Minnesota United is about to embark on the most important part of its season. The next stretch of games will determine how fans remember the campaign. Everyone has their own criteria for what will make United’s inaugural season a success or failure, but all can agree on one thing: the team should continually improve.
There were no real expectations of the Loons at the start of this season. Some fans were cautiously optimistic, thinking that Minnesota could slip into the playoffs with the right amount of luck. On the other hand, there were those who feared that their team would sink to the bottom of both the league and the record books as one of the worst ever. Somewhere in the middle were those who could be labeled as realists, but it’s not as if the others were quixotic in their ideas. The “realists” have, thus far, been correct. The Loons bounced back from a horrendous start to appear to be up for a playoff push. That, of course, faded into the current weekly struggle to stay off the bottom of the table.
Last Monday was viewed as a day of salvation by all fans. Major League Soccer’s secondary transfer window and the Gold Cup-induced break meant a chance for Minnesota United to pull into the pit lane. The optimism surrounding the day was infectious; after all, there were no limits to what could happen. Unlike the beginning of the season, there were some expectations. The Loons desperately needed to reinforce their depleted roster as well as add talent on top of it.
The window opened a week ago and in that time there have been three acquisitions, along with plenty of rumors. None of the moves were particularly surprising - they fit the mold of the front office’s previous moves. The window so far is only a part of a far bigger picture, but it reflects the larger view quite accurately. Minnesota United has dug itself a rut, and the team seems content to stay in that comfortable place of monotony.
It’s hard for Loons fans to look over at that “other” expansion team and not feel pangs of envy. Atlanta United is full of flash and excitement: dynamic Designated Players, a raucous match environment and, of course, remarkable success on the pitch. Atlanta is a team living in the now. There was no adjustment period, no easing into things. It has been made clear that one of this year’s expansion teams plans to compete from the start.
When those Minnesota fans return their gazes to their own team, they see quite the opposite. They see a team struggling to make its way out of last place and hoping to reboot themselves and put together a dramatic run to the playoffs. That rhetoric seems strangely overused for the team’s first season. The campaign is barely half-complete but there have already been far too many cycles from disappointment to promises to small improvement back to disappointment.
That cycle is one that has been felt by Minnesota sports fans a lot of late. Minnesota Twins fans spent years of disappointment waiting for prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Those two have now made it to the major leagues, with the former helping his team live up to fans’ optimism. The Minnesota Timberwolves are again anticipating a strong season with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Their fans are no strangers to that anticipation, but with some big offseason moves, it finally appears that results might live up to the hype. The Minnesota Wild have enjoyed a few successful years following several years of mediocrity. The upturn in results was sparked by the arrival of stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Seeing what other local teams are putting together, Minnesota United fans should be asking, “Why not us?”
There is no palatable response to this question. It isn’t as if MLS teams can’t have success in their first season (see Atlanta United) or turn around results (see Chicago Fire). Blame can’t be placed on players because their failure signals incompetence from the current regime that brought them in. Minnesota’s fans are ready for and deserving of a top-notch team, but their team seems to have notched themselves into the easy way out.
It’s clear that something has to change with Minnesota United, but it’s hard to say what. Splashing the cash for a big-name player is always an option, but the team has made it very clear that they will be trying to “Moneyball” their way to success.
A fire sale is by no means necessary. Manager Adrian Heath has made mention of some players who haven’t been giving their all, and he seems to have dealt with that issue in a disciplinary manner.
If the past can provide any indication of the future, nothing big will change for Minnesota United any time soon. The team won’t be held accountable by fans, who can’t be blamed for enjoying the long-awaited jump to MLS, and things will carry on in the same manner they have so far.
If the culture surrounding the Loons doesn’t change quickly, the inaugural season will be remembered as one of missed opportunities. It’s not too late for Minnesota United, but the club must believe in itself and venture out of its comfort zone.