As Minnesota United stepped onto the pitch this week to face up against the 2015 MLS Champions, it wasn’t quite David and Goliath, but it wasn’t that far off. A Loons squad replete with second division talent has torn up the book of clichés. In fact, it has succeeded on the backs of its former NASL players and not despite them.
The Timbers squad that faced the Loons boasted the genius of Diego Valeri, the hulking skill of Fanendo Adi, the guile of Darlington Nagbe, and the rabid devilry of Diego Chará. Minnesota, on the other hand, had five players who used to feature in a good, but never great NASL team. And yet, somehow the Loons were triumphant.
There are a number of run-of-the-mill reasons that Minnesota could win out over a team like Portland and in many ways, a “home team showing more passion” win is quintessentially MLS. However, the win over Portland should (though likely won’t) put to bed the lazy assumptions about NASL players.
The criticisms and doubts of Minnesota United pre-dated its horrible start to the beginning of the season. Most famously, perhaps, Grant Wahl relayed (auto-play video ahead) what he had heard from coaches and GMs around the league, that “There are who are saying Minnesota in its first year might be one of the worst teams in MLS history on the field.” This was before a single player was signed.
Those doubts seemed to be reinforced when Minnesota shipped 11 goals in its first two matches. To be honest, the critics were mostly correct: Minnesota’s squad assembly was worrying, they were actually bad at the beginning of the season, and the Loons very well could have been the worst team in MLS history.
What was bizarre for those who watch the Loons closely, however, was that a very large portion of the criticism (the parts that weren’t pointed at Vadim Demidov) faulted Minnesota for its heavy reliance on NASL players. Most (though not “everyone”) of the media seemed to take this same position.
Rewatching the Loons’ improbable victory over the Timbers, three of the players that stand out are: Christian Ramirez, Ibson, and Brent Kallman. All three of these players were staples for the NASL iteration of Minnesota United.
Christian Ramirez was by far the best-known quantity of the NASL graduates to move with the team to MLS. Almost every article about him (including several by myself) played out along very familiar lines of: here is the best American striker you have never heard of, hedged by “but he has to prove his doubters wrong.”
Here was the forward who had scored more goals than any other American over the previous three seasons, a player with two Golden Boots in four years of being a professional, and still there was hemming and hawing.
Here was the forward who had scored more goals than any other American over the previous three seasons, a player with two Golden Boots in four years of being a professional, and still there was hemming and hawing. If he had this record in the Finnish league, the rabid foam of Yanks Abroad aficionados screaming for his call-up would have spilled through the streets in grotesque, Michael Bay orgiastic spectacle. But “there were doubts.”
Ibson played in the Champions League for Spartak Moscow and has played for giants like Porto, Corinthians, and Flamengo. In the NASL, he was often infuriating. At times he walked on water, messianic; often, he was petulant, as if infuriated that his body no longer possessed its genius. But his talent was never in doubt. This was a player who could absolutely walk onto just about every MLS team. Or, that is what those who watched him regularly knew to be true.
If Ramirez had to overcome doubters, Brent Kallman had to scale an entire mountain of them. The hometown hero didn’t really secure a regular starting spot until he was 25. Even then, he was described as perhaps playing above his skill. He came to MLS as the fourth choice center back and, since replacing Vadim Demidov, he has solidly secured his position as Francisco Calvo’s partner in the defense.
All three of these players have shown that they are absolutely ready for MLS. Like Luke Mulholland before them, they have shown that the talent in NASL can and should be tested on a higher level.
To this point, however, the wall between MLS and NASL has remained largely impermeable. A player like Miguel Ibarra could win the NASL Golden Ball and a USMNT callup, yet it was Liga MX that came calling and not MLS teams. Ramirez, too, almost moved to Mexico on a couple of occasions, but there was never significant interest from MLS suitors.
The reasons MLS clubs seem so reticent to take chances on NASL talent are a mixture of finances and lazy stereotypes. MLS clubs do not pay for players in general. A large portion of the players who come in to the league are brought in on free transfers. This is particularly the case for NASL players. Those who do make the leap between the leagues are signed on free transfers or for pittances paid to the NASL clubs.
MLS clubs will spend money to sign a player from France’s Ligue 2, but a player from NASL? Never. And this comes out of the same ingrained stereotypes that caused people to assume that if Minnesota United was struggling in MLS it had to be the NASL players to be blamed.
The truth is: NASL players are not all that far off of MLS players. Certainly, the 1-5 spots on MLS are far and away better than the best players on NASL teams. However, outside that top five, the player pool looks remarkably like the best players in NASL. Ibson, perhaps the best central midfielder in NASL, is not the best midfielder in MLS, but he could play on any team in the league. Ramirez may not win the Golden Boot in MLS, but he will almost certainly be the best American goalscorer in the league. Brent Kallman, a center back who played well in NASL, is now a center back playing well in MLS.
Jeff Rueter wrote convincingly about this same problem for The Guardian. He includes this quote from agent Matt Cairns:
“I don’t understand it,” Cairns says of the reluctance. Some NASL clubs ask for transfer fees of merely $50,000 or so depending on the player. “Minnesota priced Ramirez highly, but there wasn’t an MLS team that tested the water. Why didn’t a team that couldn’t score goals take a flier? He’s a final piece of the puzzle for teams that have creative play. Why wouldn’t you pay $50,000 for a chance?”
Perhaps, the success of Minnesota’s NASL players in MLS will help adjust these stereotypes. There are a number of players like JC Banks, Nazmi Albadawi, Stefano Pinho, and half the New York Cosmos who would be very good signings for many MLS teams. Additionally, the same argument goes for the bizarre fact that Giovanni Savarese has not been hired to coach an MLS team.
Often these stereotypes have been trumpeted and by a media that has almost no knowledge of the NASL beyond the annual U.S. Open Cup matches. In those cases, a 3-1 loss by an NASL team is lazily applied as an indictment of the individual talent of players in the league.
Even Minnesota United made the mistake of letting the NASL stereotypes shape its decisions. Instead of bringing a player like JC Banks with them to MLS or looking to other NASL players like Jimmy Maurer, they took chances on Scandinavian players who have almost all flopped in MLS.
Minnesota United will continue to correct and fill out its roster to become a team that can do more than just upset the Timbers. They need to become a team that can stand toe to toe with teams like Portland on a regular basis. But they can at least begin that process knowing that they have a bedrock of talent, talent that was culled from the NASL.
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