More details about the deal to bring Donovan back for the remainder of the 2016 season will undoubtedly emerge on Friday and over the weekend, but for anyone who’s appreciated Donovan’s game in MLS and with the national team over the years, Thursday’s news was a thrill.
No one knows how long he’ll take to get into game shape or what he’ll look when he does get fit, but every LA game for the rest of the year – starting with Sunday’s match against Orlando City (7 pm ET; FS1 in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada) – just became must-see-TV.
Off-the-field progress in Minnesota
Before he became Minnesota United FC president in 2013, Nick Rogers worked as an attorney in a Washington, D.C. law firm.
During one of his first days on the job, Rogers, then fresh out of law school, got a bit of a business primer from one of the firm’s senior partners. The partner told Rogers that practicing law is like a pie-eating contest. If you win, the prize is more pie.
Rogers has been thinking about that analogy a lot in recent weeks.
It’s been a professionally thrilling, if incredibly busy, time for Rogers and the Minnesota staff since the Aug. 19 announcement that United would be joining MLS in 2017.
On the one hand, Rogers is thrilled. After nearly 18 months of uncertainty following the initial March 2015 announcement that the club had been awarded an MLS expansion franchise, Minnesota got the timeline they wanted for entering the league.
On the other, he and the rest of the club’s front office are under real deadline pressure. They have a stadium to design, a roster to build, employees to hire, tickets and sponsorships to sell and, unlike their 2017 expansion partner Atlanta, who have never before fielded a team in any league, an NASL championship to win. They’re operating on an intense timeline, with less than six months until they begin their MLS era.
More success, more pie, right?
“It’s a very stressful time for our organization, but it’s a hugely energizing time, as well,” Rogers said in a phone interview on Thursday afternoon. “We’re working on things that very, very few people get to work on in their professional lives. Designing and building a stadium is something very few people ever get to be a part of, launching a team into a major league is something very few people ever get to be a part of. Those are very exciting things for us, but we’ve got enough going on that we’re not sitting back and reflecting on that maybe as much as I’d like to. We’ve gotta keep working.”
Fortunately, things appear to be off to a solid start. Minnesota soccer site FiftyFive.one reported on Thursday that United, who will play next year at the University of Minnesota’s 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium before the planned opening of their own stadium in St. Paul’s Snelling-Midway neighborhood in 2018, sold 5,000 season ticket deposits for the 2017 season in the first week after last month’s expansion announcement.
Rogers confirmed that number on Thursday, saying that he expects “95 to 100 percent” of those non-refundable deposits to be converted into full season tickets for 2017 when the club begins that process next month.
Rogers said that the 5,000 season ticket deposits for the 2017 MLS season include fans from Minnesota’s current crop of 5,300 season ticket holders for 2016. The club, who Rogers said will reveal updated season ticket numbers “in the coming days,” are averaging an NASL-leading 8,475 fans per match in their 12 home games at NSC Stadium in suburban Blaine this year, a marginal downtick from the 8,767 they averaged in 2015.
That number will undoubtedly rocket up next year, even if United won’t yet be playing in their own building. The club will be temporarily housed at TCF Bank Stadium, the home of the University of Minnesota’s football team. United are in the process of determining the overall capacity for MLS games at TCF Bank as well as whether or not they'll cover any sections with tarp.
They're planning on moving into their own, privately-funded home in St. Paul potentially as soon as the start of the 2018 season. There’s still no firm date for a groundbreaking on the 21,500-seat building, but United had their site plan approved by the St. Paul City Council a couple of days before the expansion announcement, clearing the way for them to begin construction once the design is finalized.
The conceptual design for the stadium – how the stands will be laid out, what the exterior will look like, etc. – is complete. Rogers said that schematic design – which deals with more of the structural and technological components – is nearly finished. What the club is focused on now is what Rogers called the “design development phase,” a process that involves “filling out the guts” and getting “users in the room” to determine the best design for various, specialized areas of the stadium such as the press box, box office and locker room and training areas.
Rogers said that the club will move ahead with construction despite the fact that a property tax exemption United are seeking for the stadium site has not yet been written into law. The exemption was included as part of a tax-cut package passed by both chambers of the Minnesota State Legislature in May, but the bill was pocket vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton due to a drafting error that reportedly would’ve cost the state $101 million in revenue in the next budget cycle.
The legislature is currently out of session, and unless Dayton calls a special session – something he’s gone back and forth about in recent weeks – to settle the tax bill, it won’t reconvene until Jan. 3, 2017. The Minnesota legislature typically doesn’t pass tax bills early in their sessions, meaning United’s property tax exemption for the stadium site could be on hold until the session ends next May and potentially even longer.
Still, the provision to include the property tax exemption for the stadium wasn’t controversial. Rogers expects it to be included in the tax bill that eventually passes. In the meantime, the club plans on constructing their $150 million building that is planned to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use development. .
“We feel confident in the political leaders of Minnesota that they’ll do the things that they said they’ll do,” Rogers said. “The reason our bill got vetoed had nothing to do with our provision, it was a drafting error in an unrelated part of the bill. We’re not going to wait on that to start doing what we need to do on the stadium.
“We’re confident that the leaders of Minnesota will deliver on the promises that they made, at the appropriate time. Obviously, we would’ve preferred to have gotten it done this session but there’s no way we would even get a [property] tax bill [for the stadium] until 2019, so there’s a number of legislative sessions between now and then where we can get this done and we’re confident we will get it done.”
Outlining Minnesota’s inaugural MLS roster
There’s still plenty of work to be done on the stadium and in Minnesota’s other off-field initiatives, but those projects at least have a modicum of an outline. Even if Rogers and his staff don’t know the exact specifics of how certain things will look, they at least have an outline.
The same can’t really be said of what Minnesota’s roster will look like next March.
The main message from Rogers on Thursday was that no one – none of the players, nor first-year head coach Carl Craig or his staff – is guaranteed for next year.
That said, United – who finished fourth in the NASL’s spring season and are currently in fourth in the fall season, putting them in good position to qualify for the playoffs – do have a number of intriguing players on their roster. They’ll almost certainly bring a few of them along to MLS, adding them to the players they’ll acquire through the transfer market, still-technically-unconfirmed MLS Expansion Draft and MLS SuperDraft, in which they’ll hold one of the top two selections.
United’s top talent is probably forward Christian Ramirez, who has been a stud in his three seasons in Minnesota. The 25-year-old led NASL with 20 goals in 27 appearances in 2014 and added 12 goals and six assists in 30 regular season contests last year. He was named to the NASL Best XI in both seasons and should make it for the third time in a row this year – he currently leads the league with 14 goals in 23 games.
I’d be shocked if Ramirez, who drew praise from Jurgen Klinsmann earlier this year, isn’t starting for Minnesota next March.
He’s not the only current Loon that will likely be on the club’s MLS roster next year, either. Fullbacks Justin Davis, who is featured in the team’s advertising for 2017 season ticket deposits, and Kevin Venegas both signed what the club called “long-term contracts” with the team in January. Both Davis, 28, and Venegas, 27, were drafted by MLS teams out of college and both mentioned playing with Minnesota in MLS in their quotes in the press release that announced their extensions this winter.
Rogers was clear that their deals aren’t guaranteed for MLS next year, but did add that they’re “two Best XI players … who have been with our club for four or five years at this point and they’re guys that we have high hopes for.”
Other players to watch for on the Loons’ current roster include three-time NASL Best XI selection and Jamaican international midfielder Lance Laing, 2015 NASL MVP Stefano Pinho and former MLS players Jeb Brovsky, Danny Cruz and Ben Speas. The club also have several players on their roster currently on loan from MLS squads in Portland’s Chris Klute, who was acquired earlier this week, Sporting KC’s Bernardo Añor and Seattle’s Damion Lowe.
Minnesota, who announced the hiring of an academy director on Thursday, will also be active in their search for Designated Players. The club doesn’t yet have a confirmed plan for those three spots – Rogers said they’ll still need guidance from the club’s ownership “to understand what they’re looking to do” in terms of spending – but United technical director Manny Lagos said at the expansion event that he assumes they’ll be used “to help make us competitive from the start.”
According to Rogers, who didn’t comment on the FutbolMLS.com report that United have spoken to longtime German international Bastian Schweinsteiger, the club isn’t looking to pay above market value for any potential player, DPs included.
“The one thing I can say now that Manny and I talk about is that we don’t want to spend marketing dollars on our roster,” Rogers said. “I don’t think we have any aversion to spending money for value, but what we don’t want to do is with these bigger name players is pay for something – I don’t want to pay a guy more than the market commands. I want to pay money for value, and that’s sort of the guiding philosophy.
“We want to get value back for the dollars we spend. We don’t want to look at any particular player as having marketing value or having some sort of amorphous sort of value that’s reflected off the field. I think we want to spend roster dollars on on-field value.”
Houston's Cubo era comes to a close?
Speaking of getting value for Designated Players, the Houston Dynamo potentially ended the Erick "Cubo" Torres era last week, when they loaned the Mexican youth international to Liga MX club Cruz Azul for the remainder of the 2016 season.
Cruz Azul holds an option to buy Torres from Dynamo at the end of the loan period. Multiple sources told MLSsoccer.com this week that the option is for $2.5 million, several million less than the $5-7 million transfer fee ESPN FC’s Jeff Carlisle reported was paid for Torres when he was signed to a five-year MLS deal from Chivas Guadalajara after Chivas USA folded following the 2014 season.
If Cruz Azul doesn’t exercise their option on Torres, he’ll return to the Dynamo in Jan. 2017.
Torres hasn’t come close to meeting expectations in Houston. Signed by the Dynamo on Dec. 23, 2014, after scoring 22 goals in 44 games in a year-and-a-half with Chivas USA, Torres was expected to be a star in Texas. An experienced Mexican youth international with senior team potential, the thought was that he would lead the Dynamo attack as the club transitioned into the Owen Coyle era after nine years under Dom Kinnear.
It didn’t work out. As outlined in the transfer from Chivas, Torres spent the first half of 2015 on loan in Guadalajara. He never settled in with Houston. He debuted on June 2, but didn’t play again until July 23, registering a lone assist, zero goals and one shot on goal in 11 regular season appearances in 2015.
Things didn’t get any better this year. Torres was a major part of Mexico’s Olympic team, helping them qualify last year and spending significant stretches in camp ahead of the Rio games this season. All that time away meant he again struggled to settle in. He had more problems cracking the lineup, falling behind Will Bruin on the depth chart in Coyle’s lone-striker formation.
Those issues continued after Coyle left and interim head coach Wade Barrett took over, with Torres totaling an almost identical stat line in 2016 – 11 games, four starts, one assist, three shots on goal – as he did in his first year with the Dynamo.
The Dynamo are hopeful that Torres, who GM Matt Jordan told MLSsoccer.com over the phone earlier this week drew interest from “a handful of Liga MX clubs” in addition to Cruz Azul, will find a measure of comfort and return to form with Cruz Azul.
“There was a general consensus that Erick was going to benefit from a fresh environment,” Jordan said. “Sometimes you kind of just need to rest, recharge your battery, get a fresh environment and based on the meetings we had with Erick – and it was all positive discussions – we felt this as in the best interest of everybody.”
How it all plays out is of course yet to be determined, but, regardless of whether Torres returns in January, it’s fair to expect the last-place Dynamo, who Jordan said will assess Barrett and their coaching situation after the season, to make plenty more moves ahead of 2017.