Throughout the first month of the MLS offseason, newly-instated Minnesota United seemed cautious to commit to making roster moves. While long-time full backs Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas were inked in November, the club hadn’t brought in any other players from their announcement in August until this month.
Part of this was entirely defensible. While the club was fairly certain that Adrian Heath would be their manager, they wanted to wait until he was brought in officially to find his players. The former Orlando City gaffer likes having input in personnel decisions. This helps make sure players fit his system and the culture he likes to see on and off the field.
Heath was announced on November 29, exactly one month after his new club’s final NASL match. He vowed to “hit the ground running,” hopping on a flight with Manny Lagos that next morning as they embarked on a scouting trip.
With the coach and sporting director in Argentina and Director of Player Personnel Amos Magee balancing trips of his own in Costa Rica and the United States, the club went radio silent for two weeks. Aside from educated guesses about players returning from the NASL days and a link to Saprissa’s Daniel Colindres, there wasn’t much to go off of for United. Here’s what MLSsoccer.com’s transfer/rumor tracker had to say for United’s first full month of the offseason.
Meanwhile, expansion counterpart Atlanta United was signing their second DP winger and bringing in MLS veterans to bring their roster totals to double digits. Each team gained five players in the Expansion Draft, with Minnesota ultimately holding onto three of them. They flipped Jeff Attinella into a potential major piece: beloved winger Miguel Ibarra. An Ibarra deal isn’t yet complete, but acquiring the US international below DP value would be a true signal of intention for the Loons.
Their other traded pick (right back Chris Duvall) was turned into Costa Rican attacker Johan Venegas. The Venegas acquisition looked to be a shrewd move in a busy day — acquiring a key part of Los Ticos’ attack after he’d previously been protected. However, it was a perfect precursor for United’s next move. Between Tuesday’s confirmed acquisition of fellow Costa Rican international Francisco Calvo and the aforementioned Venegas move, Minnesota has shown to have the ambition so many doubted previously.
In fact, bringing in Calvo is an early contender for the league’s smartest of the offseason.
After a slow wade into the transaction pool, Minnesota had little choice but to cannonball in as December rolled around. Despite a growing need to acquire talent, United performed something of a pencil dive instead. Their moves were direct and didn’t create the same splash as Atlanta’s had been.
— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) December 15, 2016
First, the Venegas trade. Looking at the last pair of expansion sides, both Orlando and New York City overlooked defense and deeper midfield play, instead spending freely on their attacks. As a result, both clubs missed the playoffs and while New York made massive strides in year two, Orlando failed to qualify again.
Meanwhile, Atlanta appeared to be following the same blueprint shared by the 2015 sides. Miguel Almirón came for a reported $8 million transfer fee, joining major acquisitions like fellow winger Héctor Villalba and striker Kenwyne Jones.
This made it seem a little curious that Minnesota would trade their first pick — an established defender from a Supporters Shield winner — for an attacker. While Heath is known as an attacking coach, he conceded in his opening remarks that he’d focus on shoring up his defense in his second MLS gig. However, Lagos and company saw an opportunity to acquire an attacker that all three admired.
For more about the acquisition of Francisco Calvo, click here.
In trading Chris Duvall and Jeff Attinella, all five acquired players (or rights-to-player, in Ibarra’s case) play in the midfield or higher. The only defenders on the roster to date were the veteran full backs and young center back Joseph Greenspan, acquired in exchange for a third-round pick in the January SuperDraft.
The need for defensive attention went from a priority to glaring, especially considering the paths set out by New York, Orlando, and Atlanta. For a club like Minnesota (long believed to not hold the same sized budget as the aforementioned trio), building a solid defense was mandatory.
In order to do so, they made a very important signing, both for the club and for the league.
In looking at comparisons for the Calvo signing, there isn’t much to choose from in MLS history.
The young, dynamic defender can play prolifically at left back or center back, figuring to slot in alongside Davis. Despite a short frame (at 5’11”), Calvo has proven to be an aerial threat, using strong positioning to his advantage. Still just 24, he’s used his mix of athletic ability and field awareness to earn 17 caps for Los Ticos to date. He started two matches this past summer in the Copa America Centenario.
Despite a short frame (at 5’11”), Calvo has proven to be an aerial threat, using strong positioning to his advantage. Still just 24, he’s used his mix of athletic ability and field awareness to earn 17 caps for Los Ticos to date.
This is where we enter new territory for United. Costa Rica’s men finished the year ranked 16th in the world in the latest Elo Ratings. There are very few examples of young defenders from top-20 football nations joining MLS to further their career. Oddly enough, both are fellow Costa Ricans.
Other examples were already in the middle of their prime (like Belgium’s Laurent Ciman) or not regular internationals (like Holland’s Johan Kappelhof). For an often-capped young player to come to MLS instead of feeling a need to look across the Atlantic is a major sign of the league’s growth. When that young player is getting called up to a team that was in the knockout stage in 2014, it’s damn impressive.
For that move to come through a new club? It’s unprecedented.
How, then, does this compare to Atlanta? Arthur Blank’s franchise was able to lure Miguel Almirón despite rumored pursuit from Arsenal. It wasn’t cheap, but Atlanta got their man.
Still, the Calvo signing is a different breed of ambition. One, I’d argue, is more impressive.
Calvo’s capture for below DP value shows a desire for long-term success.
Realistically, there are four or five teams that could have made the Almirón move stick. Teams like Los Angeles, New York (x2), Toronto, and Seattle have shown a willingness to flex their pocketbooks for major attacking pieces. Players like Gio Dos Santos, Sebastian Giovinco, and Nicolás Lodeiro didn’t come cheap, but big-budget clubs will always be around to acquire new toys. Almiron, while an impressive catch, isn’t unique for the league.
The acquisition of Calvo took an entirely different approach. Instead of adding zeroes to the end of a transfer fee, Minnesota used multiple scouting trips to ensure Calvo was the right target. After Magee went to Costa Rica in the early offseason, Heath flew down to meet with newly-acquired J. Venegas. It’s quite likely that Calvo’s Saprissa side was also on the docket.
They’re two very different moves. In a vacuum, the Almirón transfer shows a club looking to bolster their attack with a flashy name for a year or two before he moves on to a Champions League club. This isn’t the most sustainable model of team-building and it may cripple Atlanta’s ability to acquire key defensive players due to budget constraints.
Meanwhile, Calvo’s capture for below DP value shows a desire for long-term success. Minnesota has often mentioned looking at clubs like Portland and Kansas City as models for team building. Calvo could be Minnesota’s Diego Chará. While Chará is a defensive midfielder, he was brought in to stay in front of the backline and pester attackers. He’s still one of the Timbers’ most important players to this day. There’s every reason to believe Calvo can be as foundational for Minnesota.
Minnesota won’t have long to rest on these newly-acquired laurels. With training camp starting in just about four weeks, Minnesota still needs 18 players confirmed before taking the field. Following the rumors and expectations, this is how things stand:
This lineup wouldn’t get far into the playoffs, but it fields eleven players employed in their best positions. With a couple of tweaks, Minnesota wouldn’t be the cellar-dwellers some had previously anointed them to be. Namely (and in the order I would prioritize them in)…
Obviously, these moves already factored into the lineup above. However, the dynamic duo would add a familiarity to United from the NASL days at a reasonable price. Ramirez can be a double-digit goalscorer. Ibarra is certainly a starting winger in MLS. Both are on the doorstep and these deals should be the club’s easiest decisions in the remaining weeks.
The veteran Warner is a solid player and a steady defender. However, Minnesota still doesn’t have a Designated Player to help signal their identity. Every successful team in this league has a pitbull in the midfield, able to run for a full 90 and keep attackers at bay. From Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso to Vancouver’s Matías Laba to New York’s Dax McCarty, a team needs a true #6 to protect the backline and maximize the other midfielders’ attacking ability. United would be wise to find their own player like this.
While Femi Hollinger-Janzen is a talented player, he may profile best as a target forward. The left side of the field looks to be secure between Davis and Ibarra. Right now, Kevin Venegas figures to start at right back. He had his best games in the United kit this spring working off of MLS veteran Danny Cruz’s defensive-minded player. A similar player (or Cruz himself) may help Viva reach his potential in MLS. Minnesota has been linked to former US international Josh Gatt, out of contract from Molde. Bringing in Gatt would require a shift at RB, as he’s attacking-first and less of a two-way threat.
This isn’t to say that the rest of the roster is filler. Guys 15-28 are crucial to an MLS club’s success — look at the depth on both Seattle and Toronto as evidence. NASL holdovers like Brent Kallman, Cruz, and former Columbus man Bernardo Añor should get strong looks for the MLS roster. Meanwhile, the club needs to be active in free agency and acquire capable players. There isn’t time to waste anymore.
December has been a transformative month for United and January promises to be even more active. Snaring Francisco Calvo is a truly great move for the Loons on the field. As far as what it symbolizes, it sets the club up to be competitive for similarly-talented players down the line. He may not have the paycheck of a Lodeiro or the Premier League-rumors of an Almiron, but Calvo has every chance to be a Best XI-caliber player for Minnesota.
Now, United has started to find their identity. Their version of “taking their pocket books for a spin” may not approach eight figures. That’s not a bad thing. Instead, United can be a club where experienced (not old) players increase their profile. That’s a win-win for the club and the fans — a way for coaches to leave their mark while fans can embrace an exciting squad.
Training camp opens on January 23. This may be the momentum kick they needed.