In an already busy 2012-13 off-season, Minnesota Stars FC continued to make adjustments to the club, looking for a third straight appearance in the league finals.
Not only did the Stars drop a rather large bombshell on the league, Jan. 23, by signing the last two North American Soccer League’s Most Valuable Players in Etienne Barbara and Pablo Campos, but they also added experience and depth to the roster with four additional moves.
Barbara and Campos were signed to three-year deals in a move Head Coach and Director of Soccer Operations Manny Lagos is plenty happy with. “We set out to get them,” he said. “Expectations are a healthy one [for the club this season]. We hope to continue to raise the level here and improve soccer here.”
The signings are a sign of how serious the new owner, Bill McGuire, is at fielding a competitive team in the U.S. Soccer second division and even more so a sign of several factors converging for the Stars.
“It was really a combination of everything,” Lagos said. “It’s the correct environment for them and they want to play here. As for the McGuire family, they’ve given us the ability to go after these types of players and so, for the first time since the early ‘80s we [brought in] some players recognized league-wide [for their talent].”
Barbara, a Malta-native and proven striker, will pair with Campos, a Brazilian forward with equally impressive offensive skills, after lots of success playing together for the Carolina RailHawks in 2011. Barbara spent last season playing for former Carolina coach Martin Rene with the MLS-side Vancouver Whitecaps.
The pair were the league’s most prolific strikers combining for 35 goals and the regular season championship before falling to the then called NSC Minnesota Stars in the NASL semifinals.
Barbara had 20 goals and eight assists that season to claim the league MVP which earned him a move to Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC for the 2012 season. Then-RailHawks coach Martin Renne also made the move to the Whitecaps.
Campos signed with the expansion San Antonio Scorpions last season and led the league with 21 goals and his second regular season league title.
According to a press release from the Stars, Campos is excited about the reunion. “It is a pleasure to play with Etienne again,” he said. “Our partnership worked every well on and off the field in the past… He definitely was one of the factors that I signed with Minnesota, as you don’t find partnerships like that so easily.”
Stars FC also re-signed its all-time leading scorer Simone Bracalello to a two-year contract. The 27-year-old Italian has 20 goals over the last three seasons. The club also has interest in returning forward Amani Walker, who led the team with seven goals in his first year as a starter but is a free agent.
Defender and captain Kyle Altman is not currently under contract with the club and is weighing his options between playing somewhere else or entering medical school, something he’s put off for the last two years.
The squad signed 2012 NASL Golden Gloves-winning goalkeeper Daryl Sattler, along with midfielders Bryan Arguez and Aaron Pitchkolan.
Arguez and Pitchkolan are two field players that Lagos and the staff identified early in the off-season as prospective targets.
Signing the keeper with the league-best goals against average only means more competition for that starting spot with one-year starter Matt VanOkel. “We thought it was a good chance to add a really good goalie on the roster,” Lagos said.
As for the competition, he said they wanted to have a challenge for the starting spot while adding stability to a key spot on the field.
Sattler, 32, signed a three-year contract after a standout 2012 campaign with the Scorpions. Sattler will challenge VanOkel for the starting spot. He earned the league’s top keeper honors after posting a 0.79 goals against average with 13 clean sheets in 24 games and was the top keeper for FC Tampa Bay in 2010 before an early-season knee injury cut his 2011 season short.
Pitchkolan, 29, signed a two-year contract with the Stars after a successful 2012 campaign with the Scorpions. According to the press release, Pitchkolan has played as many levels of professional soccer in America including MLS’ FC Dallas and San Jose and USL PRO’s Rochester Rhinos and NASL’s Puerto Rico Islanders.
Arguez, 24, also signed a two-year contract after most recently playing for FC Edmonton on a season-long loan from the Montreal Impact in 2012. Originally drafted by DC United in 2007 as the 11th overall section, Arguez played two seasons with Hertha Berlin (Germany) and has since returned to North America to play in the NASL.
Announced in September, the NASL is moving to a split spring and fall season for 2013 with one month off from league games from July until early August.
The spring season opener for the Stars is against regular-season champion San Antonio at Metrodome April 6 and concludes with the first National Sports Center game against Atlanta July 4. Fireworks will follow the so-called home opener.
The winner of each season will meet the weekend after the conclusion of the fall season to decide the 2013 Soccer Bowl champion in late October or early November.
In the event the same team wins each competition, the second-place team from the full year’s schedule will be chosen to play.
A month-long break will start after July 4 to coincide with the summer transfer window in Europe, Central and South America.
The month is typically the hottest around the globe and gives teams a chance to retool rosters to make the fall season more competitive, Lagos said.
According to the league, teams are allowed to schedule exhibitions, practice sessions or whatever the organization feels is necessary.
Lagos likes the idea because it might allow players to move from European or South American clubs who might not otherwise. “I’m intrigued by this move,” he said.
The Stars hope to have exhibition games to keep the players fit. “Teams really have to be ready for that first game of the season to react well to the adversity,” Lagos said.
Minnesota continues to host invite tryouts for prospective players for the next three weeks in addition to a league-wide player combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Feb. 19-21.