I made some notoriously horrible predictions in 2016, so Minnesota United FC fans may want to just close this tab and go for a walk. Try not to dwell on the kiss of death I'm about to put upon your beloved team.
So with that warning: I actually like how this roster has been built. I like it quite a bit.
Now, this doesn't mean that I expect the Loons to make the playoffs – I suspect both expansion teams will fall short. And I'm not sure that they're going to be better than Atlanta United (our other newcomer), and they probably won't do better than Orlando City did in 2015 when the Purple Lions grabbed 44 points. That's a very good haul.
But I've seen a lot of folks writing MNUFC off because they haven't made splashy signings, and because they haven't signed any DPs at all, and because they don't seem to plan to. This, the thinking goes, shows a lack of ambition and begets a lack of quality.
I'm not going to argue that the Loons couldn't use their own Sebastian Giovinco or Nicolas Lodeiro, and I'm sure that if Adrian Heath was offered the chance to sign a $7 million DP, he'd take it. But I still don't believe that guys in that cash stratosphere are necessary in order to put together a respectable-to-good team in this league. Partially that's because rosters are still relatively unbalanced, partially that's because local talent is so drastically undervalued on the world market, and partially that's because "player development" and "team structure" are more important to success in MLS than outright player recruitment. MLS isn't the EPL or La Liga or even Liga MX, where teams scout for mostly finished products and have to make signings to satisfy fanbases.
For good or for bad (YMMV) the salary budget and other roster rules limit that approach.
Instead, there are two ways a team has to be good before it can be great:
- Have a plan to craft young talents into quality players
- Have a plan to understand how your players fit together
I think Heath, Manny Lagos et al get that, and so they've gone about building a team with both balance and CONCACAF – if not necessarily MLS – experience at every level. This is what I'm going to guess their starting XI looks like:
You're not going to win MLS Cup with that lineup, but you're also not going to lose 20 games. You're going to be solid up the middle with a Swedish international goalkeeper, Norwegian and Costa Rican international center backs, MLS veteran Collen Warner as the No. 6 and a Finnish international box-to-box midfielder. None of those field players is over 30. Add experienced depth behind each, and to me all of the above means "We're not going to beat ourselves with dumb mistakes."
Dumb mistakes kill expansion teams. Limiting them, as Job 1, is a smart approach.
The attack is more of a question simply because nobody knows how well Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra are going to adjust to MLS. Kevin Molino is, we know, capable of putting up real numbers in attack while I have a hunch Johan Venegas is going to be able to replicate something closer to his Costa Rica form for Minnesota than he ever really got near for Montreal. There's uncertainty but also experience and upside, and – this is what impresses me – balance. One of the wingers (Venegas) is more of a goalscorer while the other (Ibarra) is more of a chance creator. Ramirez is a classic No. 9, the sort of guy who's easy to play with and off of, and Molino is a relatively proven commodity who's been given the keys to the car and understands exactly what Heath expects of him. I look at that group and I feel like I know how they fit.
It reminds me a bit of what D.C. United did during the second half of the year. They took a chance on a young No. 9, got two complementary wingers, and gave the keys to a young playmaker who'd been overlooked or played out of position elsewhere. No DPs in that group, but they managed to be the highest-scoring team in the league from August onward based upon fit, chemistry and complementary skillsets.
I also know how high Heath is on No. 1 overall draft pick Abu Danladi, who he feels he'll be able to craft into the type of player who someday gets sold for £5-8 million. And since Heath has developed Molino, Cyle Larin and Dom Dwyer I'm not going to argue too strenuously against his evaluation. He knows attacking talent, and even if Danladi doesn't live up to Heath's hopes, he should still be a potent weapon off the bench at three different spots and provide the ability to shift into true, two-forward looks.
Fullback is, admittedly, less certain. A couple of MNUFC fans I speak with expect both Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas to struggle in MLS, and if that happens there will have to be adjustments (shifting Francisco Calvo to left back could be one of them). It's a worry, but fullback issues are only rarely fatal in MLS, and this team still has plenty of budget flexibility and open roster space should the opportunity or need for a new acquisition arrive.
There will be some ugly games for this team no matter what happens, but I think the risk of that becoming the dominant story has been minimized by the way this team has been built. "Solid but unspectacular" is fine for year one, and should provide the team's braintrust with the right platform for targeted rather than hopeful DP signings next winter. That incrementalist approach to team building is appealing.
I think it will work better than folks realize. Minnesota fans should take heart, but also take heed – as I said at the top, I was disastrously wrong about myriad things last year. And this is MLS, after all, so what seems plausible one minute can turn impossible in the next.
We'll start finding out where all of the above fits on that spectrum one month from tomorrow.