Team celebrates - Minnesota United - July 28, 2020

Why Minnesota United model can inspire future expansion teams | Charles Boehm

When Minnesota United was born 10 years ago … well, first of all, they weren’t Minnesota United yet.

The club originally known as NSC Minnesota, then Minnesota Stars FC were a modest outfit, run on a shoestring, who played at the National Sports Center in Blaine, nearly 20 miles out of town from their current home at Allianz Field. They first competed in the USSF Division 2 Professional League, a one-off second division formed as a compromise between the feuding USL and NASL leagues.

Even after they grew, rebranded and eventually earned entry into Major League Soccer ahead of the 2017 season, the Loons had plenty of work to do both on and off the field – and it showed when they lost their first two MLS matches by a combined score of 11-2.

Things look a great deal different as MNUFC prepare to battle Orlando City SC Thursday (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVAS2) for a place in the MLS is Back Tournament Final. The bumps and bruises of the past have healed – most of them, at least – and the club are now an obvious contender with a large and dedicated fanbase and one of the league’s most gorgeous stadiums.

Here’s a year-by-year look at how they got here, and what other expansion teams might be able to learn from them.

Year 1: 2017

Do: Put fans first

Don’t: Rush things, make dodgy international signings

It wasn’t really MNUFC’s fault they encountered an accelerated timeline to MLS entry – though other expansion teams have since arrived on even steeper curves – nor that they joined up alongside the black-swan success that was Atlanta United. Minnesota had to outpace a competing local bid from the owners of the NFL’s Vikings, and then their timing was influenced by the status of LAFC.

As a well-established organization already competing in the NASL, the Loons seemed in decent position to move up. Yet the top flight was a whole new ballgame. Adrian Heath was hired as head coach in November, 2016, bringing both MLS and expansion experience from his time in Orlando, and he and coach-turned-sporting-director Manny Lagos hustled to build a squad that could hold its own.

“We had the opportunity when it arose to go to MLS. Were we ready? The answer was probably not,” Heath admitted to The Athletic this week. “So we had to take our lumps, and nobody more than me in the early days.”

Unfortunately for the Loons, most of their signings from overseas – the most difficult and expensive to get done – failed to meet expectations. Defender Vadim Demidov was Exhibit A, arriving from Norway’s SK Brann and quickly earning the captain’s armband, only for the team to leak 16 goals in his first three games… which also turned out to be his last three games, as he was benched for the rest of the season and had his contract bought out the following winter.

He wasn’t the only one who didn’t quite work out. John Alvbage, Rasmus Schuller, Bashkim Kadrii, Johan Venegas, and even Francisco Calvo fell short on some level, while holdovers and fan favorites like Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra accounted themselves well.

Speaking of fans: They were the best part of MNUFC’s debut season, flocking to their temporary home at TCF Bank Stadium no matter the team’s record or the weather conditions – including more than 35,000 in a snowstorm for the home opener, one of the coldest games in MLS history. The club and its supporters deserve huge credit for nurturing the small, but devoted culture that took root at NSC in the old days and carrying it over to MLS.

Year 2: 2018

Do: Drop the dead weight, upgrade talent, keep faith

Don’t: Let big problems fester, marginalize icons

Like the first, their second season in MLS was also one of transition for the Loons. The hard lessons of 2017 led to a long list of players jettisoned one way or another, including many of the aforementioned underperformers, though not all of the new arrivals panned out, either. One who did was Darwin Quintero, the first Designated Player in club history, a sign of intent as well as a legit marquee attraction with his skill, swagger and end product.

With their new soccer-specific home still under construction, however, there was an inevitable sense of anticipation deferred, and Minnesota effectively treaded water in terms of their place in the standings. Season-ending knee injuries to Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay were a huge early blow, but what really undermined the squad was its continually leaky defense.

After conceding an astronomical 70 goals in MLS year one, the Loons allowed 71 in 2018, frustrating all involved to no end – and we can be relatively sure the withering criticism aimed in Heath’s direction influenced the subsequent moves that have made today’s side one of the stingier in the league. Trading away Ramirez, a longtime club hero, in favor of the underwhelming import Angelo Rodriguez didn’t exactly please the faithful, either. But MNUFC made clear Heath was their man through thick and thin.

The fans showed their loyalty, too, and were treated to some fun home results like a 5-1 thrashing of LAFC in July before packing TCF for their farewell to the college football venue, breaking the decades-old state record for largest-ever soccer crowd with a whopping 52,242 on hand to watch the Loons lose to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s LA Galaxy.

Year 3: 2019

Do: Firm up the foundation, mount a cup run, find an identity and lean in

Don’t: Have the captain turn into a problem

Last year was truly a breakthrough up North, and it was built on the back of a dramatic defensive overhaul. In came goalkeeper Vito Mannone, defenders Ike Opara and Romain Metanire and deep-lying midfielders Jan Gregus and Ozzie Alonso, a hefty outlay, but eminently worthwhile. Suddenly the leaky Loons were one of the toughest teams in MLS to break down, Metanire became a key weapon getting forward while Gregus’ set-piece deliveries and Opara’s aerial dominance made MNUFC a constant threat in that department.

Crucially, it gave the team an identity to embrace, and helped Heath craft his now-familiar tactic of playing up his side as the disrespected underdogs against an indifferent or even hostile outside world. Meanwhile younger players like Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper blossomed, making the technical staff look even more savvy in the process.

Attacking concerns lingered, though. Darwin’s magic seemed to fade and he dropped in the pecking order, perhaps because of his defensive liabilities, while Rodriguez, Romario Ibarra and Robin Lod weren’t as productive as their reputations and salaries suggested they would be. Still, Minnesota embarked on an impressive run to the U.S. Open Cup final, where they lost narrowly to a heavily favored Atlanta side on the Five Stripes’ turf, and safely qualified for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time ever.

Consistently inconsistent and displeased with being moved from center back to left back, Calvo the captain turned into a flashpoint in the spring when he made several costly errors and the high-priced underperformer was soon shipped to Chicago in a trade. While undoubtedly talented, the Costa Rican international had become a net negative on and off the field and Gasper has since prospered on the left corner.

The postseason ended prematurely as Zlatan and the Galaxy knocked off the Loons at Allianz – which had up to that point been a reliable fortress – in the first round. Yet that pain and the experience of the Open Cup run laid the groundwork for facing the particular challenges of MLS is Back.

Year 4: 2020

Do: Keep building on your strengths, address the need for goals

Don’t: Fall victim to a global viral pandemic???

With Heath signing a new contract with expanded responsibilities and Lagos pulling off another batch of astute transactions alongside continuity in key spots on the field, everything was lined up for MNUFC to make a real run at hardware this year. They duly opened with two well-earned road wins at Portland and San Jose, and still have yet to taste defeat in 2020. About the only thing that's stopped them is COVID-19, which has stopped most everyone else in North America, too. 

On-loan striker Luis Amarilla has been promising in his injury-limited minutes thus far. After myriad injury woes, the creative Molino appears to finally be back near his best. The back seven are as sturdy as ever. By all accounts the squad as a whole is a resilient, tightly-knit bunch and have reached the MLS is Back semifinals despite the absence of Opara and several other contributors. And reinforcements are inbound, in the form of French-Malian defender Bakaye Dibassy and possibly, Bebelo Reynoso from Boca Juniors.

As much as they clearly loathe to admit it, the Loons are underdogs no longer, regardless of what happens over the next week. They’re a force in the Western Conference and a team that no one enjoys playing. Not bad at all compared to that snowy shellacking by Atlanta back on March 12, 2017.

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