Photo Credit: Daniel Mick

The Angle

As MLS Offseason Roars to Life, the Loons Are Keeping Quiet — Let Us Pray They Know What They’re Doing

by on 20 December 2017

Just over a week into the 2017-2018 MLS offseason and the silliest time of year is already shaping up to be a barn-burner. With a few million dollars of discretionary allocation money added to the pot, the league’s “Haves” are flexing their muscles. But will Minnesota follow suit?

Atlanta United, not satisfied with its impressive South American corps, has reportedly made a massive bid for an 18 year-old Argentine, Ezequiel Barco. It also sprung big bucks to spirit Darlington Nagbe away from Portland, and has even made waves with smaller signings, like bringing former Minnesota goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt up after his sterling year and eye-catching U.S. Open Cup heroics with Cincinnati.

Not to be outdone, NYCFC has made its own big bid for a South American talent. League newcomer LAFC (who long ago inked Carlos Vela) has made aggressive trades for proven MLS defenders like Walker Zimmerman and Laurent Ciman, and may also add Sacha Kljestan. Even the relatively less flashy Sporting KC has made a big move, netting Yohan Croizet, a French attacking midfielder just entering his prime.

While some of the reporting on big transfer offers will ultimately prove erroneous, or the teams’ chase of their targets futile, it often feels as though every club in the league is being tied to top talent. All, except one of course.

Throughout all the hubbub, the Loons are ghosting along. There have been no big rumors attached with the club, neither medium nor small. There have been no promises, no hints, no hype, and no explanation. Just radio silence, cuts, and two isolated pick-ups.

Is that worth #PANIC-ing about? The calm, rational side of the brain knows it isn’t. The Loons have been preparing for this offseason since Week 2 of the last season, when it became clear that significant adjustments were needed. We are only a week into the offseason, and there’s a lot more that will necessarily come. It’s not as if Manny Lagos, Amos Magee, and Adrian Heath think that the team, as constructed, just needs some depth pieces to compete.

But the calm, rational side of the brain also can’t explain what on earth the Loons have been doing recently. The front office cut a number of depth players, including one Minnesota local and two long-time servants to the club. In their place, they’ve signed Harrison Heath, a young midfielder who has mainly been employed by teams coached by his father, and Tyrone Mears, a 34-year-old defender known for mental lapses who lost his place for Atlanta halfway through the season.

The former move was galling for its pure shamelessness. The latter move is baffling because it came among a flurry of fullback moves across the league, all of them involving players who are better and younger than Mears. While LAFC picked (and Montreal subsequently traded for) Jukka Raitala in the expansion draft, NYCFC traded for Saad Abdul-Salaam, and Seattle traded for Waylon Francis. Meanwhile the Loons, in picking Mears, appeared cheap and clueless.

Everyone wants to believe that Minnesota United has a master plan. But after a summer of ho-hum additions (Finlay being the chief exception) and such a miserable, cynical start to the offseason, has the team given reasons to hold such a belief?

Two true believers are Cal Williams and Jamie Watson of the commentary team. The two  are supremely convinced that things will turn out well, and they will argue with you on Twitter about it. The calm, rational side of the brain says that of course, they have close connections with the front office, they know a lot about soccer, they are doubtless better informed than the rest of us about transfer plans, and as we learn what they know, we will ultimately share the enthusiasm.

And that’s probably right.

But the calm, rational side of the brain has been thinking this for a long time. And the frantic, impulsive side of the brain says “ENOUGH ALREADY!” 

But the calm, rational side of the brain is getting exhausted by transparent nonsense like Williams saying “Love this signing,” after Minnesota acquired Mears, a player who will now be on his third team in three years. Or when Watson gushed over Heath, calling him a “Fantastic young pro who is a tremendous passer, tireless worker, smart, 2 way midfielder,” about a player who (again) is obviously on the team only because his father is the coach. Sometimes depth signings are just depth signings. I love Cal and Jamie’s enthusiasm in commentary, and really just at all times. But, read the room a bit guys! Pretending that extremely underwhelming personnel moves are masterstrokes in some grand plan mainly just leads the rest of us to wonder if we’re being gas-lit.

Then there’s Manny Lagos, who our own Wes Burdine interviewed for Everyone knows that trying to getting information in an interview with Manny is like trying to get blood from a stone. The calm, rational side of the brain knows this, and doesn’t read anything into his refusal to put a timeline on signing a big-money player, and it appreciates his appropriate disinterest in the Mears signing. But the calm, rational side of the brain has been thinking this for a long, long time. And the frantic, impulsive side of the brain says “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” 

Seriously, Loons. Is it too much to get out in front of this stuff? Surely you can understand the bad optics of the first two offseason signings being the coach’s son and a senior citizen? Give us something, even if it’s just a reassurance that there’s more to come. Time and time again, the club seems to prefer to ignore obvious issues, rather than coming out and addressing them forthrightly.

So anyway, here’s to hoping there’s really a plan. Here’s to hoping that the club has signed its last Atlanta United cast-off. Here’s to hoping the Loons do not have too many injuries next year in central midfield and fullback. Here’s to hoping that Cal and Jamie really do know what’s coming down the pipe. Here’s to hoping that we’ll see some actual ambitious moves and not “we signed Wayne Rooney’s dentures” ambition. Here’s to hoping that we can be honest with each other about this club’s immediate goals, and stop pretending that frugality and charity toward prodigal children are tickets to the playoffs.

We can all see the steel rising out of the hole in the ground at Midway. We know the long-term future is bright. But the immediate future is what we’re focused on now, and it’d be nice to be able to believe in that as well.

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  • Gitchee Gomie

    The stoic Minnesotan act in the front office is too on the nose. This club needs some personality* beyond a white shirted-Heath calling out players during halftime interviews.

    *Excluding, Jerry. He’s delightful.

  • David Sterling

    I have little confidence there is any reason to hope. I think Manny is incompetent to build a MLS team (last offseason flunks of signings looked really bad even on paper, and signing half a dozen wingers are examples); or, that Heath has any real vision for what this team should look like (playing Molino as a 10, and being unable to make up his mind about Nicholson or Ibarra as two examples).
    I am personally tired of being left in the dust on transactions, and finding silence as the standard protocol, and we’ve only been a team for a year. That’s not a good sign, especially considering I’m a Brewers fan and have literally had an entire life of disappointment in all realms of organizational activity.

  • Jacob

    Yeah, not a good look so far. I’m fine with the Mears signing under the assumption that he’s providing short-term depth. But this team is pretty heavy on stop-gap measures right now and light on its long-term core. And with the quality around the league rising so quickly, the Loons haven’t even done enough to tread water.

    Without context, it’s fair to call for patience with the club. They could have three major signings next week for all we know. But last season, the silence was usually because nothing significant was coming together. There are times when we simply have to stay patient, but right now I don’t know what kind of expectations to have and I don’t want to stay invested through the radio silence if the payoff is retreads and mediocrity.

  • duluth_loon

    Thanks for the honest reflection Alex. This front office is taking the fans for granted. They think the carrot of a new stadium will be enough to keep us all engaged this year. They’re probably right. But if the team is terrible again this year, and terrible again in 2019, they will have a hard time filling the stadium in 2020. The only thing giving me any sense of hope is Chris Wright being hired as CEO. I’m optimistic that he won’t tolerate mediocrity on the sporting side of the business for long. We’ll see. The drive down from Duluth is looking longer and longer as days go by with no meaningful signings to the team…

    • Dave Williams

      I agree on the stadium belief. Seems to have been the main push when I was being courted to renew: New stadium coming! I’m okay with that, but I would also like to see growth in the on field product THIS year.

    • bartgott

      Not sure that Chris Wright is a shining light for competitiveness on the sporting side. His 13 seasons as president of the Timberwolves look like this:

      Year Ws Ls W/L %
      2004–05 44 38 .537
      2005–06 33 49 .402
      2006–07 32 50 .390
      2007–08 22 60 .268
      2008–09 24 58 .293
      2009–10 15 67 .183
      2010–11 17 65 .207
      2011–12 26 40 .394
      2012–13 31 51 .378
      2013–14 40 42 .488
      2014–15 16 66 .195
      2015–16 29 53 .354
      2016–17 31 51 .378

      If we’re banking on his unwillingness to put up with sustained loosing seasons I think we’re fooling ourselves.

      • BJ

        He ran the Lynx as well… They had pretty good records…

        • bartgott

          True. Probably the truth is in the middle, that he focuses more on the business side and less on the sporting side of things. We’ll just have to wait and see!

  • Scherbs

    Agreed! seeing Abdul-Salaam get traded to NYCFC, while we bring in a 34 year old was tough to stomach. On a smaller note, After they launched the jersey’s last year, we heard that these were off the shelf designs and we should see more custom jersey’s next year. Only to find out we are still stuck with those two horrible designs for another year, and only get a new third kit is disappointing.

  • nomadic loon

    Mr Watson gushes over Heath and Callum. The first has yet-to-be-proven success at the MLS-level; the latter is so over-rated as a play-by-play announcer. I also think the stadium comments are smack on the mark.

    • David Day

      Again, you won’t ‘have to worry’ about Callum much longer. He’ll be at network level once again before you know it. Then you, like everyone in KC will realize just how good he is.

      • Matt

        Yes. Listen to the play by play for pretty much MLS team and you will realize he is really, really good. We are lucky to have him and the broadcast team of the quality that we do.

  • sehanson14147

    Thank you. The front office seems to have the impression that they can just fall back on a practice facility and stadium to impress STH’s and new fans.

    I really, really don’t wanna turn into Billy Bean from Moneyball: “There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.”

  • John Asbury

    I read in an article that we got outbid for Sacha Kljestan. That is the only mention of MNUFC life on the trading front. My guess is that they are stuck with minimal funds, veteran players who don’t want to end their careers here, and young players who don’t see the flash or facilities of other teams. The reality is that playing on turf at a half empty college stadium and practicing at an old youth sporting complex in Blaine is not a super compelling career option. So, who’s left? Big gambles. Maybe they should just come out and say, “we’re saving TAM and GAM until the new stadium.” That was what Matt Doyle recommended in the 551 podcast, and that appears to be the plan although they are not saying it because it would make people mad.