College sports have to collapse

You can’t read much about the “Name, Image, and Likeness” era of college sports without the terms “Wild West” or “chaos” popping up. The Star Tribune has published an excellent series of articles about NIL, and maybe the only thing that’s clear is that nobody is willing to say the thing that seems obvious to me.

This whole thing is going to collapse.

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MNUFC 2, Los Angeles FC 0: Good vibes only

MNUFC defender DJ Taylor
Image credit: Daniel Mick

There are road games, there are bad road games, and then there is what happened last time Minnesota United played Los Angeles FC.

The Loons scored three minutes into the game, gave up the lead 90 seconds later, and from there, the entire match was one-way traffic. Denis Bouanga had a hat-trick before halftime. Miguel Tapias scored an own goal. Dayne St. Clair had to make ten saves - one off the franchise record, and one of only six double-digit save performances in the entire league last year - and he STILL gave up four goals and lost 5-1.

It was an exercise in damage control, in saving face. Both Loons fullbacks were substituted at halftime. Asked why, manager Adrian Heath said, “I think it was pretty clear if you watched the game.” The next day, MNUFC ownership showed that they’d been watching - and let Heath go too.

Since then, the Loons have floundered to right the ship. It took them months to hire their new “chief soccer officer,” a hiring complicated by the fact that even after they hired him, he still had a different job. Their interim coach quit, and so they moved on to their second interim coach, mainly because he was one of the few people who still had a key to the building. They went the whole off-season without making major on-field changes to a team that had missed the playoffs and, by the end, possessed some of the sourest vibes you’ll find.

I was not alone in doubting them. But they are clearly geniuses and I am cleary dumb, because this team now has ten points - the best four-game start in team history - and leads the conference standings, having beaten LAFC 2-0 on Saturday night.

The very team that sent them into the tailspin has confirmed that they’ve somehow come out of it just fine.

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MNUFC 1, Columbus Crew 1: Youth movement

Jordan Adebayo-Smith and Hassani Dotson react to Tani Oluwaseyi's late goal
Image credit: Daniel Mick

During the week, MNUFC chief soccer officer Khaled El-Ahmad met with the media, and made things overtly clear: youth is not an obstacle to overcome, with Minnesota United FC. Not anymore.

To underline the point, one of El-Ahmad’s first acts* at the National Sports Center was to tear down a wall that separated the first-team space from the academy space.

(*He probably hired it out, but I prefer to imagine him smashing through it like the Kool-Aid Man.)

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The one-game wonders of Minnesota sports

I’ve spent a lot of time recently fooling around with the searches at Stathead, the indispensable statistics site, because it just introduced tools to search the FBRef data. I can now tell you, for example, that there are seven MNUFC players who made exactly one regular-season MLS start in their careers.

There are some fascinating memories in that group, but the most unexpected might be the tale of Cameroonian international Frantz Pangop.

He was already an international for Cameroon when he arrived before the 2018 season, and had even scored for them in a World Cup qualifier. Cameroon wasn’t some second-rate pushover; they won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017, and had qualified for the previous two World Cups.

He also had never played outside Cameroon before joining MNUFC, except for a stint in the Swedish third division (?), which seems like it could be a typo on somebody’s part. Former assistant coach Ian Fuller was the one who scouted Pangop, but from what the player said about joining the Loons, it sounded like he’d been tricked by his agent. According to the inimitable Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press, he said - via translation from teammate Jerome Thiesson - “The offer my agent got me was from Minnesota, and I wanted to stick with my agent. He forgot to tell me it was really cold here.”

From the team’s perspective, his arrival - alongside countryman Bertrand Owundi Eko’o, who never played for Minnesota - was a case of “for this cheap, why not try something crazy?”. “We’re excited about what we’ve got with [the two],” said head coach Adrian Heath. “We felt it wasn’t a gamble, but an opportunity to bring in two young pieces for not a lot of financial output.”

He had visa and transfer problems - sound familiar? - but by the end of March, he was available for selection. He ended up playing nine times for the Loons in the league, of course starting once. He even scored a goal, albeit in a friendly against Deportivo Saprissa.

Minnesota talked about sending him on loan to the USL, but nothing came of it, and they declined his contract option after the 2018 season. After he left the Loons, he played two years in the Austrian Bundesliga… then popped up in 2023 playing for a semi-professional team in Ontario, Canada. I am not sure I understand this career arc.

Pangop will, I think, be remembered as an excellent example of a certain era for the Loons - one where they thought that they might be able to find players in places that other MLS teams might have missed.

At any rate, this got me thinking: which other Minnesota athletes were one-game wonders?

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Austin FC 1-2 MNUFC: What the heck was that?

MNUFC midfielder Wil Trapp with Loons attacker Sang Bin Jeong
Image credit: Minnesota United FC

There have been times, watching Minnesota United FC, that by halftime I was mumbling to myself, “What the heck was that?”

Saturday, against Austin FC, was one of those times - but for once, it was because the Loons were actually dominating the game.

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A very timely MNUFC season preview

Back at the end of Minnesota United FC’s 2023 season, when they’d fired manager Adrian Heath and committed themselves to change, most observers thought it was the dawning of the second MLS era of MNUFC. Things would be different, we thought. Major changes might be afoot. There’d be a new coach! A new chief soccer officer making the decisions! And, therefore, the team would look immensely different!

And now it’s Opening Day of the 2024 season, and - well, not much has changed.

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Brave New (Disney) World

Note: I went on vacation this week, so instead of the usual sports content, you’re getting Dad Content.

It wasn’t until I told people that I was going to Disney World that I found out just how little I knew about Disney World.

I knew that Disneyland is in California, and Disney World is in Florida. I also knew that I grew up thinking of Disney World as the most remote, unachievable vacation destination known to man. I think I knew one person who went, out of all of my friends, and it was like he went to the moon. When he came back, he had to do a special show-and-tell in class at school.

(To give you some idea of how common exotic vacations were, in western Minnesota, in the 1990s: I remember another friend having to do this in junior high, after he went on a cruise with his family.)

Anyway, we planned a winter getaway to Orlando with my family and my parents, and so my wife and I had about eight conversations that went something like this:

WIFE: And of course, while we’re down there, we have to take the kids to Disney World.
ME: Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice - did the money tree you planted in the backyard finally start producing hundreds?

Eventually, of course, I broke down. We were going to be in Orlando, regardless, so this seemed like it might be our only chance to go. And that’s when I started finding out how little I knew about Disney World.

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How MNUFC might be different without Adrian Heath

Last week, I was updating my notes based on Minnesota United FC’s off-season roster changes, including listing out the team by position to make sure I hadn’t missed anyone. And it was only then that I realized - and it was a genuine shock - something that hasn’t been true for years:

You know, the Loons might not play a 4-2-3-1 this year.

Former manager Adrian Heath liked to keep things pretty much steady, formation-wise, from year to year; he’d occasionally try other things, especially on the road, but I can only find a few examples from the past few years. We knew what we were going to see from his teams, to the point that if they even changed up something minor like their build-out, or their pressing shape, it felt unsettling to watch.

Now, of course, we’re into the - well, not the new era, but the in-between limbo between the eras, as interim manager Cameron Knowles takes charge, and we wait for Khaled El-Ahmad to figure out the team’s new direction. We don’t actually know for sure what the team is going to change on the field; on opening day, they may well line up in the exact same formation as they always have. But I do think it’s worth speculating on what else might change about MNUFC, beyond the lineup on the field.

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What's wrong with the Minnesota Wild?

The NHL All-Star Break is not the season’s halfway point, of course. The Minnesota Wild have played 49 games and have 33 remaining. However, even though we’re long past halfway in this season, one thing seems pretty clear: this team stinks. It’s going nowhere.

You don’t have to dive deep into the numbers to see that. The standings show that the Wild are 21-28 this year, with five losing bonus points; just 16 of those wins are regulation wins. Remove the overtime and shootout circuses, and they’ve won fewer than one out of three games they’ve played this year.

That said, it’s worth a look at some of the underlying numbers to see why this team - which is much the same, personnel-wise, as the playoff teams of years prior - has fallen so far down the standings.

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Examining why Joe Mauer, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, attracted so much criticism

Joe Mauer waves to the Target Field crowd after donning catching gear for his final game
Image credit: I took this photo

Joe Mauer is a first-ballot Hall of Famer!

I admit that, when it was announced on TV, such was my excitement that I stood up almost involuntarily, like someone had hit a deep fly ball to left-center. I’d been tracking the public ballots for weeks, like a lot of Twins fans, but I was very nervous for the announcement; the type of Hall of Fame voters who don’t want to reveal their ballots were also, probably, the type to look down their noses at Mauer’s candidacy.

His value was obvious, but the pitfalls of his Hall of Fame candidacy were also obvious - the concussion that cut short his catching career, his five unremarkable years as a first baseman, career numbers that were light if you compared him to anyone but other catchers. And so, like almost everyone prior to this year’s process, I expected him to have to serve a sentence in purgatory - two or three or four years, atoning for the sin of getting a brain injury, before finally joining the Hall.

Like almost all Minnesotans, I was - and am - a huge Mauer fan, a fandom that was shot through with protectiveness as Mauer’s career proceeded. After the brain injury, I was ready to argue on Mauer’s behalf at any moment; after his final game, one of my overriding feelings was a huge feeling of relief.

So let’s start with that caveat, that I’m thrilled for Mauer, and desperately wanted him to get the call. But I also think it’s interesting to look back and try to figure out why there seemed to be so many people that were, somehow, anti-Joe.

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