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The Angle

Actually, Minnesota United’s MLS Adventure Is off to a Good Start

by on 29 June 2017

Minnesota United isn’t going to make the playoffs this year, and it never was. Anyone who has said that making the postseason should be the club’s benchmark for success just isn’t living on the same planet where MLS has evolved from a messy and wide open contest to a mature and challenging league. But it wasn’t supposed to go this poorly, was it?

I’ve never taken in a Minnesota match from the seats with a good view of the field and my analytical brain turned on. I’m always in the supporters section, trying to be the loudest person there. I deliriously revel in each win and am hopelessly gutted by each loss. It’s the very best way to spend match day: emotionally.

But when Monday rolls around, I am secretly a very realistic and even optimistic person. To Monday-morning David, the specific weekend result almost doesn’t even matter. I prefer to take the long view — the very long view of even the next several years — and ask questions such as: “Is the team learning from its mistakes?” “Is the front office still making the right decisions to slowly put together long term success?” or “Does the team have the infrastructure on, around, and off the pitch to keep moving in the right direction, no matter the standings?”

An easy knee jerk reaction to those questions would be “no, it is slipping at every turn, the club had a horrific offseason scouting, the tactics don’t suit the men, and the goal differential reflects a steeper level of expansion year ‘badness’ than is acceptable.” Forums and social media suggest a pretty heavy level of pessimism about the direction of the club from fans early in the season.

It’s time to simmer down.

What is a realistic goal for an expansion team, anyway?

Grant Wahl’s famous five wins prediction became an easy punching bag before the season began, but it was also an uniquely unhelpful prediction in more ways than just its cynicism. If Minnesota United wins its sixth game and never wins another, will anyone be calling this year a success? Likely not. But too many are using Wahl’s one prediction as a straw man argument for generally unrealistic bad expectations for Minnesota. In truth, Wahl’s call was only a couple wins off a pretty common expansion pace. Here are some notable expansion season win totals dating back to when Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake first joined the league; let’s consider MLS before 2005 too different a beast to make a good comparison.

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

Several things stand out right away. First, Minnesota is hanging around the middle of the pack in terms of points per game (ppg). For a team that has been unwilling to spend big money on big talent and — as the club will remind you at every opportunity — had a short turnaround time to build a team as it moved from the NASL to MLS, one could expect Minnesota to be around the lower end of the expansion table. I would argue it sits right about where it should hope or expect to be under the circumstances.

Another obvious trend is that expansion teams have had better seasons in more recent memory. With the exception of Seattle, most of the top seasons for expansion teams have occurred in the last five or six years. This is a result of spending opening up and more available roster building options. This creates the effect of expecting an expansion team to always show that level of success out of the gates.

But New York City FC, which joined in 2015, brought along David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and (eventually) Frank Lampard and only succeeded at roughly the same pace Minnesota is right now. New York might not have been happy with its first year, but would anyone have written off the club at that point? Of course not (well, the owners did fire head coach Jason Kreis, but that’s beside the point). And only three years later they are tied for third in the Supporters’ Shield race. NYCFC installed stars first, but had terrible depth behind them. Minnesota opted to try for depth first and build up from there. Same results (so far), just earned on a better budget.

So what is a realistic expectation for Minnesota’s first season? We may be looking at it right now. A 1.06 PPG over the course of the year would yield about 36 points at season’s end. This would mean no playoffs, but it wouldn’t be a total to visit your therapist over.

Uff da, that roster though…

If the real goal of an expansion team is to position itself for future success — earn points tomorrow rather than points today — then both the strategy for roster building and the infrastructure around things like scouting, academy, etc. are essential. The narrative appears to be that folks like Manny Lagos couldn’t scout their way out of a wet paper bag, and that there’s not much reason for optimism that the future will yield results any better.

But failure is so much easier to observe than success, and easier to talk about too. Failure is obvious and often spectacular in the Loons’ case. The voice in your head is correct, Vadim Demidov did not perform well; save your jokes, because they’ve all been made already. Bashkim Kadrii has not become the winger it was hoped he would become. John Alvbåge is pretty handsomely paid to visit Twin Cities destinations and Instagram about them.

But if the goal is faith that the front office can continue to build a team better and better over time, there is plenty of space for optimism. Jérôme Thiesson has been tremendous on the right (and now left) side both on defense and supporting the attack. Francisco Calvo has been solid at center back. Alvbåge, though perhaps overvalued when proven MLS talent was available locally, was a victim of the back line in front of him. Given decent time with the revamped defense, he could have proven to be a good find.

The domestic signings have been imperfect, but also leave room for hope. Kevin Molino is a great MLS winger. Miguel Ibarra has changed his game since his NASL days, and is now a reliable two-way midfielder that still has speed to burn. The club did incredible work bringing in Marc Burch and Sam Cronin for the low, low price of Mohamed Saeid and Josh Gatt. In fact, that trade single-handedly salvaged a respectable season for the team. Also hard to overlook is the trade that landed a resurgent Bobby Shuttleworth. The trade felt tough at the time, giving up young talent with high potential for a veteran goalkeeper whose career seemed on the wane, but in hindsight it proved critical.

Finally, let us not forget that Minnesota’s NASL talent is the result of the same scouting personnel the team has today. Diamonds-in-the-rough Christian Ramirez and Ibarra were uncovered by people like Lagos and Amos Magee. Ibson has become the glue holding this entire team together, also a product of those NASL scouting days. Brent Kallman emerged from nowhere to be a confident MLS defender.

Yes, the team’s roster-building had major opportunities for improvement, but to boil it all down to some European whiffs is too lazy. Minnesota had some good successes, as well, and it isn’t as though Lagos forgot how to identify talent like Ramirez, Ibarra, and Ibson. Thoughts should be focused on what comes next. The club has begun slowly laying the groundwork for its youth program, and further scouting support will be needed to continue to grow. Fans should be confident in the front office’s ability to do that, and to replicate the success of their better signings, of whom there are more than they often get credit for.

What about off the field?

There are other dimensions of success for an expansion club that are just as vital to long term success as performance on the pitch. Maybe even more important.

I hesitate to bring up attendance because I would like the comments section to stay in the triple digit responses, but Minnesota United’s attendance has been acceptable. An attendance of 17,000 to 19,000 each week at TCF Bank Stadium suggests that by the time Cloud City is built, it will be filled. The magic of a new stadium that was built for soccer and (hopefully) an improved team will be enough to make it a great place to be on game day. I would love 35,000 season ticket holders, but come time for the Midway stadium that would just mean 15,000 people on a waiting list for all eternity. The club will be okay at the current numbers.

Speaking of a new stadium…a new stadium, guys. If I had walked up to you in 2012 — as the Stars bowed out of the Soccer Bowl and issued an organizational death rattle — to tell you a brand new, soccer-specific stadium would be built for an MLS team within the decade, you would have called a doctor for me. Hell, if I’d have said that in early 2016 it still would have seemed impossible. But here we are, with diggers and hard hats. That is more than clubs in Seattle, Atlanta, and New York City can say as they toil in other teams’ stadia despite their high profile successes.

Finally, what has the team’s impact in the community looked like? How successful is its advertising footprint? What is awareness like in the Twin Cities and beyond? Here, I think the club has made some of its biggest missteps. The club was late to the game getting the word out ahead of the season, and the campaigns it did engage in (like billboards and pop up merchandise stands) were fine but not creatively energizing. In a town busy with sports options, there is noise to cut through as they grow within the community. That said, I see more and more engagement from the team through radio and other media, more merchandise sold at more retailers, and dedicated journalism from people like Andy Greder and Megan Ryan in major publications. The best news is that it’s never too late to continue to grow awareness and find new, inventive ways to create buzz.

So what comes next?

There are still opportunities for the team, obviously. If Minnesota is not as bad as people think at spotting talent, the club’s wages show it is clearly bad at valuing that talent. The team is razor thin and reinforcements are needed at all positions, even if it is just reliable backups. The squad is also way too old — one of the oldest in MLS, in fact — and sustainability needs to come through a blend of reliable veterans and exciting youngsters. Enhancements to scouting personnel are needed to bolster efforts at roster building and uncovering great value players.

Finally, as hard as it is for the club to hear, Minnesota will eventually need to sign a few bona fide stars to genuinely compete for hardware, and that will mean parting ways with some money. Talent at spots 4-11 is as important as ever in this league, but the days of succeeding without eye poppers in spots 1-3 are about over.

The good news is that money will free up as loans end and duds are dealt, and the club can reassess its roster in upcoming windows. The distraction of stadium legislation is in the past. No longer is MNUFC operating under the burden of a hurried approach to squad building or with certain players who have no place playing on this team. It knows what it has, what has worked and what hasn’t, and now comes the long game of putting the right pieces in the right places at the right pace.

Pretty usual expansion stuff, really.

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