NASL Season Preview: Minnesota United FC

How the newly rebranded Minnesota team stacks up with the rest of the NASL
by Daniel Casey   |   Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

In 2011, Minnesota Stars FC was a league-owned team balancing on a razor’s edge; the team was staring down the barrel of being dissolved.

But the NASL believed in the team and so did Minnesota’s diehard supporters. Taking on the mantle of “The Team That Nobody Wanted,” casual and hardcore fans watched as the Stars fought their way to the league championship game and won the title.

When 2012 rolled around, the Stars were defending champs but were still ownerless. Undeterred, the Stars returned to the final, losing on penalties in a heartbreaker to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. This diehard attitude paid off when in the offseason Minnesota businessman Dr. William McGuire bought the team. A new owner looking to give the team the tools it needs to become even better has infused Minnesota supporters and players with a sense of pride.

 As with every team, a new owner brings change and the Minnesota Stars FC is no exception. At a Tuesday press conference, attended by Twin Cities mayors, Minneapolis’s R.T. Rybak and St. Paul’s Chris Coleman, as well as NASL commissioner Bill Peterson, the players, coaches, and new ownership unveiled a whole new identity for the club. The NASL will now be the home of Minnesota United FC.

The new name, logo, jersey design, and website is the team’s third re-branding over the last few years (from NSC Minnesota Stars to Minnesota Stars FC and now Minnesota United FC). It signals the commitment of Dr. McGuire, who has come to embrace Minnesota’s soccer legacy and how the sport’s commitment to community.

Finding a local owner was a priority for the NASL and finding McGuire, CEO of the Minnesota’s UnitedHealth from 1991-2006, was a bit of a coup. McGuire intends “to give Minnesota United FC fans the competitive product, and the game experience, they are seeking and deserve” and believes that the sport “transcends all ages and nationalities." Minnesota supporters are already approving of the front office moves regarding player signings and with today’s press conference there’s buzz about the team’s new jerseys.

Courtesy Minnesota United FC

The first part of the team’s new direction will be an embrace of the league’s new split season format. The first half of the season (from April to the first week of July) will see Minnesota United play most of their home games in downtown Minneapolis at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The second half of the season (August to early November) will see them return to NSC Stadium in the northern Minneapolis suburb of Blaine.

Last year for the team’s “Dome Opener” nearly 9,000 fans turned out, so the hope is to repeat this on April 6 when the 2013 season starts when the San Antonio Scorpions come to town. And when San Antonio comes to town, the Scorpions will see three of their star players from last season in a rival’s kit.

The second part to Minnesota United’s new direction is the signing of some of the best players of the NASL. Pablo Campos, last season’s top goal scorer, signed with Minnesota in the offseason along with San Antonio teammates goalkeeper Daryl Sattler and defensive midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan.

Campos will pair with another new signing, 2011 NASL top goal scorer forward Etienne Barbara, who came to Minnesota after an injured plague season with MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps. Barbara and Campos were strike partners with the Carolina Railhawks in 2011, so the two should be able to re-ignite their partnership.

These two big name strikers prompted forward Amani Walker to depart for a warmer clime, signing with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Fortunately, remaining Minnesota forward Simone Bracalello should nicely complement both Campos and Barbara’s style of play. Former Orlando City SC forward Maxwell Griffin will add the necessary depth at striker.

Pablo Campos after being red carded in 2012’s Semi-Final against Minnesota Stars FC. Photo courtesy SA Scorpions and Robin Jerstad.

Sattler, who had a brilliant season as San Antonio’s goalkeeper, will certainly put pressure on Minnesota’s current No.1 Matt Van Oekel. Alongside captain Kyle Altman, Van Oekel had be a trialist this MLS preseason with DC United. And although neither caught on with the MLS, Minnesota will be glad to have them back.

At least, one hopes. Altman has a major life decision to make: go to med school – which he has deferred for the last three years – or continue to pursue a career as a footballer. Altman’s presence and leadership will be a major loss for the squad if he decides to leave.

But Altman won’t be the only hole that needs to be filled. Neil Hlavaty was a midfield stalwart for Minnesota, but Hlavaty moved further north this offseason signing with FC Edmonton. Oddly enough, the hole might be filled with someone from FC Edmonton. Bryan Arguez signed with the Montreal Impact and then loaned out to FC Edmonton last season, but will be plying his trade in Minnesota this season. Arguez and Pitchkolan will vie to step into Hlavaty’s boots.

These new signings and departures shouldn’t cause too big of waves in the team’s dynamic given that the manager Manny Lagos has brought back most of its core players from last year, most notably fullbacks Brian Kallman and Justin Davis and player/coach Kevin Friedland. Kallman and Davis, who has had trials with MLS’ Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake, and Toronto FC, are perhaps two of the best fullbacks in the NASL and having them both on one team gives Minnesota a sure advantage. If Altman doesn’t return, Connor “Turbo” Tobin and Ernest Tchoupe will be expected to step up to form a new partnership with centerback Cristiano Dias.

Other returning players whose success will be a lynchpin for Minnesota are winger Miguel Ibarra and central midfielder Kentaro Takada. When Ibarra was on the pitch in 2012, he was a lightning rod for action, embodying the ethos of hustle. Takada shows a determination and skill that has made him a crowd favorite. But Ibarra and Takada are on the shorter side of things, which has often led to Minnesota getting bowled over by larger, less finesse-minded clubs. Minnesota’s major weakness last season was their lack of physicality, which will certainly be remedied with the acquisitions of Campos, Pitchkolan, and Arguez.

United is a bit unbalanced on the wings; second year man Kevin Venegas is certainly an option opposite Ibarra, but it looks like forward Simone Bracalello might be deployed out wide. Also, current trialist winger Joseph Lapira looks to making a good case to join the squad. Lapira has a good deal of experience, playing more than 60 matches in three seasons for Norwegian second division side Nybergsund. As it stands now, Minnesota could easily field a strong 4-3-3 side or transition to a more traditional 4-4-2. It will be interesting to see what kind of formation and tactics Lagos applies this season.

As it stands right now, the team is stronger than it was last season so expectations are high. With the league’s new format, there will be no playoffs – the route that United have travelled the past two seasons to the final. Rather, the winner of the first half of the season will play the winner of the second half of the season for the championship this year. Minnesota must come out of the gate strong; its midfield must assert itself immediately, and the strike force must live up to the hype.

Predicted Starting XI

Matt VanOekel; Brian Kallman, Cristiano Dias, Connor Tobin, Justin Davis; Miguel Ibarra, Aaron Pitchkolan, Kentaro Takada, Simone Bracalello; Etienne Barbara, Pablo Campos

Minnesota United FC

Daniel CASEY

Nationality:
USA
College:
Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.
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