On Monday, Minnesota United FC announced that midfielder Kevin Molino would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Molino had been Minnesota’s best player through the first 140 minutes of the season. He contributed to each of Minnesota’s three goals of the year while he was on the field, scoring two and assisting the third. Molino experienced a similar injury and layoff only three years ago.
It felt like Minnesota always faced an uphill route to climb in order to make the playoffs; they're the only player in the league without a Designated Player, and Molino was their biggest investment.
Here are five options to fill the void, from most likely to least likely:
1. Sign someone new
The transfer window doesn’t close until May 10th. Minnesota made it clear, through their chase of Argentine playmaker Nicolas Benedetti, that they have transfer funds available. In January, Minnesota reportedly made an unsuccessful $4 million bid. MLSsoccer.com’s Paul Tenorio reported that Deportivo Cali were asking for closer to $8 million. Minnesota decided to table the negotiations.
Now, Minnesota’s Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement has changed, and their negotiating position has worsened. Does that mean they increase the price they are willing to pay to either get Benedetti or someone like him? Perhaps they lower their standards and spend the amount they were originally willing to pay, but for a different caliber of player?
Also, I’m not expecting Nicolas Benedetti to be among the fresh faces. While the conversation isn’t dead, it’s certainly stalled while Cali hopes for a European bidder to swoop in. #MNUFC— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) March 13, 2018
Heath told MLSsoccer.com that they were already hoping to announce a few signings soon, including players they believe can play in the starting XI. It could be that one of them is an attacking midfielder who would slot right into Molino’s place. Jeff Rueter reported that Heath’s plan was to have one of the new signings be a central playmaker and to move Molino wide. In that case, it appears Heath already has a ready-made replacement for the spot.
And then, today, there was this:
MNUFC general manager Manny Lagos and coach Adrian Heath are headed down to see Club America's Darwin Quintero on Wednesday, per multiple league sources. Story to come on https://t.co/Xa2LznQNKg.— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) March 13, 2018
Tenorio later fleshed out the reporting, but with Minnesota declining comment, we'll have to wait and see on this front.
2. Trade for Lee Nguyen
Lee Nguyen – the one with 42 goals and 40 assists over the last 4 years of MLS play – hasn’t made a 2018 appearance for the New England Revolution. They're still at odds over a trade request: Nguyen wants out, and the Revs don’t want to give in to a player’s demands when he's currently under contract. It’s unclear whether the Revs are entertaining offers for Nguyen, or if Minnesota has the allocation money (say … $800,000 in TAM?) to get Nguyen. But making a clean addition would provide MNUFC with one of MLS's elite attacking midfielders and an immediate fix for Heath.
3. Change the system
As Tenorio reported yesterday, Heath said the team will explore changing formations or moving players around. Heath could deploy a generic 4-4-2, with Christian Ramirez and Abu Danladi partnered up top. It gets two of his best players on the field at the same time and in their natural positions. It could give Minnesota a different look than almost every other team around the league. Most teams try to win the middle and control possession, whereas a 4-4-2 from Minnesota would essentially concede the middle while focusing on moving the ball wide and forward as quickly as possible.
As a personal preference, I wouldn’t mind seeing Heath keep the 4-2-3-1 – but with a defensive ethos, similar to Colorado circa 2016. Instead of putting an attacking option behind the striker, he could put a more destructive player there whose primary job is to work hard, win balls back quickly, and get scrappy goals around the box. Collin Martin is an energetic defensive mid who could be a good option to set the defensive tone higher up the field. At some point, Minnesota needs to ask themselves if they can get points from outplaying their opponents. If they can’t, then maybe it’s the right time to adopt the “grind them out” approach to get results.
4. Slot an attacker in … central attack
Instead of switching styles or signing a new player, Heath could replace Molino with an attacking midfielder from within the team. Or, more accurately, make an attacking midfielder of someone within the team, since he doesn’t really have any other natural options. Danladi, Miguel Ibarra, Sam Nicholson, and Frantz Pangop are all wide plays who could shift over. 2018 MLS SuperDraft selection Mason Toye – who subbed in Saturday – is probably best suited for the job, but he has about as many professional minutes as it takes for a tea to cool. Some would say Molino isn’t a natural central player, either, and Heath had no problem playing him in the middle. This would allow Heath to keep the general system and approach they’ve been preparing through the first year-plus of his tenure.
5. An intra-league loan
Minnesota now needs a skillful attacker. You know who’s a skillful attacker who isn’t playing? Andrew Carleton, the 18-year-old in Atlanta who some say was one of the best performers at last summer’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup. You know who else is a skillful attacker and isn’t playing? Toronto’s Jay Chapman. Carleton and Chapman probably aren’t single-handedly lifting Minnesota to the playoffs. But – and I ask this with total love and affection, Minnesota fans – do people in Minnesota feel confident about getting there anyway?
Teams don’t do it very often, but every team can make one loan within MLS, and Minnesota notably borrowed Brandon Allen from the Red Bulls last year. Carleton and Chapman probably wouldn’t be available for free, but it would likely prove a lower-cost option compared to signing someone like Benedetti.
If you aren’t going to make the playoffs, you can still be fun and exciting and likeable. You know who a lot of people in the US and Canada would turn on the TV to watch and who a lot of people around the US and Canada would cheer for? Andrew Carlton and Jay Chapman. It probably won’t happen, but it’s fun to think about.