GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. – On Thursday, Minnesota United FC announced that they signed the most prolific goal-scoring American player over the last three years, a player most US soccer fans have probably never heard of.
Despite bagging 51 goals and collecting two Golden Boots in three seasons as the highest scorer in the NASL (and runner-up the other season), Christian Ramirez remains relatively unknown to the larger soccer public. But if he has been dogged by doubts over whether he could succeed in better leagues like Liga MX or MLS, Christian shows no worry.
“I know that I’m going to be a case study for a lot of people and I’m going to have some eyes on me,” he said.
A “case study,” he calls himself, because he’s all too aware that his successes or failures will be a metric for some fans to assess the differences between leagues in the US. But as Ramirez was quick to add, “That’s part of my excitement going into it.”
The 25-year-old striker is used to proving people wrong. The child of Colombian immigrants, Ramirez came out of a college program (Concordia University in Irvine, California) that had not yet produced a professional player. After a dispiriting Seattle Sounders combine, he borrowed money from a friend to go on trial with now-defunct USL side the Charlotte Eagles.
As he remembers it: “I was supposed to come out to Minnesota United [for a trial] the following week. But that Sunday Charlotte offered me a contract and they said if I didn’t go to Minnesota I would get a signing bonus and get reimbursed for my trip, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’”
Ramirez ended up in Minnesota a year later in 2014, where he was viewed as a backup for the club’s marquee striker, Pablo Campos. An unfortunate ACL tear for Campos in preseason meant that this kid no one had ever heard of was the Loons’ starting forward. Sixteen minutes into his first match for Minnesota, Ramirez posted up into his defender with back to goal as a ball looped into the 18-yard box. On the half volley, he turned and sent a scorching shot into the top corner.
Christian Ramirez introduced himself to the team and league that day in style, but he didn’t stop there. He went on to score 19 more goals and missed out on the Golden Ball (NASL's MVP award) only to his friend and teammate Miguel Ibarra, who earned a call-up to the US national team with his performances that season.
After spending three seasons with the Loons, however, Ramirez thought his time might be up with the club. The striker had been pushing for an MLS contract in the summer, but the club wasn’t in position to commit just yet.
“I thought that I was moving on and I had played my last game in a Minnesota United jersey,” he admitted.
Several offers had come in from Liga MX clubs – Tijuana and Pumas among them – and Ramirez assumed he was Mexico-bound.
“I was pretty close to signing somewhere else,” he says, “but [MNUFC sporting director] Manny [Lagos] worked in some mysterious ways to get me the offer. I’m thankful for him, [owner] Bill [McGuire], and the club for believing in me.”
It was newly appointed head coach Adrian Heath’s additional personal touch that helped seal the deal, too. Ramirez was the first player Heath called when he took the head coaching role. There was no pressure to sign, Ramirez says, but Heath expressed his hope that they could work together.
Heath had encountered Ramirez before when his previous club, Orlando City, played Ramirez’s Charlotte Eagles in the 2013 USL-Pro championship. The match itself was a 7-4 melee where Dom Dwyer (another striker who flourished under Heath) scored four goals and Ramirez scored two. Heath says he tried to sign Ramirez after that match.
But now the two are finally teamed up for Minnesota United’s inaugural season and Heath couldn’t be more pleased. “The one thing I do know about football,” he says, “is that goalscorers are goalscorers. He’s a goalscorer.”
Even with – or perhaps because of – the doubts over whether he can replicate his form on a bigger stage, Ramirez is raring to go for the upcoming season. There will adjustments, he knows: style, speed, and pressure of the game. But that is “probably one of the biggest motivating factors: knowing the huge challenge ahead. I’m not the kind of person that is going to quit,” he said.
The player the fans call “Superman” will be back in Minnesota to add to his scoring tally. They don’t need any more evidence that he can score goals; they’ve had front-row seats to the most prolific American finisher of the last few years.