Minnesota United begin their third season in MLS this afternoon against the Vancouver Whitecaps. A busy preseason and a long offseason have led to this moment, but in some ways the team has been building towards it for over two years. After a rocky first MLS season and a lost second, here at last is the eagerly anticipated third year of the team’s vaunted ‘three year plan’.
So now that we’re in the thick of it, what did “three year plan” ever mean? The Loons have built their roster in fits and starts. Only Miguel Ibarra and Brent Kallman remain as links to the NASL days. Players like Bobby Shuttleworth and Francisco Calvo represent the team’s debut year in MLS. Then there are the players acquired along the way, like Michael Boxall, Ethan Finlay, Darwin Quintero, Eric Miller, and Romario Ibarra. Finally, in the offseason, the club splashed some serious MLS cash, hauling in proven league veterans like Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso and attracting key internationals like Ján Greguš, Romain Métanire, and Vito Mannone. It didn’t seem to come together as part of a grant plan, but at long last the Loons have a roster that on paper should contend for a playoff spot and beyond.
The team also made a big signing off the field when it linked up with Forward Madison, a USL League One expansion side, to provide a way for players to get more minutes if they’re not getting them with the MLS first team. Already the club has dispatched four players to the Wisconsin side, a huge step given how abysmally youth development was treated in past years.
Finally there’s the stadium. Allianz Field is officially complete as of this week, and will formally open in six more. For all of the mystery and suspicion around the three year plan, a new home in Midway has always been the most concrete element.
A new slate of starters. A new and gleaming home field. A USL affiliate. The Loons have come a long way. But now it all needs to come good, and there are still plenty of questions and worries. On the eve of the opener, here’s what’s on my mind:.
5. It’s time to see what Minnesota United soccer is intended to look like. Two years into MLS, and I couldn’t tell you what kind of soccer team Minnesota United wanted to be. They switched formations and tactics frequently over that stretch, never seeming to settle into something the coaching staff deemed worthy of building upon.
This year, that experimentation has to stop. The team has players skilled enough to execute the coach’s tactical vision, and a coaching staff that ought to know most of the players inside and out, because they’ve either been on the team before, or they were scouted thoroughly. What fans need to see from the club is an identity. It can start in week one, and become more legible over the weeks, but it must be there. Will they defend with a press, a low block, or something in between? Will they attack with methodical passing and quick strikes, or will they aim to put teams under pressure by getting the ball forward as fast as possible? Will they aim to get the ball to Darwin Quintero, or aim to play him into space? Will they tuck the wingers in, or keep them wide? Will the fullbacks push high, or stay back? There are a million questions that have yet to be answered.
Fair warning, the Loons might end up playing pretty boring soccer. In early preseason, they did not press, and they were overly reliant on Darwin Quintero beating people instead of creating chances with movement. But is that just where they were, or where they wanted to be? We’ll start to find out today. Regardless of its aesthetic quality, what’s more important is that the team is on the same page, bought into the system, and able to achieve results with it. In the past years, the team has largely played bad soccer and lost. If they can play bad soccer and win, most people would take that.
4. The Loons have a lot riding on this early season road trip. Right off the bat, Minnesota play 29% of their road slate for the year before the opener at Cloud City. The season before, the team won just once on the road. This year they must do better, and they must do better immediately. These five early road games are against extremely beatable teams. Vancouver are in rebuilding mode (albeit with the savvy Marc dos Santos at the helm). San Jose are returning almost their entire wooden spoon winning roster, just with a more famous coach. LA have also upgraded at coach, but their roster construction remains a mess. New England are an early trendy pick for this year’s worst team. Finally, the New York Red Bulls… well, they are a team that should crush the Loons. Unless(!) they advance in the CONCACAF Champions League, and Minnesota luck into facing a squad of reserves.
These five matches are some of the most winnable that the team will see all season away from home. If they fail to take advantage, the damage will be greater than just losing five opportunities to get points.
3. Injuries could very quickly derail the season. Yes, this team is much better on paper than teams in years past. But one huge reason for the special frustration for the previous year was the team’s inability to build a bench for this season. Key minutes could’ve gone to players like Collin Martin, Wyatt Omsberg, Carter Manley, and Mason Toye, who might’ve provided valuable minutes off the bench this year, and assumed roles as starters in the future. Instead, the minutes inexplicably went to players who were immediately cut after the season.
The Loons have a strong starting XI and a serious weakness behind. If Alonso gets hurt, who replaces him? Rasmus Schüller? Hassani Dotson? After the team sent trialist and USL Best XI selection Tah Brian Anunga home, and declined to sign Drew Conner (for reasons that I can’t guess), the midfield is paper thin. To varying degrees, you can say the same about Opara, Métanire, and Quintero. What distinguishes the top teams like the New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC from clubs like Minnesota is that the former two could lose any single one of their players and still be a top team, because they have a system (which I addressed above) and depth. The Loons have neither, and what gets me is that this is partly by choice. Alonso and Greguš played the entirety of preseason together, building chemistry. What happens if one of the two becomes unavailable? Who is ready to step up?
2. A surfeit of potentially good options, but no sure thing at striker. Minnesota have a ton of options up top to start the season. Ángelo Rodríguez? Abu Danladi? Mason Toye? Romario Ibarra? Each of these players has something different to offer, each has a different reason to be extremely concerned. The Loons might end the year with any of these four getting the bulk of the minutes, it’s simply impossible to tell. But if they are going to go anywhere this year, they’ll probably have to settle on someone.
Rodriguez started the first four games of preseason, and was the presumed starter heading into the year. But the Colombian looked slow of foot and mind in those matches, struggling to combine with his fellow attackers, and failing to score against teams like FC Tucson and Phoenix Rising. Then he got hurt, and that opened the door for Romario, who is nearly the polar opposite—lightning quick and a winger by training. He made a case for himself with a brace in the final preseason match against Orlando. By virtue of his health and preseason success, the Ecuadorian should start against Vancouver, but I know better than to bet against an entrenched coach’s favorite when it comes to Minnesota United FC.
Waiting in the wings is Toye, who looked the part in preseason, but did not finish enough chances and may still be a touch too young and raw. He needs to get minutes somewhere, however, and if he’s not with Madison, then he ought to see the field in Vancouver. Danladi is the team’s biggest X-factor. It can be hard to remember, but he has more MLS games and more goals scored than the other three combined. The Ghanian was pretty good in 2017, only to have his sophomore season ruined by persistent injuries. He saw a specialist in Barcelona (which I know nothing about, but it sure sounds impressive) over the offseason, and then immediately picked up an unrelated injury from training that kept him out all preseason. He’s gotta factor in at some point this year, but as a striker? He’s the most MLS-proven option the team has! But if either of the former three lay claim to the job, look to see Abu lined up out wide instead.
1. #MLSIsBack, baby. I know I can sound negative sometimes, but believe me, I am amped about this coming season. I am going to watch North American soccer for like eight hours straight today, and it’s going to be amazing.