As the 2017 season MLS season wrapped up, Minnesota United fans prepared for winter hibernation. This was a time for Minnesotans to retreat indoors, cue up their Twitter feeds, refresh the team website again and again, and scour the Internet world over hoping for a whiff of news about a player, any player, that could help the team make the push from not-so-bad expansion side to playoff contender.
We’re still waiting.
While the 2018 season is not yet officially here, it appears that the Loons’ front office has missed out on a golden opportunity to help the team make that next step. All the team has to show for its efforts at this point is two of very affordable internationals, a journeyman, and a collection promising but young and untested prospects.
For a team that finished well below the playoff line, this offseason haul is particularly troubling. While teams like Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders did not necessarily need to put serious effort into new signings this offseason, most teams around the league have been busy. Atlanta United, a team already replete with attacking talent, picked up Darlington Nagbe from the Portland Timbers, and that turned out to be the lower-key signing of the winter, because they followed that up by luring a ridiculously talented teenager from Argentina for a league record $14 million transfer fee. The LA Galaxy, meanwhile, a team that finished below the Loons, retooled their backline, traded for prolific goal scorer Ola Kamara, and are currently working on a deal to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic over from Europe. Gulp!
I could go on. The point is when you look at the moves made around the MLS the last few months, it’s clear that the rest of the league is not slowing down. It’s difficult to observe the Loons’ relative inactivity and not wonder what is happening behind the scenes. For what it’s worth, this column represents my attempt to try and make sense of what the heck is going on at Loons HQ.
The first thing we can safely assume, and I’m not sure whether this is comforting or not, is that the lack of impact signings this winter does not appear to be intentional. As much as the team will speak in optimistic terms about how preseason is going, the front office does not harbor illusions that the current crop of players is enough. On Wednesday there was this Jeff Rueter tweet.
Manny Lagos affirmed that in the next two weeks, #MNUFC is looking to bring in 2-3 more players, including “potential starters.”— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) February 14, 2018
Back in January, furthermore, head coach Adrian Heath admitted to frustration over important players the club has failed to land. “There are a couple of guys that we were really interested in, and unfortunately for one reason or another, one guy didn’t leave his club, signed a new deal, and another one went to a lucrative offer in Mexico,” Heath told the Pioneer Press.
Speaking on the Fifty Five One podcast, Wes Burdine referred to the news that reaches the public about player negotiations as “the tip of the iceberg,” which is an apt metaphor. By all accounts the team has scouts in Europe, South America, and Africa, among other places, and it appears that they have been busy targeting talent. We can safely assume that for every rumor that reaches the public eye, there are multiple attempted deals that go on beneath the surface.
Of course just as a team should be judged by the goals it scores, and not just shots attempted, the Loons’ front office needs to be taken to task for so far failing to land the kind of talent necessary to keep up in this league. Anyway, I don’t think anyone has created a formula for “expected signings” that might make us feel better.
As far as why the club is having difficulty signing the kinds of players it needs, there are of course a number of explanations. The Loons relative status in the league, partially due to the fact that they joined MLS only a year ago, is of course a factor. Minnesota was purported to have expressed interest in both Sacha Kljestan and Lee Nguyen, a couple of number 10’s who could have changed the complexion of the squad. The question for both of these players, however, was whether or not they would be interested in a move to Minnesota. Both are veterans driven by the possibility of a championship run if not at least a serious playoff push – something Heath can’t credibly promise at this point. Minnesota could become a desirable destination a few years down the road – if the stadium turns out to be anything like as nice as the renderings and the team’s youth begins to develop into a sustainable core – but for now one could hardly blame a player like Nguyen for not being excited about a move from the New England Revolution to Minnesota, which would be a lateral one at best.
But while we can’t blame the front office entirely for the fact that Minnesota is not a desirable location for playoff-hungry veterans, we can certainly question its unwillingness to spend real money. Director of player personnel Amos Magee has spoken eloquently enough about the team’s decision not to purchase a designated player in its first year so as to make it sound like a genuine strategy, and of course there are well documented cases to show that spending big doesn’t always lead to success, but it’s hard to deny that that the club’s parsimonious spending habits could have an adverse effect on the on-field product.
One of the common denominators for many of the team’s first year signings was that they came with no transfer fee. Two of the most obvious candidates for the head coaching position were Heath and Giovanni Savarese. Hiring Savarese, who has since landed the prestigious Portland Timbers job, would have required paying a transfer fee to the New York Cosmos, while Heath was unattached. The jury’s out as to whether or not Heath is the right man, but it’s hard not to wonder. Sam Nicholson and Michael Boxall also came to the Loons via free transfer, and while these players are hardly cautionary tales, perhaps the case of Vadim Demidov should serve as a stark reminder that sometimes players are out of contract for a reason.
Then there is the sad tale of this offseason. The Loons started off slowly, picking up Harrison Heath and Tyrone Mears, neither of which was a very sexy signing to say the least, and then signed unknown Cameroonian Frantz Pangop. At this point, it was leaked that a second Cameroonian was on the way. This set off a frenzy of speculation among obsessive local fans, most of whom expected a relatively well known and established player, which seemed reasonable given how little money the team had spent up to that point. The optimistic man’s choice was Alex Song, or even Slavia Prague’s Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, both of whom would come with price tags in the millions of dollars, and while the idea of Song was pretty farfetched, a player like Ngadeu-Ngadjui would not be out of step with the kind of moves made by teams throughout the Western Conference this offseason. When, after weeks of delay, the signing was officially announced as Bertran Owundi Eko’o, a guy playing in Cameroon’s second division, the fan base was left to worry not only about the team’s financial commitment, but also about the growing number of international slots taken up by long-shot prospects.
Of course just when I became utterly convinced that the team’s front office was so destitute they probably weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from, sporting director Manny Lagos got on a plane to Colombia and entered into a series of negotiations that involved the prospect of an actual transfer fee, and one in the $7 million range no less. Whiplash anyone?
While this sudden and uncharacteristic free-spending pursuit of Nicolas Benedetti was encouraging on the one hand – because at least it means I can stop worrying about including MNUFC as a charity I contribute to each Christmas – what has been missing is any sort of mid-level signings that could fill that chasm between, say, a Tyrone Mears and a Nicolas Benedetti. “Is the team allergic to TAM?” asked a participant in Jeff Rueter’s periscope session recently.
The Benedetti deal – which is in a coma if not altogether dead – does not completely alleviate my concern about the team’s spending profile, it just makes it more complex. Don’t get me wrong, I will dance in the streets if Benedetti puts on a Minnesota shirt sometime this spring or summer, but maybe this dynamic playmaker on the verge of making Colombia’s national squad is a reach too far for this organization right now.
The looming question, meanwhile, is how much rope this front office has left. I’m not calling for a noose just yet, but obviously patience could be wearing thin up here in soccer’s north. I fully appreciate how establishing a new MLS team and building a state of the art stadium can be expensive, and that the team may not have the same kind of financial reserves at its disposal as teams like Atlanta United and even upstart LAFC. What is less clear, however, is exactly what the team’s approach is and will be to building a roster that can compete. It could well be that by this time next year the team is able to build on its established core, throw some genuine TAM guys in the mix, and add a DP or two, one of whom could be Benedetti or some other dynamic South American who doesn’t already play for Atlanta. Maybe this front office is a break or two away from putting this ship on a course that will satisfy a passionate and knowledgeable fan base.
In the short term, there are some questions that will linger, like whether or not the team will ever truly loosen its purse strings, and whether it might have been wise to use some of that “Benedetti money” it found in a junk drawer to try and land some more moderate difference makers that could have helped the team make hay in its second season. And will the team, at some point, find a way to sign some of their important players before training camp begins, so they don’t have to start the season making adjustments on the fly, and go into a mad scramble every time the summer transfer window arrives?
On the bright side, the team’s performance at the SuperDraft was very encouraging, which means there are several young players on the roster worth getting excited about, even if they won’t contribute right away. There is also a decent core from last year’s roster, as well as some interesting-to-ponder variables like how Rasmus Shculler will take advantage of a second chance. Given these factors, and my general sense of loyalty as a Minnesotan to all things Lagos, I have a fair amount of patience left to see how this unfolds. But I am probably older and more prone to fits of reason than the average MNUFC fan. Hopefully some of that beneath-the-tip-of-the iceberg work bears fruit soon, because the stirrings of discontent loom in the Loon nation.