Minnesota Stars FC set to start title defense

One year can make all the difference.

Minnesota Stars FC embarks on its title defense after capturing the 2011 the North American Soccer League Cup with an unusually early home opener inside an equally unfamiliar place – the Metrodome – as it faces regular season league champion Carolina RailHawks in what is being called the Champions Challenge at 7:30 p.m., April 7).

Kentaro Takada figures into the Stars plans in the midfield. Photo by Jason Olson

This season will also be a test off the field as the league-owned Stars continue to search for an owner.

The opener in Minneapolis will be a chance to showcase what Minnesota soccer fans are all about with a pregame tailgate party near the Dome.

Once again the Stars have made the most of a small marketing budget to get the word out about the season with unique campaigns, including a partnership with Anheuser-Busch, a billboard north of Minneapolis on I-94, a Raise the Roof competition among youth club teams to sell tickets and other events.

Admiral is providing the uniform again this season and the team unveiled the new kits during a VIP get-together at Brits Pub April 5.

Stars coach Manny Lagos said the squad is set to get the season under way, after finishing the preseason with a 2-0 win with goals from Simone Bracalello and Devin Del Do over FC Edmonton at Parade Stadium April 2.

Opening the season at the Dome is a unique chance for the club.

“The reality is this isn’t the weather we typically have in early April and we’d normally never be playing a home game this early except for the Dome,” Lagos said.

Lagos admitted that it might not be the best environment for soccer, but “I think its an exciting thing to have,” he said.

Goalkeeper Matt VanOekel drives past the Dome every day on his commute from Apple Valley to Blaine and is excited to get the chance to play in the building where he’s watched the Vikings and Twins in the past.

The Stars have played several scrimmages, some inside and outside, between trips to Nebraska and Chicago.

The reality of being the defending league champions and how to react as a group is the biggest change heading into this season, Lagos said.

“Certainly we have lost some individuals and we have some new ones we hope will contribute and get better,” he said. “It’s a story yet to be told, but we’re excited about where it is going to lead.”

Figuring out how to deal with the constant pressure that comes along with a league championship is something the team will have to be ready to face every game this season.

“It’s a learning process for all of us, myself included, about how we deal with that kind of pressure,” Lagos said. “We’re excited about it. That’s why we play these sports. The taste we had last year was great and hopefully we have the drive and energy to replicate it.”

As league champions, the Stars have that proverbial target on their back and will no doubt get the top effort from the rest of the league.

“It’s weird to think we have a target on our backs and a lot of us don’t think about it right now,” midfielder Neil Hlavaty said. “A lot of us have an underdog mentality. It’s not something in the back of our minds as we approach the new season.”

The start to the 2012 campaign typically means a three-week trek away from the outdoor home of the Stars, the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine. This year is different, noted by the new name from NSC Minnesota Stars to Minnesota Stars FC, the retirement of longtime goalkeeper Joe Warren and a few new faces in the line up mixed in with some familiar ones.

The goalkeeper situation will begin with five-year backup VanOekel in goal.

VanOekel physically has the tools to secure the starting spot, but he will have to win over the coaching staff before he earns the position outright.

“My chances [to start] are high and I’ve been feeling good and healthy,” he said. “I’m excited to get my chance between the pipes,”

VanOekel’s training has included power lifting, handwork exercises mixed with some agility and fitness training, he said.

“That’s part of the game [Warren retired] and he was a great goalie,” Lagos said. “Now we have to deal with new goalkeepers and they’re part of the team now. Matt’s stepped in and done a great job so far and we have a couple good back-ups signed.”

The Stars signed Mitch Hildebrandt as a back-up after a stellar collegiate career at Oakland University in Michigan where he was a three-time All-Summit League selection and tied the record for the most Summit League player of the week honors with seven awards.

The Stars swapped defender Jack Stewart for Martin Nunez of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers to provide speed to the offense. They also signed defender Edi Buro, a Bosnia and Herzegovina native who grew up in Brooklyn Park and played at Hamline University. He played with the Thunder as a 19-year-old. He returned to Bosnia to play with NK Travnik of the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina last season.
According to Player/Coach Kevin Friedland, the Stars tried to sign him away from his European club, but he couldn’t get out of his contract.

They also signed Cal-Irvine standout and All-American midfielder Miguel Ibarra, who was a teammate of Amani Walker and was drafted by the Portland Timbers in this year’s supplemental draft. He earned first team All-American honors after scoring nine goals and having eight assists for the Anteaters in 2011.

“Miguel will provide cover in the midfield with his grit and work rate,” Friedland said. “He’s a bright player and very explosive.”

The squad returns several familiar faces, including second-year defender Justin Davis, Christiano Dias, Hlavaty, Friedland, midfielder Daniel Wasson, who was out all of last season with a knee injury, Kentaro Takada, Brian Kallman, Bracalello, Del Do, Walker, VanOekel, Rodriguez, Andy Lorei and Gino Mauro.

But they lost attacking midfielder Luke Mulholland, who signed with Tampa Bay after shining down the stretch last fall.

Stars captain Kyle Altman returns to the middle of the back row after two trials with MLS clubs since he last wore the Stars color in the NASL title game.

“It was a big day today and he got in 60 minutes of real soccer which is the most he’s played in a month,” Lagos said.

Last fall Altman spent some time with the Portland Timbers and practiced this winter with the San Jose Earthquakes before injuring his hamstring.

Hlavaty returns to the midfield as a stable figure in the middle.

“It was good to get out and it’s always good to face the competition,” he said. “It’s good to get mentally ready so you know what you’re in for.”

The intensity of the exhibition was a couple notches above a typical friendly match.

“That’s a league foe and we both had something to prove weather you’re starting or not, everyone’s got something to prove,” Hlavaty said. “It’s been a while since we had a real game.”

Rodriguez and Diaz hit the field for the first preseason game situation since returning from their indoor team commitments with a Missouri club.

Minnesota won the exhibition game 2-0 with a goal in each half.

Tuesday’s final tune-up was the most extensive playing time for Lagos’ squad as several players saw 60 minutes of playing time including Altman.

In addition to Warren retiring, Andrei Gotsmanov, Brian Cvilikas and Jeff Cosgriff decided to join Warren in retirement.

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