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The Angle

Opinion: Calvo Signing Shows Minnesota United’s Ambitions

by on 28 December 2016

It had nearly become impossible to point to a “Minnesota United brand of football” without a marquee transaction. The Loons’ signing of Costa Rican defender Francisco Calvo is one of the first steps to defining what that brand of football might look like.

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.

tick-tock

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.

Fruits of their labor

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.

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.

Enter Calvo

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.

The Atlanta question

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.

Next steps

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:

united

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)…

  1. Finalize deals for Ramirez and Ibarra.

    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.

  2. Sign a DP-level defensive midfielder.

    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.

  3. Shore up the right wing.

    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.

  4. Get to 28 players.

    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.

Finding their identity

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.

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  • Alex Schieferdecker

    I’m not sure I’d call Calvo a more impressive signing that Almiron. As you noted, there’s a precedent for the former as well.

    But who cares? The impressiveness of the signing doesn’t win you games. What Atlanta does affects us on the second match of the season only. I’m more interested in Minnesota’s even-handed approach to building this roster. I hope it results in depth at every position, and a solid defense. Those are the keys to success in MLS.

    • John Herman

      Yeah any team would be thrilled to beat out an Arsenal-like team for an Almiron-like player if they have the cash, and it’s a great indicator of the league’s growing reputation. In a parity-filled league, having star players with an extra gear is a big deal–just ask Lodeiro and Giovinco.

      But on the flip side, as the article describes, in a parity-filled league you also can’t be brittle or thin at the back. It also seems that a strong back half of the lineup unlocks the front half a good deal more (as Atlanta may find out the hard way at this rate). And there are only so many up-and-coming defenders playing for strong national teams (or CCL powerhouses like Saprissa, for that matter). That we got one of them without taking up a DP slot is the kind of move that makes fantastic rosters possible. I think Jeff is absolutely right that this is a sneaky good move.

      I just really hope that we have enough of these coming down the pipes to really compete. 2-3 smart deals for above average players is great and sets us up for success, but you still have to make the big splashes to get there.

    • nathan3e

      Yes, a solid defense is of primary importance in this league. NYCFC amply demonstrated that you can have world class attacking players and still get absolutely hammered by a team with zero world class attacking players.

  • Couldn’t agree more on getting a DP level defensive midfielder. We’d still need some depth but our defense would be formidable.

  • John Herman

    Anyone know off hand when those expiring winter contracts we scouted in Scandinavia are up, specifically? It would be nice to have a date circled on the calendar for our next couple signings [*stares at Amos Magee meaningfully*].

    • Jeff Rueter

      Most contracts in Scandinavian leagues run through December 31.

      • John Herman

        Makes sense, thanks!

  • J_Bounds

    How exactly is this a good defensive team as it sits right now? Greenspan is a nice story, but he is basically a 24 year old rookie on a league minimum contract who has played one minute in MLS. You’re penciling him in as a starter? OK. Davis and Venejas are career NASLers who have never proven a thing in MLS. If they were that good, they’d be in MLS already. I like Calvo, but MLS is going to be a step up week in and week out. His countrymen, Venejas, showed that by only logging 1,400 combined minutes over the last two years with Montreal. To call him a better signing at this stage than Almiron is the epitome of sunshine blowing. Transfermarkt set Calvo’s value at $300K as of yesterday and you’re acting like signing him for less than DP money is some staggering feat.

    As for your midfield, Hollinger-Janzen is another league minimum guy who has less than 300 minutes of playing time, but sure pencil him in too. Saeid and Warren are decent pros, but there is a reason they were left unprotected. Honestly, you have no one on this squad who has shown that he can be a plus MLS players for an entire season, let alone the type who can lead a playoff caliber team.

    You guys better have a LOT of signings up your sleeves or you’re gonna get absolutely rolled next year and its going to be even worse than your 8th place finish in NASL last year.

    • Kyle Eliason

      Davis can do a job as a natural left back in MLS. Venegas is a wonderful attacking full back/wing back, but his tendency to get caught high up the pitch is a legitimate concern with regards to his future effectiveness as an MLS full back. I wonder if his best position won’t be on the right wing, but I guess time will tell.

      And while I agree with the general points you’ve made, you’ve gotten the details all wrong, while simultaneously coming off as smug, which is comedy gold.

      * Loons finished fifth in the NASL last season — I think you’ve gotten the Fall Season table confused for the combined.

      * Why aren’t Davis and Venegas already in the MLS — when was the last time MLS paid a transfer fee to any NASL side?

      * You’re honestly using Transfermarkt valuations to evaluate players?

      * Who said signing Calvo for less than DP money was a staggering feat? I believe the article above states Calvo could be a foundational player for the Loons and the gist is that his signing is a smart piece of business. That Jon Arnold has said of all the CONCAF players likely to move to MLS this offseason, Calvo is the one he rates the highest, leaves me rather bullish on the acquisition.

      • J_Bounds

        First, sorry you are right I was referencing the fall schedule vs the complete. Mea Culpa. Still doesn’t say much that you finished below .500 in NASL, but whatever.

        As I said, I like the Calvo addition. I do. However, the author spent 3 paragraphs explaining why that is a better move than signing Almiron because Almiron will probably be gone in 1-2 years and because “it may cripple Atlanta’s ability to acquire key defensive players due to budget constraints.”

        First of all, if Almiron does leave for a Champions League club, it will be because he played pretty flipping well and because Atlanta likely got more than the $8 mln they paid for him, which they, you know, can use to buy other players. Secondly, apparently the author is unaware that both Almiron and Villalba (as young DPs) only have a $200K cap hit (about the same cap hit as Warren). Considering that they have a $3.8 mln budget, $2.3 mln in TAM this year and another $200K or so in GAM that hardly limits them in addressing their defense. Any way you slice it, they Almiron signing is far more impressive. Calvo could be a nice piece of business, but lets pump the breaks just a bit.

        Look, I hope you guys pull together a good, competitive team. I’m just looking at this as a fan of the league. I’ve been doing some research on both teams ahead of the season and frankly just unimpressed with what I see on paper thus far and really just the general lack of information/buzz. If I was you guys I would be quickly reaching the WTF is up stage. Yet what I’m seeing is guys that seem perfectly happy with what you’ve done so far. Guess I just don’t get it.

        • John Herman

          Yeah, the silence is getting increasingly troubling. But all of the moves they’ve made have been well executed, financially smart, and geared toward fit. It has bought some patience and trust out of me that they’re filling in the spaces around some bigger incoming pieces. But yeah, as time passes I’m getting more anxious.

          • Kyle Eliason

            Silence is MNUFC’s modus operandi. There were pictures from Costa Rica of Calvo signing his MLS contract published last week, and MNUFC didn’t announce the deal until this week (assumedly because they thought the already broken news would get more coverage after Christmas weekend).

            A running joke is that MNUFC PR Director Eric Durkee’s tombstone will say only, “No Comment.”

            I think there’s more patience from people familiar with the team because it is understood they are so frustratingly tight lipped. In this case a lack of smoke doesn’t mean a lack of fire. Lagos/Heath/McGee are hard at work, the club just really, really likes to play things close to the vest.

          • John Herman

            That’s reassuring, I am a relative newcomer so it’s nice to get the backstory. I’m glad my optimism isn’t as off the mark in this case as it usually is when it comes to Minnesota sports teams.

          • Jeff Rueter

            Eric Durkee wouldn’t be caught dead eating a Tombstone.

        • nathan3e

          I’m perfectly happy to wait and see what MNUFC actually does because zero matches will be played in December and frankly only us hardcores are even paying attention right now. Heath is a very good coach who has been through this before and was available to Minnesota because of the still ongoing clusterfuck in Orlando. Calvo is an excellent signing. It will be largely impossible to get the first pick in the SuperDraft wrong. Some genuinely good players were picked in the Expansion Draft and more genuinely good players are on the way. I don’t see any need to shop for Depends. Regardless, a pattern has definitely been established: Whatever they do, someone will race to be first with yeah, but…..

        • Jeff Rueter

          I’ll keep it brief. I really do appreciate the time you’re putting into a rebuttal instead of just dismissing with short responses.

          – Yes, I realize that Young DPs cost $200k for a salary cap. However, getting two-three major pieces can minimize desire to spend on other pieces. If the difference comes down to cutting $200k players down to $100k alternatives, that shows on the playing field.
          – I get that it’d be nice to have a full month with 20+ players, but the ball doesn’t roll until late January. Overly panicking about a lack of players one month in advance is wasted energy. Better to look at what United has in place currently.
          – I didn’t say that Calvo was a better signing than Almiron. I said it was an important one for the club and a great piece of business that indicates what they’re looking for in players. That’s a major difference — the two pickups are very different from one another.
          – Tough to knock players like Ibarra, Ramirez, Davis, and Venegas if you haven’t seen them play.
          – All told, Atlanta has a higher ceiling for 2017. I also think their floor is just as low as Minnesota’s, and given expectations that feels even lower.

          • J_Bounds

            I kinda don’t know what to make of this response. Unless you think Atlanta won’t use their entire budget (which seems highly unlikely) I don’t know how your previous statements jive with this. Basically you have to fit 20 players under the senior budget of $3.8 mln, so given the fact the two young DPs ATL has signed only take up about 10% of this budget, I don’t know how this precludes them from addressing the defense as you asserted. You seem to be doing a quick walk back here. Especially considering that ATL can supplement this budget with quite a bit of TAM and GAM, none of which they had to use on them.

            Anyway, I’m not necessarily knocking signing the players you mentioned, I’m just saying that none of them has proven they are difference makers at the MLS level. Maybe they all turn good, but history shows that it is kinda unlikely that a bunch of players in their late twenties who have never performed in leagues at or above MLS level will suddenly come in and be plus players. Maybe one or two do, but to expect more than that seems overly optimistic in my opinion.

            Anyway, again I like the Calvo pickup. I would simply be pretty concerned that that is your best piece of business less than a month out from training camp. I respect an optimist’s viewpoint, that is where you usually find me, but I can’t imagine that this squad (even with Ibarra, Ramirez and one or two others from your NASL side) Costs much more than $1.5 mln to $1.8 mln toward your budget. Further, there really isn’t a single player I can point to as someone who has, in their history, played winning soccer at or above and the MLS level. That would definitely concern me as a fan 3 weeks out from training camp. Call me crazy.

            The good news is that there should be plenty of room within the budget to work, but time is exceedingly short to bring in true difference makers.

          • Jeff Rueter

            I’ll explain the first point a bit more, as it’s the only thing we really seem to not be on the same page about.

            I’m looking at clubs like year-one NYC and ORL as a reason to wonder about building a well-rounded squad. Each could point to their DPs to indicate they weren’t cheap teams, while still pinching pennies on the rest of their roster. Loyd and Parkhurst, while solid players, don’t seem like they’d pair well on the field. Jones and McCann seem to indicate they’ll focus on depth, but like Minnesota, Atlanta doesn’t have enough of the whole on the roster right now to indicate that they won’t follow NYC and ORL. If that makes sense.

          • J_Bounds

            Just take Atlanta out of the equation, because they don’t seem to be in any way building a roster like either Orlando or NYCFC. They are going about things in a vastly different way.

            My question is, do you honestly think that this is in any way a competive roster, even including Ibarra, Ramirez and one or two others from your NASL side? I’m not seeing it. I don’t think you need to go out and sign guys like Kaka, Villa or Gerard to compete, but I’m a little concerned that you haven’t signed at least one of two DP level players. Even if they only cost $500K to $1mln per like a Mauro Diaz or Diego Piatti. I’m also concerned by the lack of MLS veterans who can help you navigate the season.

            Again, hopefully you really pick things up over the next month or so, but I just see nothing at this point that leads me to believe that you’ll be all that competitive.

    • John Herman

      Re: defense–Yeah, I agree that we have no reason to think Greenspan is a starter, certainly not from day 1, and certainly not a good one. I doubt that he will be one of our best 2 CBs when the season starts, but he certainly has upside and will be a good locker room presence on the cheap.

      It’s fair to be skeptical that NASL fullbacks can step in and play in MLS. I for one will be more comfortable if we bring in at least one fullback with better credentials. But there is also reason to believe that they will hold their own: both have been NASL Best XI picks and have performed consistently over several years; the better holdover players on expansion teams that move up from NASL have been perfectly serviceable in the past; as Kyle notes, MLS teams aren’t often likely to go through the transaction costs to bring in a NASL player, even if the player is around replacement level (or possibly better, as in Ibarra and Ramirez who have been targeted before); and finally, the guys have chemistry with other remaining MN United players and keeping them on has chemistry value and puts them in a position to succeed.

      Re: Calvo’s value–Yeah, transfer market is at least something to go on, but not something I put a lot of stock in when reputable analysts are so gung ho about him.

      Re: Femi–Jeff put right wing under the “next steps” column. Nobody thinks he’s a starter.

      Re: Saeid and Warner–Plenty of expansion draft picks turn out (or continue) to be strong players. Teams have to make some tough choices in deciding who to protect. Not saying Warner is the next Brad Evans, but he’s a solid pro and a lot of people are high on Saeid’s prospects here. I guess we’ll see.

      You’re right that most of the players here are unproven in MLS, but your suggestion that we’ll get steamrolled this year seems a bit premature. You seem to think that the article claims that we’re a strong defensive team, but it doesn’t–rather, it claims that signing Calvo is an encouraging sign of what the team wants its identity to be. We are coming along fairly well up front (I’ll take your silence on Ibarra and Ramirez as agreement), but have a lot to do in the back. The Calvo signing signals intent and ambition to build up the back to an extent that our expansion twin, Atlanta United (or several preceding expansion sides), hasn’t shown. That’s really encouraging.

      • J_Bounds

        Thanks for the response. Good post and info.

        First off, in terms of your offense. I’m not quite as sold as I guess some of you are. Admittedly you guys have seen much more of Ibarra and Ramirez than I have, but I wouldn’t feel that comfortable just penciling them in. Ibarra hasn’t played much in the last two years, so just assuming he hits the ground running in MLS is a little presumptuous. Ramirez is an even bigger question mark for me in terms of how his game translates. Most obvious comp for me is Will Bruin, though it’s not a perfect comparison. I don’t think he is 20 goal scorer in MLS. So yeah, right now I think you have to question where the goal scoring comes from over the course of an entire season.

        Defensively, I would actually put Atlanta ahead of you as well. Michael Parkhurst isn’t quite the player he was, but he has great experience and leadership qualities and as other expansion sides have shown you need that. Lloyd is a good gamble because if he is healthy he is a versatile starting quality defender and they’ll get cap relief if he can’t play. I really like the Garza loan deal. Good for his career and NT aspirations and he has the tools to be one of the better outside backs in the league. Throw in a couple of the young defenders they’ve got and I’d say they are already in better shape than NYFC was. I think they still need a physical presence at center back and a bit more depth, but that 8 pick should help there and they still have a lot of TAM to work with. Plus, they have some versatile veteran midfielders who can probably help out in a pinch.

        • John Herman

          Oh yeah, I forgot about the Garza loan. I’ll wait and see on how Parkhurst and Loyd do together, if that’s how ATL rolls. Seems like they’re both best off paired with a bigger guy, and each has his age/injury concerns. They would already get pushed around by big target forwards, and might not have enough speed between the two of them against everyone else. But I would still be happy to have either, it’s just that Calvo checks several boxes that neither of them can, on top of simply being more talented.