Category Archives: Minnesota United FC

All[ianz] is bright

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

I know I teased a deep dive into a formational rabbit hole in this first piece of 2019, but then Minnesota United FC had a busy SuperDraft first round and I changed my plans. This will instead be a shallow dive into a very deep pool of my thoughts on Minnesota’s 2019 newcomers.

Following a disappointing sophomore season in which the Loons’ overall performance could not quite outshine their horrendous freshman year (they picked up one more W in 2018 than in ‘17, but shipped one more goal, finishing with 71 against, compared to 70 in ‘17), everyone expected – or, rather, hoped – to see Minnesota’s front office make immediate strides toward shoring up their defense and pulling together the stray threads in the midfield. Instead, they jettisoned many of 2018’s signings and then… Darkness. Silence.

Well, not exactly dark. Nor silent.

Oh! And this:

Jan Gregus was announced as a DP No 6. Unfortunately, it’s pronounced like Grey Goosh, not Grey Goose. And, he’s not a No 6. While Gregus was occasionally shifted into the center-back role with his last side, FC Copenhagen, and the Slovakian international team, he usually played more of a center mid or right-wing role.

But that’s okay. Minnesota found themselves a real, true, bonafide, known-entity Number 6. (Yes, that’s a transition, but don’t worry; wings will feature heavily in the true deep dive.)

In a rare transfer-rumor-comes-true moment, Minnesota brought aboard a Seattle Sounders original: captain and center back Osvaldo “Ozzie” Alonso. This is one of few signings in United’s MLS era that makes perfect, immediate sense.

The Honey Badger not only fills a position of need but also brings 10 years of MLS experience to a side still searching for an identity. That resume and his history of playing (thriving even) through pain are nearly enough to overlook the fact that he is not the youthful puzzle piece that the Loons sorely need for league longevity, but his leadership may be more important.

On Friday, January 11, the club made three picks who all look set to join the fight for a place with the club, whether that role is off the bench in 2019 or on loan to train for the future. The two brightest prospects come with chemistry. Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and defender Chase Gasper, picked seventh and fifteenth respectively, played together for the Maryland Terrapins, the 2018 NCAA Champions.

St. Clair adds depth between the sticks, where Shuttleworth was the only rostered player going into the draft. Ideally, he’d be the second backup by opening night, but if the reports about his distribution style are true, St. Clair will be an intriguing addition to the lineup. And do you see how excited his roommate, Gasper, is in this interview?

That’s how excited I am to see the young fullback training next to Ozzie. This is a player who will buy into a system and develop quickly. We can only hope the aforementioned system is an effective one. There is lethal potential to a backfield with options like Alonso, Kallman, Calvo, Boxall, Gregus and Gasper.

United also picked up Oregon State midfielder, Hassani Dotson, with the fifteenth pick. Dotson is in the Potential Pool: If United hangs onto him into the regular season, he’s bound to be on loan to Forward Madison SC to hone his craft before being plugged into the Loons’ midfield.

How that midfield comes together in the preseason will be the biggest indicator of the season to come. Yes, the defense needs work, the forwards need to score; but defense starts up top. A composed midfield would make the Loons competitive. Those inside puzzle pieces are still floating aimlessly across the field.

So stock up on whiskey (or Grey Goose) and stay tuned for a deep dive into a jigsaw puzzle.

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

The Loons, the bad and the ugly

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

It is high time to put the 2018 season to rest, but how about one more chorus of our favorite Simon & Garfunkel song before we go? Sing it with me:

“Hello Darkness, my old friend…”

Minnesota United FC finished 2018 tenth in the west with 36 points, just 5 more than the Colorado Rapids and 15 more than perennial bottom dwellers, San Jose Earthquakes. Seventy-one goals against is hardly an improvement over the Loons’ record-breaking freshman finish. However, Orlando City SC shipped three more than Minnesota this season. Feel better? No? Sorry, it’s all downhill from here.

I could nitpick all the negatives, but you and I have other things to accomplish this offseason than to rehash all of that.

Instead, here are my overall reflections and expectations, uninterrupted by clips and tweets because I know you all remember the blunders vividly.

[Lack of] Defense

MNUFC’s goals against stats will always be a black mark on the club’s first two years in MLS. A key issue in the backline, noted again and again by anyone who followed 2017’s performance, was the lack of a No. 6. So fans rejoiced the signing of Fernando Bob in August and saw glimpses of a decent future in the Loons’ final third. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘Not good, Bob’ took a turn from sarcasm to exasperation. The club declined to exercise options on the Brazilian and his countrymen, Ibson and Maximiano.

Brent Kallman, Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo became mainstays on the backline, though Calvo’s primary role switched from centerback to left back upon his return from international duty, in place of injured Jerome Thiesson (also released at season’s end). It looks likely that the trio will remain intact going into 2019, but questions remain: Who will complete Heath‘s four-man backline and will they earn the respect El Capitan so often demanded? Between glimpses of brilliance and the great impressions of brick walls performed by both Boxall and Kallman, reinforcements will be desperately needed to staunch the bleeding.

And the young guys (Omsberg, Manley) if still on the roster, will need time to learn their role.

Discombobulated Midfield

While the front office spent much of the season blaming injuries to key midfielders Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay for all their woes, the midfield at times showed significant improvement over last year with more consistency and drive. A new-and-improved Rasmus Schuller returned from loan to anchor the left and balance Ibson’s roaming efforts on the right, but the squad still frequently failed to connect with the attack and opened more holes for the already struggling defense to clean up.

The arrival of Darwin Quintero sparked more connections and possibilities in the final third, but you can only burn a candle from both ends for so long…  One DP caliber attacking mid is not a fix-all solution and Batman (Miguel Ibarra) can’t run all night, every night.

The club appears to be eliminating all the question marks (Ibson’s inconsistencies, Maximiano’s temper, Alexi Gomez‘s poor passing) by releasing their core midfield line-up to start fresh. This December is now a carbon copy of last winter: A roster heavy on the wings, with no clear identity. But, hey, DPs score goals! … Sometimes.

Strikers Striking Out

Just as Batman can’t run all night, Superman can’t shoot strong and true every time. Fan favorite, Christian Ramirez, had a poor start to the season and was not the clutch goal scorer longtime fans had come to know and love. With the midfield’s poor movement into the final third, the arrival of Quintero’s wicked speed and sticky feet unlocked Ramirez’s potential once again.

However, the attack continued to struggle and the FO announced a new signing. A veteran striker who could supposedly score when expected and take the Loons’ attack to new heights. At the expense of the heart of the club who also happened to be their most valuable trading card.

Ramirez was replaced by Angelo Rodriguez, the club’s second DP. Unfortunately, no matter how much you pay a guy, he can’t be expected to reproduce his highlight reel at every match. Rodriguez said himself, on multiple occasions, that he was ‘ashamed’ of his performance and his guilt over not meeting expectations was painfully obvious.

But he seems determined to get back to full fitness and a youthful production rate. And MNUFC is going all in, designing their attack around the veteran and the rookies, 2018 draft pick Mason Toye and 2017 draft pick Abu Danladi, both struggling to find their footing and maintain fitness in the big league.

In conclusion:

Remember when we all sang, “Hey – ho – the North is rising, rising up the table,” after the first 2018 home win? That was neat. Let’s carry that feeling through the offseason, just to balance out the #Panic. Someday we will sing it again. It could be a fluke, but it will echo through the Midway, if only for one night. Until then…

I recommend whiskey.

Featured image of Rodriguez and Quintero: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

Standing Alone and Representing Many: Collin Martin

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

It may have been a less than stellar sophomore season for Minnesota United FC, but our Loons gave us plenty to be proud of off the pitch in 2018. Inspiring stories of players giving back and taking a stand only go so far in balancing out a non-competitive product, but they can reassure us of one thing: the Club places community on the same playing field as business.

Two Loons who did not receive much attention for actions on the pitch (and not because of poor performance, but because they did not have many opportunities to perform) made national headlines this season for two very different, but equally important, reasons. Matt Lampson is the other Loon who shines out of the water. Read his story here. 

Among the banners in Minnesota’s Supporters Section is a rainbow flag reading “All Fans Welcome.” It has been on display since the club’s tenure at NSC, before the promotion. It is not an empty statement: If you are a human who wants to stand and support the club, you will be treated as a human. But at one match each year, it means more. This year, on June 29, an announcement by a quiet, young midfielder, added even more depth to that statement.

In response to a slew of homophobic comments and allegations that Collin Martin’s announcement was orchestrated by the club as a political statement, owner Dr. Bill McQuire responded by calling the announcement a “human statement.” The club affirmed their message of inclusion to the entire LGBTQ+ community, awarding the L’etoile du Nord (Star of the North) to Dot Belster, Executive Director of Twin Cities Pride. And Belster isn’t the only LGBTQ+ Star recipient. The first L’etoile du Nord, awarded on March 17, went to former Minnesota Viking, Esera Tuaolo, who came out in 2002 after his retirement from the NFL.

It is no small thing that the country’s only openly gay male athlete active in professional sports is one of ours. And it is no small thing that our club supports him so strongly.

For Maggi Heyer, a Dark Clouds member and self-proclaimed Token Queer Capo, the club’s handling of Martin’s announcement reinforced the positive aspects of MNUFC.

“For me, this year was a lot of ups and downs. I think overall the lack of progress from last year was frustrating. Some of the moves that the FO made, while I understand the need for them, were especially frustrating because the FO failed to handle them well,” she explained. “I’m not sure that Collin’s announcement changed my feelings, per se, as affirmed what we knew about the club. I have found our supporter culture here to be so open and welcoming and it was great to see that this extends to the team.”

The message goes well beyond this MLS season. Martin will make an impact on a new generation of athletes, fans and human beings.

“I am the mom of two kids and I think the visible support that the club has shown for Collin goes a long way to showing kids that they are welcome in sport, regardless of how they identify,” Heyer said. “Visibility is so important. I would love for an athlete coming out to not be headline news a few years from now, but for now, I truly appreciate Collin’s bravery and the clubs welcoming culture.”

During his time in Minnesota, Martin has taken an active role in advocating for human rights issues, even campaigning for, now governor-elect, Tim Walz. And the state and its greater sporting community have thrown their support behind Martin as well. At the 2018 Minnesota Sports Awards, Martin received the Courage Award.

Sure, the numbers don’t look good, but while we are all waiting for that famous Three Year Plan to come to fruition, we have plenty to appreciate and lots to look forward to.

“This years’ Pride Night did seem a little different [from previous years], especially from the supporters perspective,” Heyer told me. “I think the tifo really helped to set the tone and with Collin’s announcement earlier in the day there was just this amazing energy. I’m excited to see how we can top it next year in Allianz though.”

Featured image: fox5ny.com

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

The Survivor Between the Sticks: Matt Lampson

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

The lists of players who have been cut by their club usually includes at least a couple players who fall into either of these categories: ‘dead weight’ and not expected to stay, fan favorites who are poor performers, or great performers who are not fan favorites. More rarely, there is a player who, regardless of performance, is an incredible human being who you don’t want to let go. Matt Lampson is one of the latter.

With only two wins in nine appearances through a season bookended by 2-3 losses (in San Jose on March 3rd and Columbus on October 28th), Matt Lampson’s time in Minnesota was not fantastic on the pitch. His work off the field, however, was worthy of recognition.

A cancer survivor himself, Lampson founded the Lampstrong Foundation to brighten the lives of childhood cancer patients and their families. Since coming to Minnesota from Chicago, he has built a relationship with the U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital, and with the son of a Minnesota United supporter who was ready to walk away from the out-of-reach club.

A few years ago, Nate Howells’ support for United was cemented when a number of the NASL club’s representatives threw their support behind his youngest son after a traumatic brain injury. Broadcaster Chris Lidholm and forward Christian Ramirez were among those who contributed to his fund. “And one player, Brian Kallman [the older brother of current defender Brent], came to the PICU at Children’s and sat with my family. It was an incredibly meaningful experience,” said Howells. “Because of these actions, I have a loyalty to the club.”

But a lot has changed since the jump to MLS. Fans are no longer able to linger on the touchline with the players after a match, they don’t have the same opportunity to become a surrogate family for international players. And the competitive product is no longer… competitive.

“In early August, my frustration with Minnesota United was at its highest. I tweeted angrily that I was considering cancelling my season tickets. How I’ve never hated this FO more,” Howells said. But the next day, while I was up at Masonic Children’s at the University of Minnesota with my 10-year-old son who is being treated for embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, Matt Lampson and Michael Boxall made a special trip downstairs to see my son. This was such a positive moment. They showed up wearing Loons attire, representing the club, doing something meaningful in the community.”

A goalkeeper himself, 10-year-old Xavier (a.k.a. Iggy) looks up to Lampson as both a player and a survivor. Lampson’s visits broke up the monotony of chemo treatments. “Week-long hospital admissions can get quite boring and Iggy, as positive as he most certainly is, sometimes feels that he is missing out on the normal, fun things that his friends and siblings take for granted on a daily basis,” his dad explained.

The Loons’ work off the pitch is certainly more inspiring and impactful than their play. “Soccer in Minnesota is more than a sport,” Howells said. “It is culture and it is community. It brings people together and shows that we can do good.”

Lampson’s representation off the pitch – and the club’s support of it – went a long way in patching up the Howells family’s support of MNUFC after the trade of fan-favorite Christian Ramirez and the squad’s flat-lining performance. But that complex relationship was dealt another blow on Monday when United released a list of players whose contract options were not being exercised. The third name on that list: Matt Lampson.

I reached out to Nate for his reaction to the news. From home, where Iggy is resting after his first five-day hospitalization of this chemotherapy cycle, Nate expressed the return of the same frustration he felt with sporting director Manny Lagos and the FO after the Ramirez trade: “This is incredibly discouraging,” he said. “This is actually devastating. I can’t tell my son this.”

“Xavier has said that when he gets older, he wants to do the same thing for other kids,” Howells said. “He hopes to provide hospitalized kids with opportunities to do the special or normal things they want to do.”

No matter what badge Lampson wears in 2019, his work in Minnesota will live on.

Featured image: mnufc.com

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

The Loons are alright

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

It could have been the social anxiety or that initial sense of imposter syndrome or merely my habit of observing rather than participating or any combination of the three. But my observational approach to reporting this season taught me more about this fanbase, this club, and this sport, than being in the stands or asking cerebral questions ever would. And it gave me some confidence in the club’s building process.

Minnesota soccer fandom is an obsession for me. Minnesota’s fans have been through it all. From “the team that nobody wanted” in the lower division to the team that everyone doubted in the Major League, they have been singing, chanting, screaming for their boys. The flags, the tifos, the scarves… through two dismal seasons in the MLS, they have not let up.

And they want more to cheer for.

On many occasions, I wanted to ask Adrian Heath: What steps are you taking to be competitive? How long are you going to use the same tactics that get the same crappy results? When does this ‘Three Year Plan’ kick in?

I did not ask any of these questions, or many others, in fact.

Instead, match after match, presser after presser, trade after trade, I’ve watched Heath respond and react to fan criticism and media skepticism; I’ve observed the players interact in the locker room after wins, losses and draws; heard everyone from the front office to the back plead for patience and confidence. I learned that:

  1. Heath does have a plan which may, in fact, be leading somewhere, but which has sputtered along through the process of making fan favorites and potential standout newcomers mesh together on short notice;
  2. the players want to be a cohesive unit and are willing to put in the work, but have limited opportunities to earn one another’s confidence while playing within the lines of the game plan; and
  3. that the club knows full well where the inadequacies lie, where improvements need to be made to earn the confidence of the diehard supporters but have chosen to pave the way to their end goals one small piece at a time.

Yes, I would have like to have sung ‘same as it ever was, same as it ever was’ on more than one occasion, in response to Heath’s standby answer, “We know what we need to get better.” I wanted to ask, WHAT pieces?, every time he said, “We just need one or two more pieces.” But I did not.

Minnesota United FC is attempting to put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with all sorts of oddly shaped pieces. The border is complete. Next, they have to fill in the picture, but the package was missing a number of pieces so there are a couple completed sections floating around unanchored.

The fans want a hint at what the completed picture will be. At the end of Year One, Heath pointed to the completed border. “We know what we need to get better.” At the end of Year Two, he pointed to his two Designated Players in the front; the oft-noted trio Molino, Finlay and Cronin; Kallman and captain Calvo in the back – all roster groupings that appear to be semi-permanent portions of the picture, bent and faded as they may be today. “We need to bring in one or two more pieces.”

I have the same sources you do; I don’t know any secrets. I am as frustrated as you are.

However.

I have seen them acknowledge the frying pan. Or, rather, the Iron Skillet. They know that they won’t have a pretty presentation of a shiny, nearly-completed stadium with which to distract the Supporters if that ubiquitous Year Three ends with the same bitter taste as the last two.

This Club is building its MLS identity the same way the squad has earned it’s tastiest goals: A series of clean passes, a couple of long shots and, occasionally, pure dumb luck.

So. Heath out? If we see too many long shots this offseason, maybe I’d board that train. Panic? If we start leaning on dumb luck, yes.

But, hey! We live here now.

And I have a notebook full of questions to ask during the offseason, I promise.

Featured image: mnufc.com

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

A momentous, appropriate end to Minnesota’s sophomore season

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

Sunday, October 28: 3-2 Loss

Minnesota United FC‘s sophomore MLS season ended the way anyone who had followed the club this season could have expected. In fact, the 3-2 loss to Columbus Crew is a perfect sample of the season as a whole.

It was momentous. Not in the Merriam-Webster approved sense of the word. It was full of moments. Glimpses of brilliance, glimmerings of hope, pleasant surprises… all things which the Loons present to us with every match. Two of the brightest moments of the finale came from Darwin Quintero and Francisco Calvo.

Quintero’s early run:

Calvo’s first goal:

But it was also full of the same mistakes, the same subpar performances, that have plagued the team week in and week out. Case in point:

The only thing more surprising than defender Francisco Calvo notching two goals in the season finale was that Zardes was allowed to close a slow, regular season with a hat-trick. Except, Minnesota fans can’t actually be surprised anymore.

No, having a lightning delay called just minutes into the match certainly didn’t help things and an extremely slick pitch was not in their favor. But the Loons are no strangers to the proverbial wrench thrown into the game plan, a fact which coach Adrian Heath and the front office like to call attention to in every interview (injuries to key players Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay and Sam Cronin and questionable VAR calls, for example). By week 33, adjusting to these factors should not be an issue.

When asked about his team’s performance on Sunday night, Heath responded as he has every week, his assessment of this particular match a carbon copy of that of every other loss (and even a few wins) this season:

  • “You do not win many games conceding three [goals] on the road.”
  • “We know what we have to do to get better.”
  • “We need one or two more pieces. If we get them, we have a chance at being more competitive.”

Have we grown or improved in any measurable way on the pitch? Not so much, no.

Are we still just happy to be here? That will depend on what happens in the offseason.

And on how you define happy.

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

Minnesota United Frustration Club

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

I do not want to write this. Another loss in front of a lot of fans, another round of #HeathOut chanted instead of ‘Wonderwall,’ another night of bitterness and frustration.

But I do want to write about how real, live Minnesotans do indeed want to watch live soccer, for better or for worse; about how the Supporters could not be silenced, even after Zlatan Ibrahimovic left his mark; about the strides the club must make to erase the bitterness of these past two seasons; and about the fact that despite my frustration, when the fireworks gave way to a different kind of light show, I experienced the goosebumps usually reserved for ‘Wonderwall.’

Last weekend, Minnesota United FC set a new state record for attendance at a professional soccer game. 52,242 fans watched the Loons close out their residency at TCF Bank Stadium making the club’s #50ktoMidway promotion a huge success. The downside, however, was that there were 30,000 more fans present to witness the second consecutive home loss. L.A. Galaxy’s Ibrahimovic argued that they were all there to cheer for him and his squad and by evenings’ end a few United fans probably wished that’s why they had come.

Ibra kicked off what would become a 3-1 rout of the Loons, with a goal in the 30th minute which swung the momentum in Galaxy’s favor after a number of good opportunities for Loons came to naught. Three L.A. goals went unanswered until the 53rd minute when Angelo Rodriguez – who had scored in the first half only to be called offside – finally got his head on a long cross from fellow DP Darwin Quintero and sent it past Bingham into the net.

 But that would be all for the Loons. Adrian Heath spoke positively about Rodriguez’s prospects, but seemed to blame the rest of the squad for his ineffectiveness: “I thought the big man [Rodriguez] led the line really, really well again… We’ve got to start to work out how to use him better and once we do, when we start to play off him, I think there’s a lot of promise in the attacking half.” 

That response is too little, too late for me. He echoed what supporters said of the DP’s first appearances. That was quite some time ago and Rodriguez himself seems to know it. When asked about the fan support that night, he said, “That’s why I tell you that personally, I feel ashamed. We always try to do well during the week to give [the fans] joy on the weekend. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but truthfully I’m amazed [by their support].”

The squad’s poor performance was overshadowed by the MNUFC digital team’s response to Ibra’s talk in the lead-up about how the ticket sales reflected Minnesota’s love for him rather than support for the Loons. The Bank erupted in cheers and laughter when an error message appeared on the video board in place of Ibra’s head shot as lineups were announced:

The forward nearly had the last laugh though when he sailed a free kick in the 65th minute over the crossbar and into the capo stand, connecting with a Dark Clouds capo.

But, true to form, Nach Karnik and the Dark Clouds turned that moment into a badge of honor:

Bridget McDowell - MNUFC/mlsfemale

Minnesota’s Supporters have learned to find joy in every moment. It’s a necessary coping technique in a season full of bitter losses, questionable decisions and poor performances. If MNUFC wants to fill Allianz Field, they need to do more than talk about improvements and tout the ubiquitous ‘Three Year Plan.’ According to Heath, playing at Allianz “will be nice. I think most people think it’s going to be good. I don’t think they realize how good it’s going to be. This is going to be a game changer for this club moving forward… but we’ve got a lot of work to do before we open up the stadium.”

That’s for sure. Heath and his staff will need to put those words into action, and quickly, to ensure that the emotions evoked by Allianz are matched by the club’s performance.

My anger and high blood pressure quickly dissolved into goosebumps and tears of joy as I watched a live stream on my phone of the Fan Appreciation Night fireworks. The Supporters present at TCF were able to watch a special presentation on the video board while the fireworks burst above them, but my stream showed only the pyrotechnic display, then faded to black. Then another light show began.

https://youtu.be/xNBIx5vAm2o?t=1788

That stadium is ours. Our colors. Our club. Our home. But before we can enjoy our home, our boys must face another team celebrating a triumphant return. If Columbus Crew‘s Decision Day opponent was not MNUFC, I would be cheering for the black and yellow as they celebrate the success of #SaveTheCrew and vie for a playoff berth. But they will play the Loons, a club with no chance at the postseason, but with every opportunity to make a statement.

If the Loons lose, they must do so while gutting it out to the final whistle. Sunday is their last chance to prove to both their supporters and their detractors that they want to be here, that they are worthy of support and of their place in the league.

The Loons must win.

COYL

Featured image: @MLS

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

Minnesota, the team to beat

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

How did we get here? To the lowest of the low? The team that makes the worst look good?

From a club that won more than it lost, that entertained its fans no matter the scoreline; that was able to draw moral victories from nearly every loss; that brought the heart and soul of its lineup along to the big leagues. To a club that could only win at home; that saw its fans turn off their TVs and walk out of the stadium; that lost its temper in the ugliest way possible; that jettisoned its heart for some coupons and didn’t give its soul nearly as many opportunities as he deserved.

On September 29, I spent a chilly evening losing my voice in the Supporters Section of TCF Bank Stadium for the last time. Minnesota United FC still had two home games left to play after that night, but that match against NYCFC would be my last of the year to enjoy from the stands and was probably my last time seeing soccer at TCF. After a horrid road trip, United could have flopped that night. But the home turf magic took hold once again and the Loons soared to a 2-0 victory on goals from Angelo Rodriguez. And with stout defense from  Brent Kallman:

Singing Wonderwall with my friends was a great end to my year, but the season was far from over. United still had playoff hopes: a win on the road in Philadelphia could help them eek closer to that bold cutoff line.

They did not win. The Loons I watched on the 29th did not make an appearance in Philly on October 6. And I did something that I never imagined I would do during a MNUFC broadcast.

Twenty minutes into the match, I was still troubleshooting how to connect my tablet to the smart screen in our hotel room so my friend and I could enjoy it on the big screen. We were about to give up when Minnesota conceded a third(!) goal in the 23rd(!) minute. Rather than turn off the TV and watch on the tablet, we muted my livestream and watched an episode of Kitchen Nightmares from 2007 and turned off the tablet altogether with ten minutes to play after Minnesota conceded a fifth goal.

Bridget McDowell - MNUFC/mlsfemale

We chose a 10-year-old reality show over a Loons game and any regrets about that decision evaporated upon opening the post-match press release:

Bridget McDowell - MNUFC/mlsfemale

The Loons’ playoff hopes evaporated along with my regrets. Surely, their return home would be better, especially given the opponent, a Colorado squad on a seven-game losing streak. Neither club with a chance at the postseason, both looking for a moral victory on which to coast through the final weeks of 2018.

Narrator: Nope. No moral victories were had on October 13. But the Loons continued their streak of making bad teams look good.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview MN Kicks defender Alan Merrick about the growth of soccer culture in Minnesota. We talked about the winning tradition of his NASL Kicks and all the signs of growth around Minnesota’s soccer communities:

“We have a great soccer culture. We perhaps need to make it so it’s a little bit more, uh, into a winning mode [laughs], but that takes some time to develop…”

There were plenty of lows in his playing days (the Kicks folded along with many other NASL clubs and attempts at revival were short-lived), but the highs are legendary. Many of the positives we’ve seen from MNUFC are reminiscent of those from the Kicks.

I would like to think that in forty years I will stand outside the offices of a growing Twin Cities-based soccer club with a recorder in hand as I question Miguel Ibarra about his legendary days of playing for MN United FC in the MLS. With any luck, this past Saturday’s bench-clearing melee in the waning minutes against the Rapids will be a distant memory, a fleck of embarrassment overshadowed by the success of the club’s much-touted ‘Three Year Plan,’ a well-developed winning tradition and a backbone of players who came up with the club and shared in its successes before moving on.

Until then, all we have is a bitter loss in which two goals were given up much too easily, so easily that the Dark Clouds became lethargic in their support, a handful even leaving the stadium long before the whistle. Those were the lucky few who didn’t have to witness their favorite player shove an opponent who made the poor decision to taunt the home fans with his goal celebration and the coach’s son to spring up from the bench to grab the throat of another celebrant.

Until this match, our club had had its share of embarrassing moments, but we could make light of most of them, such as this lovely moment that garnered international laughs.

Until we made the joke our own:

But even the NASL Loons’ production department would not be able to salvage the club’s dignity from this moment:

There was no honor in that fight. No moral victories can possibly come from that night.

This weekend, MNUFC will honor the legends with #50ktoMidway, livening up the final match in their adoptive home with an attempt to break an attendance record set forty years ago by the MN Kicks.

I can only hope that forty years from now, when I interview Ibarra, we will not be talking about a club that folded decades ago after failing to maintain a foothold in a league that talked bigger than it acted; a club that was being celebrated for one or two moral victories, but also held as an example of how not to run an expansion club.

Instead, I hope that we will talk about how the Loons honored those legends and 50,000 fans with an epic rendition of Wonderwall; the fight all but forgotten; the club’s clear strides to get better with each match, with each passing season; and the community honoring the key players who saw that struggle through to a title.

I would like to leave you with a response to that fight in the tradition of #BlameItOntheJelly, but I’ve already said that such a thing will never exist.

All I have to offer you is this cover of ‘Wonderwall.’

I’m not crying. You’re crying.

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

The Future of Minnesota Soccer

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

On Tuesday, August 21, just 30 minutes after Minnesota United FC sent out a press release announcing the addition of Fernando Bob, another message appeared in my soccer-heavy inbox.

The subject line: ‘ANNOUNCING a huge step forward for the club’

It was sent out to members of Minneapolis City SC, a Minnesota club which competes in the National Premier Soccer League, but the announcement had nothing to do with flashy player signings (City’s roster is built entirely of Minnesota natives, most of whom play while home on break from the NCAA) or a new stadium or menswear sponsorship. No, it was more tangible than all that.

Minneapolis City SC was opening a storefront, The Club Shop, a retail space to be shared with their kit designer, Stimulus Athletic (founded by former MNUFC striker Geison Moura), and a gathering space for club staff, players and members.

To be honest, this email was a tad more exciting for some of us in the Minnesota soccer scene than Bob’s signing. This lower league club, in only its third season (second in NPSL), has a large following, in part because of its winning ways (the Crows were undefeated through the 2018 regular season) and because of its member-driven business model (members vote for everything from board members to kit design). Basically, a refreshing antithesis to MLS club currently playing just across the Mississippi River.

So how did the idea of a retail space come about?

“The idea was brought up in a pipe-dream sort of way with no real expectation of it ever happening,” said business director Sarah Schreier. “And then, you know how sometimes you might look at available homes or apartments without the intention of ever moving, but then you find this amazing space?  It was like that. It happened very quickly and almost impulsively — but we had to pull the trigger on it or we’d lose it.  We thought we’d give it a go and see what came of it.”

The Club Shop opened on Saturday, September 22 with a day-long event, starting with a Premier League watch party (Liverpool was heavily favored by the standing room only crowd) and appearances by Minnesota soccer legends. Yes, Minnesota has soccer legends. This is the part where I remind you all that despite its sophomore status in Major League Soccer, this fair state had a foot in the soccer door long before this league existed.

Minnesota first hosted a soccer team in 1976, when the Denver Dynamo moved to the Twin Cities and became the Minnesota Kicks. The Kicks competed in the National American Soccer League (the first version) and played in Met Stadium in Bloomington, a space they shared with the Minnesota Twins baseball team.

The first Kicks home game, on Mother’s Day in 1976, had to be delayed multiple times while staff attempted to usher in a crowd significantly larger than the 8,000 expected. After every gate was thrown open, at least 20,000 people watched the Kicks earn their first win of the season.

“We were fortunate that when we came into the state in ‘76 there was no soccer here at all […] so we had to build something from scratch and we only had a short period of time to do it,” explained defenseman Alan Merrick. “So I think that the players that you described – Alan Willey, Steve Litt, myself, Jeff Barnett – we were pioneers of the game here and we built a culture very very quickly and the culture was to win. And it was that simple. We were forthright in everything that we did; we were honest, we were a lot full of endeavor. And we realized that we were, you know, right from square one, going to make things happen.”

Even after the Kicks folded in 1981, the enthusiasm remained. Unfortunately, Minnesota soccer repeatedly fell victim to the financial woes which continue to pepper the American soccer landscape today. After the Kicks came the Strikers (Major Indoor Soccer League, 1984-88), then the Thunder (United Soccer League, 1995-09), the NSC Minnesota Stars (owned by the National Sports Center Foundation and playing in Division 2, 2010) and the Minnesota Stars (under NASL ownership, 2011).

The latest era began when Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the Stars and rebranded the club as Minnesota United FC in time for the 2012 NASL season.

Continued success is dependant on people fostering a love of the game at every level and tapping into the roots that shape Minnesota soccer today.

“From that first game, the crowds just kept building and building and the soccer intelligence of the fans developed and developed… And we just kept on building and building and building,” Merrick said. “And to this day, I mean, it’s still building: the high school programs are brilliant in terms of participation.”

With the success of the women’s program at the U of M, the Minnesota Thunder Academy which sends many players to Division I schools, and the impressive results of Minneapolis City SC (from which some players have leaped to the pros, like Brandon Bye of the New England Revolution) the next generation of Minnesota legends are carrying the torch.

“We know that Minnesota players are being produced and produced in good numbers. So I mean it’s indicative now, seeing a store like this, in Minneapolis. It’s a storefront that’s going to have people…” Merrick paused, then pointed to a chalkboard displayed on the sidewalk at The Club Shop’s front door. “Look on the board there: ‘Soccer’ AND ‘culture.’ We have a great soccer culture.”

“We [Minneapolis City] are, in our own way, a throwback to the way things used to be,” Schreier said. “At the same time, we’re building on that and growing the landscape and culture the best we know how.  The soccer landscape is full of ups and downs — now we’re on an up and we want to celebrate that without forgetting an incredible, community-oriented past.”

And so, amidst limited edition Minneapolis City SC merch, throwback Kicks t-shirts and assorted Minnesota soccer memorabilia, people crowded into a South Minneapolis storefront to chat with City staff, watch some soccer and share stories from the past with Merrick, Willey and Steve Litt (Kicks), Minnesotan and Soccer Bowl Champion Joe Warren (Stars) and star forward Pablo Campos (NASL-era MNUFC).

This intermingling of fans, players and staff was a common sight when United played in Blaine and it was a key attraction for many fans. While the move to MLS has detracted from that cultural experience with United, Minneapolis City is enriching it. And these two very different clubs are both important to the future of soccer in Minnesota.

“It makes for a richer community,” explained Schreier. “We use the coffee analogy a lot:  it’s good to have Starbucks and the local offbeat place if you want a thriving soccer scene and both learn from and play off of each other to get better.  We think we can have that complementary relationship with MLS which makes soccer in Minnesota richer, more varied, and more interesting for having us both here,” Schreier explained.

“We’re not here to try and recreate the wheel.   We didn’t create the soccer culture here in MN — it was here before many of us were born — we just want it back! Soccer culture here is not lost.”

And if The Club Shop’s grand opening is any indication, soccer culture is here to stay.

For more information about Minneapolis City SC, check out www.mplscitysc.com and follow them on Twitter @mplscitysc.

Featured image: Bridget McDowell

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x

Just maybe, Loons fans. Just maybe.

Bridget McDowell - Minnesota United FC/mlsfemale
Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell

Saturday, September 22: 3-2 Win

A scrappy squad came home to roost at the University of Minnesota on Saturday night. Was it pretty? Not always. Was it effective? In the first half, yes; in the second, just barely. Was it enough to win? Probably not enough for a spot in the playoffs, but it resulted in a round of Wonderwall for the fans who might just give the front office a few days’ peace and quiet. Three points all around then.

Minnesota United FC, a club that typically has problems getting out of its own half — with every attack muddled in the midfield and defensive tactics picked apart with a few probing passes — quickly found its legs against a tough Portland Timbers side. Of course, the Loons, who began the match attacking toward the Supporters, had this strong image to bolster their intentions against the Timbers:

United, running out a 4-2-3-1 which consisted of 6 midfielders, cast an unlikely Paul Bunyan: Romario Ibarra. When Darwin Quintero took advantage of a beautiful long ball from midfield to charge into the box, Portland keeper Steve Clark dove too early; Quintero skipped the ball over him toward the far post and into the path of Romario Ibarra. Step, shoot, score. 1-0 in the 18th minute.

It took ‘Super Romario’ another 18 minutes to bag a brace, putting the home team up 2-0, but the moment was soured by a leg injury during the play that saw him subbed off immediately. No matter. Minnesota had another lumberjack in back.

Defender Michael Boxall scored a stunner to widen the gap minutes before the break and it was as if some sort of alternate reality had developed at TCF Bank Stadium.

Thankfully, Alvas Powell and Sebastien Blanco came out of the Portland dressing room determined to remind us that we are Minnesota sports fans. With Powell and Blanco scoring in the 55th and 79th minutes, respectively, the Supporters, though loud, became unsettled. The questions began: Would the Supporters sing Wonderwall with raised scarves or would they hum another tune over their sad beers?

Hello Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again…

A red card issued to Fernando Bob in the final minute of regulation would have been the cue for Simon & Garfunkel for most teams. But the Loons play better a man down than up. They gutted out six minutes of stoppage time. And that beautiful record played.

And all the roads we have to walk are winding…

Unlike a previous 3-2 win at home, the locker room was festive and Adrian Heath spoke encouragingly (and cryptically, as always), pointing to positive moments from his players (Miguel Ibarra‘s work rate, Quintero’s creativity) that they can build on this week.

And build they must against NYCFC. Bob and Maximiano will be suspended and Romario Ibarra is yet to be assessed. But in this stadium, with these fans, with just a little momentum…

Just maybe…

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

MLSFemale logo trans 100x