BLAINE, Minn. – Given six months to pull together an expansion team and craft a long-term philosophy for their debut MLS season in 2017, Minnesota United FC had to move fast.
Their solution? They dubbed it their “Three-Year Plan” – a script to use during the creation and development of the franchise in Major League Soccer. By the end of year three, the hopes and goals of the plan on the field were to have Minnesota United competing with the very best in the league, to have the skill necessary to make a deep Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run while building the squad depth to pursue an U.S. Open Cup title.
It’s safe to say that it's all come together in year three, but to make it to this point was not an easy task.
“I think the hardest part was the onslaught of adversity, which is normal for an expansion team. And that onslaught, trying to make sure the entire club remain confident in the belief that we’re going to continue to grow and build, I think that was a very difficult thing for us to absorb,” Minnesota sporting director Manny Lagos told MLSsoccer.com during a wide-ranging recent conversation.
“For me, from a pure tactical standpoint, it was really important that we, after the first year and then even after  we embrace the positives of the first two years. At the same time, we were very heavy, very honest and critical about the three-year plan; we had to make sure we address the areas of the club that we made mistakes and really try to be honest about them and how we can be better.”
The Loons' debut season in MLS had both positives and negatives in the eyes of Lagos. He mentioned how 10 wins in league play was something they were really proud of, how it was part of the adversity the team had overcome, but also how the team's goal difference of -23 was “very disappointing.”
In 2017, Minnesota conceded 70 goals in a single season – at the time an unprecedented record in the league. It was a stat that Lagos and the team felt was a big setback, and they knew that improvement was the only way forward.
“Our goals against, it was definitely something we thought we’d improve from '17-'18 and we did," Lagos explained, the Loons shaving 28 goals conceded off their total in 2019 compared to the year before.
"And so, we had to really address in that three-year plan, some of the areas where we didn’t go just '17 then '18 and '19. The roster build was a piece that really worked out over three years, but it wasn’t easy at first for us and I’m sure a lot of people noticed that,” Lagos continued. “Ultimately, a lot of our free-agent signings were short-term or loans, to allow us the freedom to know where we were after '17-'18, to know our strengths and weaknesses and to make sure we had the cap room to go out and do what we thought would do to get better."
Lagos admits that while all of the signings made didn't work out, every move helped the team ultimately progress over the course of three seasons.
"The assessment of some of those free agents that we signed were probably short-term and it looks like they didn’t do well, but the reality is, they gave us the cap flexibility, the ability to kind of see if they’re going to be the right fit for the future which allowed us to go into '19 to really be honest about the areas of the field that we need to get better.”
With the key additions of veterans like Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara in 2019, the Loons have a plus-nine goal differential going into their first postseason run. They’ve signed their first-ever Young DP in Uruguayan midfielder Thomas Chacon, had two players called up to the U-23 national team while also seeing their starting right back, newcomer Romain Metanire, being named an MLS All-Star. These achievements, Lagos says, are “moments where I’m proud to be part of this organization.”
Earning a playoff berth was a massive moment for the team, but it still wasn’t the perfect season. They fell agonizingly short in their quest to capture the Open Cup, and there were moments of ups and downs, dry spells of scoring and inconsistency on the road.
“We cannot move forward if we don’t embrace the positives, but also address the areas where we have to get better and whether that’s sometimes how we play on the road vs. home," Lagos said. "That’s an area where we still want to get better, whether that’s the second half of the year, we dipped in terms of our goals."
Lagos has seen the team grow immensely since the start of 2019, with players finding what he calls “a home” in Minnesota and the debut of the impressive Allianz Field. And progress is still being made.
"We’ve got to embrace our positives," he said. "We’ve addressed a lot of defensive issues and we’ve been outstanding defensively this year and we’ve really embraced that mentality. So, to me, that’s just a microcosm of loads of positives and a lot of mistakes that we still want to get better; if we want to continue to move on a path to push ourselves to be one of the top-tier teams in this league,” he said.