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I don't get the NSC Minnesota Stars. I really don't. Since last we met them, the Stars have had a rather torrid time of it: they've lost three of their last five without scoring a single goal, leading striker Brian Cvilikas has blown the joint out, and their last game (a 1-0 win over the Carolina Railhawks) had an announced attendance of 588 that was reduced to about seventy by a lightning delay and absolutely abominable, rainy weather. Even when they win, there's nobody around to enjoy it.
In spite of their record, though, Minnesota's still in the USSF D2 playoff picture and can look forward to a good two-game series against the likes of the Austin Aztex. They're on a cold streak but they're a decent team that is theoretically capable of upsetting anybody. The Whitecaps have clinched a playoff spot, which would reduce the competitive fires even if Vancouver's players weren't essentially trialling for the 2011 MLS roster. Minnesota needs the result a lot more than Vancouver does. Minnesota's playing at home. Minnesota's a team that's used to playing together with a capable veteran goaltender who can keep a clean sheet. And Minnesota's not nearly as bad as their record indicates. If I were an actual pundit, this might be my upset special for this week in the USSF second division.
I don't want to get carried away. An upset is possible, but not likely. The Whitecaps aren't meshing yet, but they're getting better every week and some of those players trialling for 2011 are awfully, awfully good. Ridge Mobulu and Terry Dunfield would both be second division world-beaters if they'd spent the whole year in Vancouver. Even more importantly, the new additions seem to be bringing out the best of some older Whitecaps like Philippe Davies and especially Randy Edwini-Bonsu, who's looked like the man I thought Randy Edwini-Bonsu was at the beginning of the season for the past two weeks.
I have the Whitecaps winning this one but for crying out loud don't underestimate the Stars. You'll get burned.
Minnesota's leading scorer, Brian Cvilikas, was once among the second division leaders this season despite being a journeyman with the old Minnesota Thunder and the even older Wilmington Hammerheads. His recent lack of scoring touch, though, has belied what made him such a journeyman for so long: he can poach a goal as well as anybody when he's got an easy chance in front of goal but he's not exactly an athletic goal scorer along the lines of a Ryan Pore. With the Stars having suffered in form a bit and the service not coming through for Cvilikas, his goal scoring has diminished accordingly.
What goals there have been for Minnesota have mostly been coming via fellow striker Simone Bracalello, a 24-year-old Italian (!) who's played in the actual professional Italian leagues! I mean, he didn't get higher than what was then Serie C2 but I've sure never played in Serie C2 and neither have most second division types. That's some legitimate professional pedigree by the standards of the NSC Minnesota Stars. In spite of this promising origin, Bracalello scored only a single goal in his first twenty appearances for Minnesota before coming on gangbusters, banging a brace against AC St. Louis and more aggressively stirring the drink for Minnesota while Cvilikas hung in space. Bracalello now sits on four goals for Minnesota, second on the team, and is probably their hottest threat for the game this evening.
The Stars scoring is fairly poor, but not terrible. Where Minnesota falls down is on defense. Liberian international Louis Crayton was brought in at the beginning of the season to compete for Minnesota's starting goalkeeping spot, but in his first game of the season against the Whitecaps Crayton's knee was taken out by Dever Orgill in stoppage time of the first half on what was seemingly an insignificant collision in front of goal and he's missed the rest of the year. The Stars have given time in goal to a few players, such as former Thunder trainee Matt Van Oekel, but the main goalkeeper has been long, long, looooong-time Minnesota professional Joe Warren, who started playing with the Thunder in 1996. I'm a big Joe Warren fan but he's not as young as he used to be, had in fact been retired for four years before the 2010 season, and is lining up behind a defense that's pretty poor by USSF D2 standards. Minnesota has conceded 35 goals this season, second-worst in the USL Conference behind only expansion Tampa Bay. Those thirty-five goals are just under twice as many as the Whitecaps have conceded this season.
The off-field situation in Minnesota has been discouraging, but not universally so. They've averaged 1,332 fans per game, which isn't good, but they've also had three games over 2,000 fans and four games below 1,000. Moreover, the Minnesota Thunder were doing fine for years: fans in Minnesota are willing to go watch professional soccer. But the Stars have had a few too many weekday home games, which account for most of those three-digit gates. The National Soccer Center hasn't exactly been known for their marketing acumen, and the team hasn't been successful enough to draw fans in spite of the owners. The expectation is that NSC Minnesota's first season will also be their last season.
Minnesota deserves better. Here's hoping that in the near future they'll get it.
News and Notes:
- No changes to the Whitecaps injured list from last week. Mouloud Alkoul is out with that same ankle injury, Ethan Gage's nose is still broken, Nelson Akwari's quad is still strained, Davide Chiumiento is still in Vancouver, and Gershon Koffie is still out with "maybe you should get a visa to enter the United States before you sign a professional soccer contract next time".
- Have I got any readers actually in Minnesota? If I have, bring your new or gently used soccer equipment to the National Soccer Center for the game: the Stars and former United States World Cup player Tony Sanneh have an initiative going to get soccer equipment to the poor children in Haiti.
- If the playoffs began tonight, because of the weird way the USSF D2's playoff seeding works, the Whitecaps would play the Montreal Impact in the first round. Oh shit. I don't want anything to do with Ali Gerba and the Montreal Impact in the first round.