The Angle

Will Expansion Side Minnesota United FC End up a Real Salt Lake or a Philadelphia Union?

by on 12 July 2017

Before the season began, I spoke about all the things that I was looking forward to with Minnesota United FC in the first MLS season. As the season has progressed, I will admit my hope has wavered. In its place is a grim pessimism that Minnesota United FC is not a great team and won’t be for a long time.

For all the early season struggles and general #PANIC, this season has been genuinely exciting. Besides the first game against Atlanta United FC, Minnesota has played well at home, winning most of its games and being competitive in the rest of them for an overall record of 5-3-1 (W-L-D). There are players, new and old, on the team that are quickly becoming fan favorites in front of the larger MLS crowds: Jérôme Thiesson, Ibson, Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra, and Brent Kallman.

The team is not a great team, but there are few obvious weak links and even fewer must-starts on the starting XI, which gives the team a lot of flexibility as it looks ahead to future signings.

But this team and coach Adrian Heath want to be measured on playoff appearances. Even as the playoffs become even more remote a possibility this season, coach Heath continues to beat the drum that reaching the playoffs is the goal. But even if we give up on playoffs this season, is a spot in the playoffs really even a reasonable expectation for next season? Or even the next six or seven seasons?

Big spending, careful management, or still struggling

When looking at playoff appearances over a long period, the league separates into three basic categories.

The first group consists of the big spenders of New York Red Bulls, LA Galaxy, and Seattle Sounders SC. This way does work, as all have an over-80 percent appearance rate in the MLS playoffs. Seattle leads the way with appearances in every single season.

It’s clear that Minnesota United FC will not be in this category. The playoffs are all but out of reach for the squad this season and the team is clearly looking to avoid spending big on players until 2019 at the earliest. The team has clearly set out expectations that it never expects to spend anywhere near the levels as the big teams.

Next, you have the smaller clubs that tend to go on streaks, with periods of success along with periods of struggle. These are the Real Salt Lakes, Chicago Fires, New England Revolutions, and Sporting Kansas Cities of the world. They make the playoffs around 60-to-70 percent of the time, but are reliant typically on a core group of players all maturing at the same time and providing a couple years of success. These teams usually have careful management helping to extend periods of success and limit the years it takes to rebuild.

Finally, you have the expansion squads who have yet to really find their footing or took an inordinate amount of time to do so. These are your Philadelphia Unions (two playoff appearances in seven seasons), Toronto FCs (two playoff appearances in 10 seasons, but one appearance in an MLS Cup final last season), and even Portland Timbers (two playoff appearances — including an MLS Cup win as a sixth seed — out of six seasons).

To clarify, both Portland Timbers and Toronto FC have looked good in the past couple of years. Portland won the cup though from the sixth spot, and then couldn’t even return to the playoffs the following year. Toronto FC was the model of futility, being unable to make the playoffs for their first eight years as a franchise. They’ve managed to spend their way out of the cellar and look to be the best team in the east this season, but it can’t be forgotten that it has taken them ten years to put together a team of any quality.

In MLS, any team can get lucky and go on a streak just in time for the playoffs, but most of these teams in the bottom rung look stuck there. Until a radical change occurs — like what has happened in Toronto — the teams will be stuck there for years to come.

A short interlude about the salary cap

The salary cap isn’t a true leveling tool for parity. Instead, it punishes teams for their mistakes in managing the salary cap for years. In leagues with no or minimal limits on player spending, top teams can spend more money to correct mistakes in signings or team building. In MLS, mistakes in team composition will be magnified for years as teams can only utilize limited resources like TAM, GAM, and their salary budget to build their teams.

Misspend, and not only has a team spent money on a player who can’t contribute meaningfully this year, but they also will need to be replaced the following year.

So Vadim Demidov, John Alvbåge, Bashkim Kadrii, and Rasmus Schüller will impact the team this year not only with their lack of contributions, but also by needing to be replaced by MLS-caliber players. Rather than developing a replacement over time, the team must rush to replace these players. For the small market teams, a mistake or two can happen, but needing to rebuild half the roster can leave a team struggling for years.

Is it okay for Minnesota to be an “average” expansion team?

My colleague David Martin said that Minnesota is about average with their number of points so far in their inaugural campaign in MLS. He writes that the team is actually not doing bad, when you look historically at expansion sides.

Club Expansion Year Wins Points Per Game
Seattle Sounders FC 2009 12 1.57
Atlanta United FC 2017 7 1.41
Orlando City SC 2015 12 1.29
Portland Timbers FC 2011 11 1.24
Montreal Impact FC 2012 12 1.24
San Jose Earthquakes 2008 8 1.10
New York City FC 2015 10 1.09
Minnesota United FC 2017 5 1.06
Philadelphia Union 2010 8 1.03
Toronto FC 2007 6 0.83
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2011 6 0.82
Real Salt Lake 2005 5 0.63
Chivas USA 2005 4 0.56

While David is right that Minnesota is currently looking like an average expansion team for this season, it’s the future that begins to look bleak. Take a peek at how expansion teams have fared in playoff appearances.

Team Appearances/seasons in league Percentage
Orlando City SC 0 / 2 00.00%
Toronto FC 2 / 10 20.00%
Philadelphia Union 2 / 7 28.57%
Portland Timbers 2 / 6 33.33%
Chivas USA 4 / 10 40.00%
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 3 / 6 50.00%
New York City FC 1 / 2 50.00%
Montreal Impact 3 / 5 60.00%
Houston Dynamo 7 / 11 63.64%
Real Salt Lake 8 / 12 66.67%
Seattle Sounders FC 8 / 8 100.00%

Looking at these expansion sides should fill Minnesota fans with dread. It could be many years until Minnesota is able to put together a team that is able to be consistently good. Even the Portland Timbers, who has an MLS Cup in their cupboard, have been mediocre for most seasons in MLS, missing the playoffs four out of their six seasons.

The team that most fans should be hoping Minnesota imitates is Real Salt Lake, who entered the league with a thud in 2005, but then parlayed a new stadium in 2008 into a run of MLS playoff and CONCACAF success with smart, long-term team building and player development.

If the front office isn’t able to build a team ready for success in the new stadium, Minnesota could become another Philadelphia Union, forgotten in their market, constantly having to remake their roster, and unable to build a consistent squad.

Minnesota United FC has made it clear it won’t be a big spending expansion side like New York City FC, Seattle Sounders SC, or Atlanta United. As such, there will be a drastic tightrope it will need to walk. Do it right, and Minnesota might have another Real Salt Lake or Houston Dynamo. Do it wrong, and Minnesota will be yet another expansion side always playing catch up with its bigger peers.

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