Minnesota United FC has been in a furious rush to get everything organized for another season, which begins April 6 with the Dome Opener against none other than the reigning NASL regular season champion San Antonio Scorpions at the Metrodome.
Last season the Minnesota Stars FC, as the franchise was formerly known opened the season with a scoreless draw against the 2011 regular season champion Carolina Railhawks.
With key components from the Scorpions and Railhawks now a part of Minnesota’s bid to hoist a second Soccer Bowl trophy in three seasons, expectations are high going into the season.
“It feels new,” Assistant Coach Carl Craig said heading into the final week before the season opener. “It’s a welcome adjustment to know we have an owner. It’s a comfort for us.”
Ownership, roster and season format changes are three big elements coming into the 2013 NASL opening kickoff.
Since early November, the reinvigorated franchise has made a splash with signings and its presence throughout the community.
Seven teams will compete in the spring portion of what is essentially two separate 12-game seasons – spring and fall. The spring season runs April 6-July 4.
The break also falls in line with the international transfer window for European clubs to move players around and it is a chance for the NASL clubs to add European players.
The fall schedule runs Aug. 3-Nov. 2.
The team at the top of the standings for each season will meet to decide who takes home the Soccer Bowl. The compressed playoff will force teams to earn points throughout the season instead of getting hot at one point of the season, like Minnesota has the last two years.
“Every point counts,” new forward Etienne Barbara said with the new emphasis on getting every possible point all season. “The point is to not lose stupid games.”
Early on in preseason United struggled to find goals, but Craig used the analogy of it’s easier to tear apart than create.
“It’s so much more difficult in this game because you attack with so few guys,” he said.
But he isn’t worried by the lack of offense so far.
Minnesota United FC has a few new faces including the last two NASL league MVPs in forwards Barbara and Pablo Campos. The two led the Carolina Railhawks two seasons ago when Barbara lit the league on fire with 20-plus goals.
He spent last season with the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps before signing a three-year deal with United FC.
Barbara, a Pieta, Malta, native remains part of the Maltese national team’s player pool and has 32 caps for Malta, including scoring a goal during the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying round.
Besides rejoining a friend in Campos, Barbara said, “I’m amazed at how this team always makes it to the finals. Call it teamwork or luck, maybe that’s why I joined the team – luck.” Campos, a Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, native spent last season with the expansion San Antonio Scorpions, earning league Golden Ball honors with 21 goals, while the team won the league regular season title.
“He’s the best striker I’ve played with. We understand each other,” Barbara said. “It’s like before. The understanding is always there. It’s very good for me.”
Campos will be joined by another former teammate, former Scorpions goalie Darryl Sattler, who posted a league-best 0.79 goals against average last season and earned the Golden Gloves award. Sattler will compete with United FC goalie Matt VanOekel, who shone in his first season as top-goalkeeper.
“I’ve always liked the style they play and the atmosphere really drew me in after talking to Manny [Lagos],” Sattler said.
Minnesota has a tradition of keepers like Joe Warren and John Swallen to name a few. “I’ve played against Joe several times and I have big shoes to fill, he being a 6-6 guy and a Minnesota legend,” Sattler said. “I’m coming in just to do my role, whatever that becomes.”
Embracing the snow and learning the geography after seven years in Florida and San Antonio, Texas, has given Sattler, a Memphis, Tenn., native a different look at winter.
Finally being on the home side of the Dark Clouds supporters group is another plus Sattler pointed out. “They’ve always been great,” he said. “Nice to be on their side a little bit now. Every time I’ve come here to play they give me grief but we’ve always chatted it up afterwards. Just a great group.”
Campos will not be available for the first two matches of the season, serving a suspension after being ejected from the second leg of the league semifinals last fall when he head-butted United FC’s most recent signee – Kyle Altman.
Craig said he asked Altman if they had a chance to make-up and they had. “We had some good songs and words for Pablo,” Craig said. “I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate them but as a teammate, everything’s good.”
Apparently the two have put the incident behind them. Altman officially signed with the club April 1 after training sessions with the MLS- sides in Washington D.C. and Portland, Ore.
Altman, the United central defender and former captain, signed a three-month contract to play the spring season only. After the July 4 game he plans to turn to medical school to pursue a medical career after receiving deferments the last two years.
A third former Scorpions player, Aaron Pitchkkolan, a midfielder/central defender, joins United. Pitchkkolan began his pro career with FC Dallas from 2005-2009.
Another player United FC signed during the off season was midfielder Bryan Arguez.
Arguez, a Miami native, was drafted 11th overall in the 2007 MLS Superdraft by D.C. United and played for FC Edmonton last year on loan from MLS-side Montreal after a stint with Fort Lauderdale. He is a former U.S. National U-17 and U-20 team member.
Woodbury native Brian Kallman served as the captain during the final home preseason match against Bridges FC at Augsburg College March 16.
Kallman said he’s willing to fill that role, but he will be a leader on the team with or without the armband.
The first day of training was different from the past seasons as they met with the ownership group the first day of practice.
“Both Dr. McGuire and Nick Rogers came out and talked with the team,” Kallman said. “That’s something we didn’t see from the league or NSC ownership.”
The mood around the locker room at the start of the season was another question that Kallman and some others had, given the changes.
“To tell you the truth, the first day I made a joke to Pablo, ‘No more head butting.’ and I’m having a baby this summer and he made a joke to me too, so the guys are getting along really well,” Kallman said.
Playing a majority of its preseason contests away from Minnesota gave the guys a chance to bond which the coaches hope translates into success on the field.
The final tune-up was a 1-0 win at MLS Chicago Fire when midfielder Miguel Ibarra continued to impress with a second-half goal.
Jason Olson is at [email protected]