Like a lot of fans, Rustin Luedtke is looking forward to the day sports comes back.
“I hope we can have a good summer,” said the general manager of the Mankato United team that plays in the Women’s Premier Soccer League. “It will be great to have sports we can follow and places we can go on a Friday night to cheer for a team and do the things we’re missing out on now.”
The hope is that local sports will be going as scheduled then, whether it’s the Mankato MoonDogs baseball team, the Aussie Peppers softball team or Mankato United, the second-year soccer club that features current, former and soon-to-be college players.
The WPSL recently announced a three-week delay to the start of its season, moving 82 matches scheduled to be played before May 29 until later in the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. It also canceled its regional playoffs and league championship weekend in order to accommodate the regular-season extension and give all players on its 130 teams full summer seasons for training and development.
The league’s first game was originally scheduled for May 9. However, the change doesn’t affect Mankato United too much, as the first of its nine matches has been scheduled for May 29. Its first home game is slated for June 5.
“We’ll have to adjust our practice and training schedules, but it’s not a huge change for us,” Luedtke said.
Provided there are no more delays, of course.
The WPHL said it will continue to monitor things.
“If the situation doesn’t seem to be improving by the end of April and our top medical experts are recommending avoiding outdoor activities, then the WPSL will comply and not compete in 2020,” WPSL president Sean Jones said in a press release. “We have informed our teams that we will provide them 30 days advanced notice if the cancelation does take place.”
Luedtke and Mankato United have been operating as if everything’s on track as normal. The team has begun announcing its roster on social media, with different players featured almost daily.
Luedtke said Mankato has 29 of 30 roster spots assigned so far. Five or six other players, some of whom are coming off injuries, will be training with the club but not playing games.
About half of the roster will be made up of Minnesota State players, while most of the other players will come from Division I programs. However, there will be some other DII and DIII players in the mix, too.
Many college players are currently missing out on spring soccer due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Minnesota State played in one spring game before everything was shut down.
“We were super excited,” Mavericks coach Brian Bahl said. “A month ago, we thought we’d have a good spring season and have that momentum carry over to the summer ... Now, it’s a challenge right now for our kids to find places to go train in any shape or form.”
A WPSL season may be the only chance for those players to be fully fit for when the college season starts up in August.
Several players with Mankato connections are committed to playing for Mankato United, including MSU players Jenny Vetter of Mankato East and Rachel Luedtke and Shelby Lund of Mankato West. Current West student Ali Rutz, who will join Minnesota State next season, is also expected to play, as are West alum Lexi Peterson, who plays at Wisconsin-River Falls, and Loyola grad Sidney Botker, who plays at St. Scholastica.
Tudor Flintham, the men’s soccer coach at Gustavus Adolphus, will return as the Mankato United’s head coach, and Clay Merches will be back as an assistant.
The biggest change this summer will be the team’s home venue. It is moving from the Caswell North Soccer Complex in North Mankato to Bethany Lutheran College’s new field that opened last fall on its campus in Mankato.
Luedtke said the move was made because of WPSL requirements.
“We love Caswell, and we think Caswell provided a great environment,” Luedtke said.
However, the league wants teams to play in stadiums that seat 350 people or more, have a press box and have locker rooms for the teams.
Having artificial turf is also a bonus, as it should prevent most delays or postponements due to weather.
“We’re excited to play there,” Luedtke said. “As far as turf goes, most other teams play on (artificial turf). This will be the only one with only soccer-specific lines. … That, honestly, will be another selling point. For players, the experience will be really great.”
The team will train at Bethany, too. Last year, about 90% of its practices were held at Gustavus.
The only downside to playing at Bethany is that the team will not be able to sell beer at the games, as it did last year, Luedtke said.
Mankato United is scheduled to play five home games — June 5 against Dakota Fusion, June 7 against Maplebrook, June 12 against Winnipeg, June 19 against Fire FC and June 21 against Rochester United.
Last season, Mankato United went 6-1-3 and finished in a three-way tie atop the Central Region’s Northern Conference. However, it missed out on the playoffs by one goal in the tiebreaker.
The WPSL’s 130 teams are spread out among 22 conferences in four regions throughout the country. Even though there will be no championship this summer, the league will recognize the individual conference champions at the end of the season.
“I really hope the WPSL season does get to happen,” Bahl said. “Otherwise, they’ll go almost six months and have to wait all the way to August with no organized soccer. Everyone’s in the same boat, but it’s still worrisome.”