It's been a tough start to life in MLS for Minnesota United, who've earned fewer points than all but four MLS teams since the start of 2017. But Loons head coach Adrian Heath and GM Manny Lagos will be back next season, club CEO Chris Wright confirmed to MLSsoccer.com on Thursday.
In an interview with the Star Tribune’s Megan Ryan last week, Wright gave “passing grades” to Heath and Lagos for their work leading Minnesota since they jumped from NASL to MLS in 2017. Minnesota are currently ninth in the West with 36 points and will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss or a Real Salt Lake win this weekend.
Wright's comment generated plenty of discussion among Minnesota fans, but he mostly stood by his assessment on Thursday. He pointed to a rash of major injuries to key players as a big reason for the Loons’ struggles this year and said that the midseason signings of Designated Players Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez as well as the addition of Romario Ibarra are evidence that the club is “going down the right path” ahead of the opening of Allianz Field next spring.
“What I’ve tried to be is very patient and very understanding of all the circumstances around this year, and so when I say I give everybody a passing grade, knowing the different moving parts, that’s where I get to with both Manny and Adrian and say that it’s been OK given our circumstances,” said Wright.
Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright gives passing grades to Heath, Lagos, @theothermegryan reports. USL affiliate eyed for '19, possible U.S. women's national team game at Allianz Field. https://t.co/xdfZnTguTV pic.twitter.com/b974r5AL6B— Star Tribune Sports (@StribSports) September 24, 2018
“But no more excuses. Third year, going into what is a very important year for us, we’re going to get the injured guys back healthy, we’re going to sign some players in the next window, we’ve already signed three players… and so I think that the trajectory that we’re on is really solid. Only time will tell, but that’s why I gave everybody a passing grade.”
Heath and Lagos have worked through their share of challenges. There was the abbreviated run-up to the 2017 expansion season and this year they've had to overcome season-long injuries to three key players in Sam Cronin, Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino. The Loons also don’t yet have a USL team or affiliate they can tap into for relief.
In the bottom third of the league in payroll, according to numbers published by the MLS Players Association in May, the club has since invested with a focus on attackers. The highlight has been Quintero, who has emerged as a bona fide MLS star to the tune of double digits in goals (10) and assists (13). They also added a second Designated Player in Rodriguez, who supplied both goals in the Week 31 win over NYCFC.
And while their attack is considered one of the most exciting in MLS, the Loons’ issues have been at the back with a league-worst 70 goals allowed last year and the second-most goals conceded this year in MLS (58). But the team has not been able to adequately address their defensive misgivings with their 2018 acquisitions. Among the defenders brought in this year, right back Tyrone Mears is no longer with the club and another four defenders have combined for just 18 total starts.
Although he sees the team trending upward, Wright acknowledged that the combination of the realities on the ground and the club’s own self-inflicted wounds have left Minnesota a bit behind schedule. He thinks they’ll be able to make up for lost time this winter, however. He said the team has identified their positions of need and improved their scouting processes. He thinks that should help them improve their core of “eight to 10 really, really, really good pieces” with “anywhere from three to five” new players that will “strengthen [their] roster both from a starting and depth standpoint.” Wright said that the club will have the funds to make one or two of those players DPs.
“If we’re in the top six in the West and hopefully in the top four in the West, I think those are the types of things that we should be striving for as a young club but a young club that is getting better and better with every window,” said Wright. “So, I will be exceptionally disappointed if we are not into the playoffs next year and in a really good position to be able to play home games in the playoffs next year.”
Getting those moves right will be important for Minnesota on several different levels. Heath and Lagos will need positive results next year or they’ll risk coming under fire again in 2019. On a broader level, the club have a massive opportunity to build on the positive momentum that will come from opening Allianz Field. The new, privately-funded stadium will serve as something of a re-introduction of the club to the Twin Cities, who have supported the Loons in significant numbers throughout their first two seasons.
The club has already surpassed 50,000 tickets sold for their final match at TCF Bank Stadium against the LA Galaxy on Oct. 21 and sold their maximum allotment of 14,500 season tickets for 2019 at at 19,500-capacity Allianz Field, with another 2,000 names on their season-ticket waiting list. Wright knows the Loons need a successful 2019 if they want to further build their fanbase in the North Star State and give back to their current supporters for sticking with them through some difficult times in 2017 and 2018.
“Have we fallen short of expectations this year? Yeah. Yeah, we have,” said Wright. “We were hoping to make the playoffs and we’re still not mathematically eliminated, but we have a very, very remote chance of that happening. That was one of our major goals. And you sort of know that average isn’t good enough and our fans expectations are much, much larger, as our ours.
“I never want to take our fans for granted, but at the same time I think I need a level of patience as we go through this, the third really important transfer window and one that I think is very, very important for our club. I’ve told both Manny and Adrian that this window is very important. How we perform at Allianz Field is very important. And we’ll judge them on their efforts as we launch our third season in the MLS once we’re in our new stadium.”