By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 20, 2019) US Soccer Players - It doesn’t require much in the way of retrospect to conclude that Minnesota United was always targeting 2019 as the year the Loons really gave winning in Major League Soccer a full effort. Minnesota’s arrival as an expansion team back in 2017 came with some strings.
An accelerated timeline for joining the league meant that the Loons would have to play two full seasons in a temporary venue while their own soccer-specific stadium went up in St Paul. With owner Bill McGuire less inclined to big spending than his contemporary down in Atlanta, the northernmost United decided to build slowly.
That thinking probably played a role in the choice for United’s first MLS head coach, former Orlando City boss Adrian Heath. Heath’s first experience bringing a club from the lower divisions into MLS didn’t go well. Orlando fired Heath halfway through his second MLS season. Heath's vision for success centered around a slow-growth plan that identified year three as when the results would come.
Orlando didn’t give Heath the time to see his plan through. Minnesota will find out in 2019 if keeping Heath on was the right decision and if the three-year plan Heath created for his second MLS team is a good one.
Coaches know that results will always determine their job security. Still, it’s fair to say Heath’s time in Minnesota is difficult to judge because of the limitations of playing in a temporary venue. Not only did the Loons lack sort of hard-edged home field advantage many other MLS teams possess, but the wait for Allianz Field to open held the club back from investing in top-line talent.
During the 2018 season and looking ahead to 2019 and the stadium opening, Minnesota finally took some of the shackles off. United signed its first-ever Designated Player, Darwin Quintero, to a multi-million dollar contract in April of last year. The Colombian attacker immediately made an impact, elevating the club’s goal scoring abilities and bringing attention to what was happening in Minnesota.
The club added a second DP in short order when it signed another Colombian, Angelo Rodriguez. Rodriguez doesn’t have the name recognition of Quintero, but he was an upgrade at the front of the formation. If there was any doubt about the new direction for Minnesota, they traded much-loved striker Christian Ramirez to LAFC less than a month after Rodriguez arrived.
Quintero and Rodriguez couldn’t push the Loons into the playoffs. However, they did foster a spirit of optimism in Minnesota. Everyone knew the stadium was coming, meaning that a strong winter in the player market could turn United into a playoff contender for 2019.
Thanks to a handful of moves ahead of the campaign, Heath will take the most talented roster in United’s MLS history into the season. Quintero and Rodriguez return, but the club also added several other pieces that should raise the level both in midfield and the defensive areas of the field.
Former Seattle Sounders man Osvaldo Alonso joins having never missed the playoffs in 10 years in the League. Granted, there’s a reason the Sounders let the Cuban midfielder walk away at 33, but the signing is well worth the risk for Minnesota. Alonso is an all-time MLS great at the defensive midfield position and will immediately strengthen the team’s ability to prevent goals.
That’s a crucial area for a team that gave up 71 goals in 34 games last year. Without a massive defensive improvement, the new stadium and new attackers won’t matter. Shipping goals is the only real thing that has marked the Loons in their early MLS years. The responsibility to reverse the trend will fall to Alonso, fullback signing Romain Metanire, former MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, and goalkeeper Vito Mannone.
Metanire joined on a free transfer from Reims, where he played in the French top division. 30-year old Mannone was once on the books at Arsenal but is most known for a stint at Sunderland from 2013 to 2017. Mannone’s acquisition represents a months-long search for a new keeper for the Loons.
The price Minnesota paid for Opara turned heads in January. Despite his status as one of the league’s best center backs, the potential $1 million in allocation money ($900k now, with an additional $100k if United makes the playoffs) United sent to Sporting Kansas City reflects the premium needed to secure top-level MLS-experienced players. United went outside of the league to find a partner for Alonso with the signing of Jan Gregus. Gregus is a deep-lying playmaker who takes the final DP slot on Minnesota’s roster.
Minnesota is pushing as much as it can in on the 2019 season. That ratchets up the pressure on Heath, who knows that it’s time to deliver results. The pass the fans gave Heath and the team during two years of build-up to the new stadium is up.
A March kickoff to the season and the frigid winter weather in Minnesota means that the home field advantage will have to wait. United will hit the road for the first five weeks of the schedule, taking trips to Vancouver, San Jose, LA, New England, and New York. Only one of those teams was a playoff team last year, but it's difficult to stay sharp on a long road trip that covers both coasts.
Those first five games will set the tone for everything that comes later. A slow start won’t submarine United’s chances at the playoffs, but Heath can’t afford to have his team struggling for long. There's so much anticipation and energy for the opening of Allianz Field on April 13 against NYCFC that a poor lead-in from the road trip won’t do much to deaden spirits. That doesn’t mean that when the meat of the 2019 campaign arrives Heath can survive a long spell languishing at the bottom of the Western Conference table.
United managed to “get away” with the last two seasons and the slow buildup because the focus was always on the new stadium. There was something of a dress rehearsal feel to the 2017 and 2018 campaigns and less intense demand for improvement because of it. The team largely ignored the chorus from a set of die-hard supporters who wanted more out of the Loons.
That won’t be the case this season. United’s ability to squeeze goodwill from its fans thanks to Allianz Field’s opening will only last for a brief time. No one in Minnesota wants to spend another season out of contention.
More From Jason Davis:
- The New England Revolution in transition
- Toronto and Cincinnati in the new era of MLS squad building
- The stadium game continues in MLS
- Has MLS redefined the Designated Player?
Photo by Jeremy Olson - ISIPhotos.com