Minnesota United start El-Ahmad era: "Don't underestimate us"

KEA Interview

Minnesota United FC, led by interim head coach Cameron Knowles and missing key attackers Emanuel Reynoso and Bongokuhle Hlongwane to start the year, have enjoyed one of the surprise starts to the 2024 season.

The Loons were the only road victor on MLS is Back weekend, taking a 2-1 result at Austin FC, before notching a 1-1 comeback draw vs. defending MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew to remain undefeated (1W-0L-1D).

Newly overseeing it all is Khaled El-Ahmad, Minnesota's new sporting director and chief soccer officer who was hired in November 2023 from England’s Barnsley FC and officially arrived in January.

El-Ahmad's first order of business? Hiring a permanent head coach, a move he finalized in late February when the club appointed former Manchester United assistant Eric Ramsay. The 32-year-old, who is set to take over next week, becomes the youngest full-time head coach in MLS history.

Fresh off Minnesota's strong start, El-Ahmad sat down for an extended interview with Extratime’s Andrew Wiebe to discuss Ramsay’s hire, the Loons’ roster, his journey to MLS and takes on Minnesota cuisine – including an on-and-off again relationship with Olive Garden.

On his decision to rejoin MLS after working with City Football Group on roster construction for New York City FC from 2015-21 (among other global scouting duties), the CSO was adamant about the appeal.

“I wanted to be in a place where I thought the league was growing, where there was a good stadium, good facilities, et cetera,” said El-Ahmad. “And when you actually start putting those things together, MLS becomes one of the top destinations in the world. It's a good league. It's growing on and off the pitch."

Aside from his time working with NYCFC, El-Ahmad developed deep roots stateside, and in the Upper Midwest, as a college soccer player at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an experience that led to finding a mentor in then-head coach Louis Bennett. He also played with future MLS standouts Ned Grabavoy (now general manager for the Portland Timbers) and Chris Rolfe in the PDL.

For El-Ahmad, that growing list of connections was more proof of the ways soccer builds community, a realization he first had as a refugee emigrating from war-torn Lebanon to Sweden as a child.

“When I came to Sweden, [soccer was] the easiest way to get friends, integrate,” said El-Ahmad. “And to me, it was not just the sport, it was a social group. And it literally is like the love of my life, along with my family, wife, and kids.”

The understanding of soccer as a global game also helped sell El-Ahmad on Ramsay, who is fluent in French and Spanish. Ramsay’s trajectory as a youth coach for sides like Swansea City and Chelsea and an assistant with Manchester United was attractive, too, with El-Ahmad citing the success of other MLS coaches with similar youth-to-first team paths as a key data point.

Creating a more fluid pipeline is something the new CSO has made tangible steps towards with Minnesota, having torn down walls in the office building that previously separated youth, second and first teams.

“I think our responsibility as clubs, yes, we want to win titles. But I think we really, really need to continue to grow the game, to have clear pathways and alignments from top to bottom, and that's what I wanted to do,” said El-Ahmad.

“We're collaborative, we're all in. We don't talk about MNUFC2 or academy or first team. We're just Minnesota United and I think that's very important that we're all in this together. "

A focus on the big picture may be one reason he’s not racing to fill the team’s third DP spot.

“I think for the DP spot it’s, one, see what's working first here and then, along with the culture settling and everything, to see what position and what is the best possible player we can get for that spot or allocation of money," said El-Ahmad. "And we're calm in the sense that we don't necessarily have to fill it.

That sentiment underlines the underdog belief Minnesota have exhibited during their first two matches. Asked to describe the soccer culture he wants to instill at MNUFC, El-Ahmad was clear: “I would say don't underestimate us.”