Minnesota United has a plan, but you have to squint really hard to see it

#PassingGrades has become the defining way to refer to the last two seasons of Minnesota United. Despite the team’s struggles to rise above the level of “league laughingstock” since entering MLS last year, team CEO Chris Wright assigned coach Adrian Heath and director of soccer Manny Lagos a passing grade in an interview. The team has responded with two of its worst performances of the year – a 5-1 pasting at Philadelphia, and a 2-0 home loss to the Colorado Rapids, a team that had lost seven games in a row by a combined score of 22-1.

Listing the club’s struggles would require more electronic ink than this station can afford, but here are the lowlights:

  • One year after setting a league record by allowing 70 goals in a season, Minnesota has allowed 65 – and still has two games to play. Given that the team has kept two clean sheets in 32 league games, it’s not impossible to think that they’ll struggle to keep opponents to four goals or fewer over the next two weeks.
  • The team lost twice to both of the worst two teams in the Western Conference, Colorado and San Jose, including losing to both at home – impressive given that the Rapids and Earthquakes combined for just two other away wins all year.
  • If the Loons lose to Columbus on the final day of the year, they’ll be just the eighth MLS team to lose 14 road games in a single season.

Perhaps more disconcerting is that the team seems to have no plan to arrest their two-season slide.

There are several ways to build an MLS contender. Some do it through big spending (Atlanta, Toronto, both Los Angeles teams). Some do it through youth development (New York Red Bulls, Dallas). Some do it through top-quality coaching (Columbus, Kansas City).

Right now, Minnesota is doing none of these. Their youth academy includes only under-13, under-14, and under-15 teams – meaning any potential contributors, if any, are years away from making an impact. They don’t have a lower-division affiliate, something that may have stunted the growth of several young players. Only two of the last five expansion teams will fail to make the playoffs this year, and it’s the two that came into the league being coached by Adrian Heath.

The most charitable thing you can say is to note that opening a stadium is hard work. A lot goes into the planning of a stadium, not least of which is millions and millions of dollars. The owners of Minnesota United have deep pockets, to be sure, but perhaps not deep enough to build a stadium AND buy big-name players AND build a player development system from scratch.

So if the plan isn’t obvious, then can we at least guess at what the plan might be? If you squint hard enough, you can start to see the club’s values, and from those, you can start to divine what the team’s plan might be.

The thing that the team seems to value, above all else, is some combination of hard work, grit, and savvy. The one constant over the past years has been Heath’s consistent preference for “proven” veteran performers in the lineup, no matter how many mistakes they made. Ibson, Tyrone Mears, Collen Warner – these are all veteran players with limited future upside that nevertheless were given repeated chances. You could even extend this preference to the team’s striker decisions this summer, as they traded Christian Ramirez while also signing an older veteran, Ángelo Rodríguez, on a Designated Player contract to replace him.

This is hardly a novel move for any team, even one that – like the Loons – has a number of young, untested players. We’ve all read the stories about teams in other sports that bring in veterans to help guide youngsters. We’ve all read about young players who needed tough, gritty, savvy veterans to teach them what it takes to be professionals.

The Loons have any number of young, intriguing players. At forward they have Abu Danladi and Mason Toye. On the back line they have Wyatt Omsberg and Carter Manley. In the midfield, they have Collin Martin and Maximiano. All of these players have seen limited time this year; all are 23 years old or younger. Maybe the plan was always to protect them from the early struggles, as United slowly got up to speed, and then unleash the youngsters along with the new stadium in 2019.

The Loons have insisted that 2017 and 2018 were in no way a “soft launch,” bridge seasons to get the team to Allianz Field. Given how badly things have gone for Minnesota, though, maybe they should change their story. Maybe they should start telling everyone that 2019 is their real first season in the league, that keeping their heads above water for two years until the stadium was open was their plan all along. It might be the only way for the team to recapture that hope and optimism that the team brought into MLS.