Minnesota United - crowd with loon flag waving
Courtesy of Minnesota United FC

Boehm: Atlanta, Minnesota a study in contrasts as spotlight turns their way

Expansion twins Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC both kick off their MLS lives in less than 90 days, but you might not know it by comparing their rosters as of Monday morning.

With a bevy of much-ballyhooed moves, ATL UTD already have enough players on theirs to field an XI (we'll fudge a little and assume their well-reported pursuit of Brad Guzan soon comes to fruition as expected). They've got big-money DPs, ahead-of-schedule Homegrowns and plenty in between, and can already sell you their official jerseys. They have been widely hailed for the acuity and aggression of their moves thus far.

The list is a lot shorter over at MNUFC.com. Only three names, in fact, all of them blue-collar defenders, leaving them with two-dozen or so more to go. Those numbers will change dramatically soon enough, of course, and are a bit deceptive given that they, unlike Atlanta, have been competing on the field for several years now in NASL, longer if you track their lower-division origins back a few iterations.

Still, the league's two newcomers have taken markedly different tacks towards opening day 2017. And it may show as they step into the MLS limelight – whether they're ready or not – when their final runup begins with Tuesday's Expansion Draft. That's followed closely by the leaguewide Waiver and Re-Entry (Stage 1) drafts on Thursday and Friday. Oh, and the internal free-agency negotiations process begins on Tuesday afternoon, too, while the international transfer window (tick tock!) opens on New Year's Day.

The MLS Cup has flown to Seattle, and the proverbial hot-stove season has officially begun. It's a crucial period for all 22 member clubs, but none more so than the duo starting from one version of scratch or another.

In recent waves of expansion a perception has taken root that an advantage lies with teams who've already been operating in the lower divisions, vs. new entities like Atlanta or New York City FC. The likes of Minnesota, Orlando and Montreal had already learned lessons in their prior environs, of course, and just seemed to have less to worry about all at once as they pivoted towards MLS.

That conventional wisdom seems to be withering a bit. Fueled by owner Arthur Blank's full-blooded mobilization of resources, ATL UTD keep turning heads, first with near-unprecedented investments in infrastructure and later with a series of promising roster additions. Last week's signing of rising Paraguayan star Miguel Almiron is the latest, though not the last and maybe not even greatest, installment. Trading for Columbus' cerebral center back Michael Parkhurst laid down another marker of their playing style and ambitions under coach Tata Martino.

Meanwhile Minnesota have to some extent been prisoners of circumstance, forced to focus on multiple fronts: the home stretch of their 2016 season, the myriad logistics of next year's debut (which will take place in a new home venue, TCF Bank Stadium) and the final steps towards construction of their own new stadium, an enormous and pivotal investment unto itself. Head coach Adrian Heath only officially jumped on board on Nov. 29 and has already gone to Argentina and back on a Latin American scouting trip with sporting director Manny Lagos, and was prominently spotted at the NCAA College Cup in Houston over the weekend.

Heath's words at his unveiling, combined with Twin Cities native and former D.C. United assistant coach Amos Magee taking charge of MNUFC's player personnel duties, suggest that the Loons are taking a less “sexy” but perhaps more grounded approach to the inaugural campaign ahead.

“It’s an experienced league, and [Orlando City] had the youngest team by probably two years in 2015,” said Heath, in a clear acknowledgment of the hard lessons he took from leading the Lions into MLS last year. “Experience is gonna be big for us moving forward.

“Amos Magee being here is massive. He’s been through it with Portland and D.C., who are probably one of the better clubs in the league at generating an experienced club that can compete.”

Magee was an irresistible hire for MNUFC, and not just because of his deep local roots. He took the ride on the Timbers' tumultuous entry into this league before helping Ben Olsen build D.C. United into the Eastern Conference's most efficiently-constructed contender. It suggests a measured roster-building process that might not wow us like Atlanta, but could create a sturdy, hard-to-beat outfit.

And given the woeful year-one history of MLS expansion sides, why not take a longer view? The excitement of newness usually has to suffice in the first season, with Seattle the sole newcomer to enjoy a winning record among the 11 that have joined the league since 2005. Last year Heath's Orlando came closer to the postseason than most, finishing five points out of the playoff places but repeatedly undone by glaring defensive issues. He – and his new employers – probably wouldn't mind being the tortoise instead of the hare this time.

Long ago residents of the North Star State coined a term to describe themselves, or at least their general cultural norm: “Minnesota nice.” The term denotes “polite friendliness” and “propensity toward understatement,” in the words of a 2014 commentary piece in the local Star Tribune, and “the reluctance to make a fuss or draw attention.” It's a loaded, multilayered term, however, as it seems all that geniality disguises a harder edge under the surface (one probably necessary to survive those harsh winters).

But it marks a stark contrast to Atlanta's showy southern swagger. Over the next few days and months, the two may give us an absorbing spectacle with their race to opening day.

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