KANSAS CITY, KAN. – At Minnesota United practice Friday ahead of Sunday's game at Sporting Kansas City, center back Michael Boxall's confidence shined through while he crushed a finishing drill.
Boxall wore the Loons' captain's armband for the first time Sunday with his defense partner Francisco Calvo away for the World Cup. And the leadership seems to be bringing the best out of him.
Coach Adrian Heath said in the modern game, most center backs shy away from dirty work such as iffy tackles, for fear of fan or referee reprisal. Not Boxall.
"Sometimes you don't like playing against people who, if they know they get half a chance, they're going to leave something in on you," Heath said. "And I think Boxy's still got a little bit of old-school mentality in him."
United didn't have any representatives at the MLS All-Star Game in its inaugural year. But after improved performances this season, eight players have a chance of traveling to Atlanta on Aug. 1 to play against Italian club Juventus.
Calvo, goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, outside back Jerome Thiesson, midfielders Ibson and Rasmus Schuller, winger Miguel Ibarra, playmaker Darwin Quintero and forward Christian Ramirez all made it past the media voting stage and into fan voting to make the 24-man squad.
Heath pointed out two players for consideration, though one isn't on the short list.
"Boxy's been incredible consistent," he said. "Maybe hasn't caught the eye that some people do, as central defenders normally don't. But I can't really remember too many mistakes he's made since he's been here.
On Ibarra, Heath said: "If Miggy carries on the way he's done or if it had been a bit earlier, maybe he could have got himself going because he's been terrific the last few weeks. He's having an influence on the team in a lot of different ways now. If he can score, that would obviously be the icing on the cake, but certainly his energy levels, his high-intense running, his distance covered is having an effect on everybody."
U.S. Open Cup lineup
United next plays Wednesday at United Soccer League team FC Cincinnati for the U.S. Open Cup. While the Loons fielded a reserve lineup in the tournament last season and lost 4-0 at Sporting Kansas City, Heath said without a game the following weekend, there might be more of a mix of starters and bench players.
Heath said he wouldn't commit to a squad until after Sunday's game, and he won't play anyone who isn't up for it. But he specifically pointed out possible starters such as right back Tyrone Mears and forwards Ramirez and Abu Danladi.