Image credit to Jeremy Olson - www.digitalgopher.com

The Angle

How Far Behind Atlanta is MNUFC Anyway?

by on 6 December 2016

On August 19th, 2016 Minnesota United FC became forever tied to Atlanta United FC. After an eight-hundred-and-fifty-six-day wait, Atlanta finally had their expansion partner. The two clubs have been and will continue to be compared in terms of their on- and off-field performance.

Since Minnesota’s own MLS announcement, a prevailing narrative has emerged regarding the 2017 MLS expansion class. Atlanta is touted as the “Seattle of the East” and “has the momentum while Minnesota appears destined for mediocrity or worse. The degree to which this narrative even matters is debatable, though it has followed the club since the end of their NASL season.

Atlanta United’s Surging Momentum

Let’s uncover some of what might be causing these narratives to take hold. Atlanta United FC appears all but certain to be a fantastic financial success. Season ticket sales have been impressive, the club recently revealed their 2017 kit (including a sponsor), and are set to move into new Mercedes-Benz stadium sometime in 2017. During their two-plus-year prep period, Atlanta has consistently found a way to stay in the news in a mostly positive light. They should be commended for this.

Seemingly that same momentum has translated to the technical side of the club. Phrases like “true contender” have been tossed around. When combined with the business success of the club it’s easy to think of Atlanta as MLS’ new Eastern titan. Despite the narrative, an examination of Atlanta’s sporting moves raise as many questions as answers.

The Facts about Atlanta

  1. Amidst their current roster of 9, Atlanta has 3 players 18 or younger, and a 23 year-old goalkeeper. Two of these three players, Brandon Vazquez and Andrew Carleton, have been part of the USMNT youth set-up. Youth national team call-ups are an achievement but do not guarantee professional success. Take a look at the US’ 2009 U-20 World Cup roster for example.
  2. Atlanta has selected a high-profile manager in Tata Martino, but not without risk. Martino had increasing levels of success with the Paraguayan national team and Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina before failing to meet expectations with Barcelona and the Argentine national team. Patrick Vieira has chipped away at the belief that foreign managers cannot succeed in MLS, though one successful season does not reverse a trend. Hiring Martino may pay off fantastically, or he could join the pantheon of failed foreign managers who have tried and failed to lead successful MLS campaigns (paging Ruud Gullit and Owen Coyle).
  3. Despite all of their high profile signings (Kenwyne Jones, Hector Villalba, and reportedly, 8-million-dollar-man Miguel Almiron) Atlanta has yet to focus on the most important part of an expansion side: defense. Toronto FC took the better part of 10 years to figure this out. Orlando is going on year 3. Portland finally broke through when they paired Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell in the center of defense. Ignoring the defense is a perilous risk for expansion sides.

What’s going on in Minnesota?

The prevailing narrative would suggest Minnesota has been muddling about since the end of the NASL season. Long stretches of silence regarding MLS created a vacuum that was quickly filled with doubts about the Loons’ ambitions. The seemingly endless silence hasn’t been as long as it has felt. The Loons finished their NASL season 36 days ago and confirmed their 2017 MLS entry only 71 days earlier.

Image credit to Jeremy Olson - www.digitalgopher.com

Image credit to Jeremy Olson – www.digitalgopher.com

When viewed from a purely MLS perspective it’s easy to see how the prevailing narrative might have emerged. Minnesota refused to look past their 2016 NASL season, continually insisting that they were focused on success in their current environment. This meant that Minnesota was not linked to flashy designated players throughout the summer. There haven’t been rumors about in-league trade targets, plans for new training facilities, or signings of former premier league players Kenwyne Jones and Chris McCann.

Don’t Panic

And honestly, that’s okay. Here’s why Minnesota fans need to take a breath and put the #PANIC on rest for at least a couple of months.

  1. Minnesota has started to assemble a technical staff well steeped in US soccer. Manny Lagos has years of connections to draw on. Amos Magee helped Portland and DC United identify the “moneyball”-type players that are crucial to building successful salary cap teams. Adrian Heath has helped to develop two of MLS’ most prolific attackers in Dom Dwyer and Cyle Larin. The Loons’ technical staff understands soccer in the United States. With Jeremy Ebobisse on the board, United are in line to select a bright attacking talent in the MLS SuperDraft.
  2. “Cloud City”, the Loons’ new soccer-specific home in Saint Paul (complete with grass pitch), appears to be headed towards groundbreaking before the end of the year. A state-of-the-art stadium and natural playing surface should not be underestimated when it comes to player recruitment.
  3. Minnesota is not a new club. They don’t need to build from scratch, and can draw on years of experience building their standing in the Twin Cities. The Loons have a solid training home, are adjacent to multiple youth academies, and have a brand that (thankfully) has remained consistent since 2012. Splashy rumors are not required to demonstrate that the club takes the sporting side seriously. In this case, past successes speak for themselves. Minnesota signed two former NASL Best XI players to their MLS roster last week, and will likely look to sign additional players who are familiar with the club in the weeks to come.

Minnesota vs. Atlanta – a fair comparison?

Minnesota and Atlanta have chosen different models by which they will pursue MLS success. Atlanta appears to be all-in on the Toronto/Seattle method. Minnesota is following the path set out by Portland and Kansas City. Judging the two clubs on the same curve is a poor way to assess who’s ahead and behind for this very reason. Both strategies have either led to past successes or soon will. Given the history of expansion teams, both Atlanta and Minnesota are likely years away from their first real taste of MLS success.

Really, there’s only one way to know for certain which United has the highest aspirations: Grant Wahl’s MLS Ambition Rankings. Stay tuned.

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  • Matt

    At least we know that the Minnesota United kits will be better.

  • Alex Schieferdecker

    Let’s remember one thing: Atlanta United will play their games in a football stadium. It’s going to be a very cool football stadium, no doubt. But we have that option too, and it’s not the right solution.

    In five years, people will be looking at Cloud City with reverence, and people will be grumbling about the lack of atmosphere and tarp on the upper decks of Mercedes Benz stadium. So if we want to talk about ambition, in my book, Minnesota’s stadium plans are every bit as ambitious as Atlanta’s, if not more.