This article is part of SB Nation’s 2018 Major League Soccer preview. To read about the other teams, check out the full preview here.
Minnesota United fans had high hopes for the offseason. After a horrendous start to the 2017 season, the Loons inaugural campaign, the team improved over the course of the season, even getting impressive road wins over the Chicago Fire and Atlanta United. With the addition of a few players in key positions, plus some depth to round out the bottom, Minnesota looked set to be a playoff contender in 2018.
Then nothing happened.
Yes, the club made some moves, though none of the necessary caliber to constitute a clear improvement. Harrison Heath, the son of manager Adrian Heath, was brought in from Orlando City for a fourth round pick, but he’s unlikely to get playing time. Fellow Englishman Tyrone Mears was acquired in the Re-Entry Draft. He appears to be a starter for now, though many would rather see a younger player, like rookie Carter Manley, get appearances. Matt Lampson came in from Chicago via a SuperDraft trade and is in a fierce battle for the starting goalkeeper spot. Two Cameroonians, Frantz Pangop and Bertrand Owundi Eko’o were signed, though both will have to ascend the depth chart yet.
The biggest transfer saga of the offseason was a move that didn’t happen: that of Nicolas Benedetti. Benedetti is a young attacking midfielder at Deportivo Cali (Colombia) who would have filled Minnesota’s hole at the number 10 position. Cali rejected the Loons’ initial lowball offer, but also turned down a bid for their asking price, opting to wait for potential European offers in the summer transfer window. There is some talk of a chance for his arrival in the summer, though nothing serious has been reported.
There are only two marquee (if that word can be used in an article about MNUFC) battles for starting eleven spots, and they happen to fall at opposite ends of the pitch. Bobby Shuttleworth, who became a fan-favorite last season after his nose-breaking saves, put in some disappointing preseason performances while his new competition, Lampson, played well. Lampson seems to be in the best position for the opening day job.
The battle of the strikers may be more about collectively forcing a formation change than an individual spot. Christian Ramirez, who earned a January-camp call-up to the USMNT after his debut season in MLS, is a carryover from the NASL form of Minnesota and holds the starting spot. However Abu Danladi, who many believe should have won the rookie of the year award last season, is not far behind and may have a higher ceiling than Ramirez. A two-striker formation--which would be a deviation from Heath’s favored 4-2-3-1--would best feature those two, but would exclude the plethora of wingers that Minnesota United holds on its roster.
Bottom Line: The Loons were primed to make huge gains in their second MLS season, but an unproductive offseason isn’t likely to result in improvement. The playoffs are a stretch, while finishing bottom of the Western Conference is a very real threat.