half for a 3-0 win.

CW: Uh… Australia have no chance?

Happened: At least the conventional wisdom was right about this one; Chile beat the Socceroos 3-1, and now the Australians have to play the Netherlands and Spain.  That said, while Chile led 2-0 after 14 minutes, the ageless Australian Striker, Tim Cahill, brought his team within 2-1 before halftime. It took Chile until stoppage time to get a third.

CW: I’m not doing so well.

Happened: There’s a lot of time left; things could be worse.

CW: At least I know for sure that England-Italy, which is taking place in the jungle, will be a boring 0-0 draw.

Happened: It’s 1-1 and there have been two goals in the last four minutes.

CW: Ah, pickles.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Brazil beat Croatia 3-1 to kick off the 2014 World Cup, in a game that had everything – an own goal, a penalty awarded to Brazil that made everyone wonder if the referee was match-fixing, and two other Brazil goals that made everyone wonder whether Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa was match-fixing.

It was, in short, not a great game.

Marcelo kicked off the scoring for Brazil after just 11 minutes, except he did so by scoring into his own net. Croatia had several decent chances early, as Brazil appeared to be only vaguely aware that the game had started, and finally a cross deflected onto Marcelo’s toe and into the back of his own net.

Brazil were back to level at 29 minutes, though; all-World forward Neymar rolled a long shot off the post and in, a tame-looking shot that Pletikosa appeared to react late to. I looked it up, expecting to find that Pletikosa is 59 years old, but in truth he’s only 35; his reaction time in this match was glacial, at best.

The second half plodded along at 1-1 before Brazilian striker Fred pulled off one of the most blatant dives in World Cup history, throwing himself backwards and his hands into the air at a slight touch from a Croatian defender. Somehow, this moment of terrible acting was enough to deceive referee Yuichi Nishimura, who pointed to the spot without hesitation. Neymar converted the penalty – off Pletikosa’s gloves and in – to make it 2-1.

Oscar finished off the scoring for Brazil in second-half stoppage time, scoring a goal so soft that two Croatian defenders screamed at Pletikosa for allowing it in.

The win puts Brazil, who have only games with Cameroon and struggling Mexico remaining in the first round, basically already into the knockout round. Croatia, meanwhile, are faced with a loss that had four goals, none of which they scored, and a goalkeeper who appears to need someone to follow him everywhere with an oil can.

The good thing, I suppose, is that the World Cup is back. Tomorrow, Mexico starts their campaign against Cameroon, and Spain and the Netherlands face off in the first test of whether the Dutch players can stop punching each other long enough to actually play some soccer. The night gets wrapped up with Chile playing Australia, which we’re calling the Countries That Can Wave At You If You Are In Antarctica derby.

Despite the oddity of Game 1, we look forward to Day 2.

NOTE: This also appeared at SoccerCentric.

When the Minnesota Vikings announced what they termed a “broad strategic alliance” with soccer event management company Relevent Sports, I was quick to assume that – given Relevent’s MLS ties – the partnership would include the Vikings’ effort to bring an MLS team to Minnesota. As it turns out, that is not the case.

At a press conference on Wednesday to promote ticket sales for the August 2 soccer doubleheader at TCF Bank Stadium, Vikings VPs Kevin Warren and Lester Bagley and Relevent CEO Charlie Stillitano were all quick to stress the close relationship between the Wilf family and Stephen Ross, who owns both Relevent Sports and the Miami Dolphins. However, Stillitano was very blunt when asked what his company’s relationship with the Vikings’ MLS push is. “I wouldn’t overstate our position working with the Vikings,” he said, in the Q&A portion of the press conference. “I think you would more put us as consultants on the soccer side to bring international events here.”

While Stillitano was happy to enthuse about helping the Vikings, he also noted that he’s really only focused on the possibility of playing these types of big international games in Minnesota. “Our relationship and our agreement is really one of collaboration and marketing. Our commitment is to bring as many international games as we can bring here.”

Stillitano did his best to not downplay the impact that these big international games can have on a market. The Relevent CEO also noted that he has worked to bring international events to cities that later got MLS franchises, like Toronto and Seattle. “It seems like wherever we go, an MLS team follows,” he said. “We test the market.”

The Vikings’ involvement with the game on August 2 should give them more insight into the local soccer community, which is certainly important for a group that’s in some ways starting from scratch on building those relationships. However, it also puts them in the awkward position of promoting an event that has their rivals for an MLS bid, Minnesota United, playing in the second half of a doubleheader.

This is not to say that the Wilfs and the Vikings aren’t serious about acquiring an MLS franchise. du Nord Futbol Show co-host and sometime SoccerCentric guest columnist Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) was nice enough to send me a clip of a conversation he had with Bagley, following the press conference, and the Vikings VP quoted a number of statistics that indicate that the Vikings have done a fair amount of research on MLS ticket sales, both from talking to other MLS teams like Seattle and Kansas City, and from surveying their own season ticket holders.

That said, the Relevent partnership appears to be set mostly to extend only to games like the Manchester City-Olympiakos tilt, and not to that MLS effort. The Vikings will have to continue to work on their relationships – both with local fans, and with the league itself – from the ground up.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

All it took was one sentence in a press release to send the Minnesota soccer community into a tizzy. The release, announcing a press conference this afternoon, included a tidbit from the Minnesota Vikings that the team had formed a “broad strategic alliance” with marketing company Relevent Sports, as part of their efforts to acquire a Major League Soccer franchise.

Relevent Sports is probably best known locally as the group that’s putting on the Manchester City – Olympiakos match on August 2 at TCF Bank Stadium, but they’re also a company whose CEO, Charlie Stillitano, is a former MLS general manager who still has strong ties to the league. With Vikings VP Lester Bagely reiterating once again the team’s desire for MLS, the Vikings’ soccer groundswell has started to feel a little more like a tidal wave.

That said, it’s worth mentioning that, despite the hype, the Vikings don’t have much to show for it. Bagely noted that the Vikings met with MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott on Monday, to update him on the team’s stadium situation – but he also admitted that the team currently does not have a specific plan in place to outfit the new stadium for soccer.

Across town, meanwhile, Minnesota’s already-existing soccer team was celebrating. NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson gathered with United coach Manny Lagos, team president Nick Rogers, and fullback Justin Davis to hand off the spring championship plate. The United fans in attendance cheered, and later posted pictures of themselves imbibing from the plate in celebration.

United is touting their upcoming schedule as the “Summer of Soccer” in Minnesota. The team has a US Open Cup match against MLS champions Sporting Kansas City next week; if they can beat KC, they’ll host the next game of the competition the following week, one that is almost certain to be against the Portland Timbers. They have a friendly with Premier League side Swansea City, a July 4 game against the Mexico U-21 team, and are playing their August 2 home match at TCF Bank Stadium following the aforementioned Man City-Olympiakos tilt.

Throw in the team’s regular league schedule, which begins again on July 12, and the team’s efforts to organize World Cup-watching parties around town, and the Twin Cities market isn’t exactly hurting for soccer, no matter what the Vikings’ hype says.

It was a picture of the interesting dichotomy between the two soccer groups in town. On the one side is the Vikings, who have a stadium and are loudly hyping their MLS desires. On the other side is United, who actually have a team, fans, and a history – and who are determinedly staying quiet about all things MLS-related, including their desire to potentially acquire a stadium of their own.

At the moment, it’s the stadium issue that is the wild card in the whole process. It’s the one thing that United is missing; it’s the only thing that the Vikings have going for them. While an NFL stadium isn’t necessarily ideal for an MLS team, Seattle and Vancouver have made it work, and the new Atlanta franchise is set to do the same. And given that January and February were the only two months that didn’t see an MLS match in 2013, having an indoor stadium in Minnesota might not be the worst idea in the world, even though it would be painful to watch a game inside on a gorgeous summer evening.

United are rumored to be working on a stadium plan of their own, potentially in tandem with the Twins, potentially at the Farmer’s Market site just behind Target Field. At the moment, though, any United-led stadium plans are nothing more than rumors, and the team refuses to speculate on partners, timelines, or locations.

It’s also worth mentioning Bagely’s comment that the Vikings would have to build “fan by fan.” It was the allusion to the beginning of an effort by the team to appeal to the grassroots soccer fans in Minnesota, one that the team has hired local PR / marketing firm One Simple Plan to assist with.

The strangest thing about that comment, though, is that the Vikings have long ignored opportunities to get involved with soccer in Minnesota. United was on the market for two years before Dr. Bill McGuire bought the team; the Vikings could very easily have a team and a fanbase of their very own, and could currently be following the path to MLS that Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal all took before them, and that Orlando is scheduled to take next year, by jumping to MLS from a lower league.

Instead, United – which dates back (in some ways) to 1990 – nearly folded before being rescued by McGuire. And now, the Vikings talk about building fan engagement, while soccer fans show up at Brit’s Pub in the middle of a Tuesday to applaud United and drink beer out of their newly-won trophy.

With the two groups competing for MLS, it’s difficult not to write about the situation as a horse race. Ultimately, though, the decision only rests with Major League Soccer itself. While Minneapolis is rumored to be the front-runner, the league could still choose to go elsewhere with its next franchise. If they do pick the Twin Cities, though, who do they opt for? Do they go with the Vikings, with their settled stadium issue and the financial security that goes hand-in-hand with an NFL franchise? Or do they go with the group that’s focused on local soccer, but doesn’t have the resources or the under-construction stadium to match the Wilfs?

It’s a battle over the future of professional soccer in Minnesota. Where will it end up?

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

I wrote a World Cup preview / column on US Men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for Sunday’s Star Tribune. You can read it here; it also made the front page of the Sunday sports section, which I thought was really cool.

I only could show up for like the last ten minutes of the podcast this week. I bet it’s pretty awesome, then.

Greg Jordan scored his first goal for Minnesota, Christian Ramirez added his fifth of the season, and Minnesota United withstood a late Atlanta rally to stay atop the NASL standings with a 2-1 win.

United entered the night with a three-point lead on San Antonio and New York, but the Scorpions and Cosmos both won road games of their own, leaving Minnesota’s lead unchanged with one game in the spring left to go. United will clinch the spring title with a win or a draw in Tampa Bay next week; they can also clinch if they lose, but San Antonio fails to beat Fort Lauderdale at home, and New York fails to beat Ottawa at home.

On this night, Atlanta had far better chances than did Minnesota. The Silverbacks had 18 shots to United’s six, including several excellent chances, but only Kwadwo Poku could find a way past Mitch Hildebrandt. The Minnesota keeper denied both Poku and Jaime Chavez in the first half, and Poku and Deon McCauley in the second, allowing United to steal the win.

Jordan’s goal, in the 53rd minute, came just moments after a sterling Atlanta chance, as McCauley hooked a leaping volley from inside the six-yard box just over the crossbar. United got going quickly from the goal kick, and Jordan flicked Ramirez’s cross from the right just inside the far post.

Twenty minutes later, Minnesota had the ball in the net twice inside three minutes. The first, an Aaron Pitchkolan header, was judged to be offside. Ramirez’s second, though – a header from a Justin Davis free kick – counted, and United had a 2-0 lead in the 72nd minute.

Poku’s blast with five minutes to go made for some nervous moments for Minnesota fans, especially since it coincided with San Antonio scoring at the death in Indy to win 2-1, and New York taking the lead in Fort Lauderdale. United, though, parked all ten players in front of their own goal, and managed to hold on for the win.

Atlanta coach, and FOX soccer analyst Eric Wynalda, was highly critical of Minnesota after the match. Asked why his team lost on the Atlanta broadcast, following the game, he said, “We’re not as good at rugby as the opponent.”

Wynalda continued in the same vein. “It’s frustrating, because we’re better at soccer than they are,” he said. “They don’t really play soccer; what they do is similar to maybe a second division [team] in England, and it worked tonight. Our guys are frustrated, because this isn’t what we signed up for. To play a pretty good style, and have opportunities to win the game… We got a good goal out of Poku, but we’re frustrated, because this sucks.”

United head coach Manny Lagos was understandably less negative after his team’s win. “It was a battle tonight,” he said. “I thought both teams really put it in… The results didn’t go our way, so it comes down to next week.”

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Minnesota United beat the Des Moines Menace 1-0 on Wednesday, thus advancing to the fourth round of the US Open Cup, where they will travel to Sporting Kansas City on June 18. It will be the team’s first US Open Cup match against an MLS side since 2012, when the team – then the Minnesota Stars – destroyed Real Salt Lake 3-1 in the third round, before falling 1-0 to San Jose in the fourth round.

It’s worth remembering that, this time last year, United was bottoming out. They lost two league games in a row, putting them back in the pack in the spring-season race – then lost 1-0 to Des Moines in the Cup, at home, in the rain, in one of the more dismal soccer games any of the thousand fans in attendance could ever hope to see. Head coach Manny Lagos started his postgame interview by apologizing to all of the team’s fans. Team president Nick Rogers sent his apology out on Twitter.

Fast-forward a year, and Minnesota is riding high. They’re on the way to Kansas City. They have the biggest friendly in Minnesota soccer history scheduled for July 19, when Swansea City visits. They procured a decent July 4 game, with a visit from Mexico’s under-21 side that’s sure to be attractive to the area Mexican population – a constituency that the team wants to reach. They’re playing at TCF Bank Stadium, following the Manchester City – Olympiakos game that matches the Premier League champions against the team that wins the Greek league virtually every year. And to top it all off, they’re three points on top of the league with two games to play in the spring championship, and can clinch as soon as tonight, if they beat Atlanta and other results around the league go their way..

Throw in the continued forward momentum in the front office, with the franchise setting up one of the league’s best operations, and it has to be said that everything is looking up for United.

Tonight, Minnesota takes on Atlanta, last season’s spring champions. The Silverbacks’ big news this season is that they are now managed by former US National team star Eric Wynalda, who is splitting time between being Atlanta’s coach and being an analyst for FOX Soccer. Both ownership and Wynalda insist that the team doesn’t need the coach on site at all times; after seven games, Atlanta is in seventh and has the league’s worst goal differential, so at best the jury is still out on the arrangement.

The Silverbacks are led by forward Jamie Chavez, who has scored twice already this week – once in Atlanta’s win at Edmonton last Saturday, once in their midweek US Open Cup win against FC Chattanooga. Salvadoran midfielder Junior Burgos also scored twice in midweek; he began the season coming off the bench, but has made two May starts and may be in line for another tonight.

Meanwhile, United’s defense is limping – in some cases quite literally. Center back Cristiano Dias is suspended after being sent off last Saturday against Carolina, and goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel is missing as well with an ankle injury. With center back Tiago Calvano also a doubt, owing to a hamstring injury suffered last week, and right back Kevin Venegas still missing with a broken jaw, United could be playing three backup defenders and a backup goalkeeper this week. Aaron Pitchkolan will likely slide back to center back to replace Dias, and if Calvano can’t go, Brent Kallman could make his second NASL start.

Minnesota’s big squad news is that Australian attacker Richard Garcia – who signed a month ago, but had his arrival delayed by US Customs – is in Atlanta and with the team. Garcia’s arrival brings the squad up to 19, with only 18 players allowed in the gameday squad, so it remains to be seen whether United will throw him directly in with the team, or whether he’ll have only next Saturday’s game as a chance to make an impact.

Mitch Hildebrandt will again start in goal, and will be backed up by Andrew Fontein, who was the reserve on Wedensday against Des Moines, as well. The 24-year-old started three games for Tampa Bay last year, and made a substitute appearance in Minnesota’s wild 6-4 season-ending win in Tampa.

Last season, Atlanta clinched the spring championship at the National Sports Center, and celebrated wildly on United’s field – something that incensed a number of Minnesota players. One can assume that, should United clinch tonight, celebrations at Silverbacks Park will be rather unrestrained.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

It took us awhile to get to sports this week, mostly because Clarence was reminding Brandon of the difficulties of having two kids at once. Download now, if you will.

In a Q&A for Sunday’s newspaper, the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand spoke with Minnesota Vikings vice president Lester Bagely about the team’s future with Major League Soccer, among other subjects.

Though the Vikings have long mentioned their interest in the league, Bagely’s statement was the team’s strongest yet on the subject of soccer. For more, head over to SoccerCentric.