After an apocalyptic start to the Loons’ first season in MLS, giving up 18 goals in their first four matches and largely looking out of place against the competition in MLS, Manny Lagos and Adrian Heath took steps to start improving Minnesota United in their inaugural season. With an offseason to continue to build, can Minnesota improve in their sophomore season?
Off-Season Grade: C
This offseason feels like an incomplete one for the Loons. There has been chatter about a big money designated player, Nicolas Benedetti of Deportivo Cali in the Colombian League, but that seems to be completely dead despite United agreeing to meet the approximately eight million dollar transfer fee. The team was largely praised for a fantastic MLS SuperDraft with the selections of Mason Toye and Wyatt Omsberg to go along with the Matt Lampson trade with the Chicago Fire. For now, Toye will only see spot minutes where his height and physicality could be a real late game goal threat. Omsberg has a chance to nab a starting spot as he develops physically and to the pace of MLS. For now the likely starting centerbacks are Francisco Calvo and either Michael Boxall or Brent Kallman. Add in Tyrone Mears from the re-entry draft and the backline looks to be much more solid than to start last season.
A perplexing development has been the addition of new faces who are most comfortable on the wing: Frantz Pangop (who has played for the Cameroonian U23 and senior national team) and Simon Dawkins (formerly of the San Jose Earthquakes). They also added Bertrand Eko'o a leftsided defender (from Rainbow FC) and young defensive midfileder Luiz Fernando (from Fluminense FC). Questions are rightfully being asked of the front office as the club has yet to sign a DP and seems to be a bit shy about using TAM to help fill out the top half of the roster. (Who could blame them after the failed experiments from last season?) Instead, they seem to have taken on a large amount of young international prospects (who take up valuable international roster slots) and who may not be able to produce night in and night out.
Key Player: Christian Ramirez
The man Minnesota faithful affectionately call Superman will need to continue to take a step forward in his development if the Loons want to take another step forward with him. Ramirez’s nose for goal is apparent from his time in the NASL, where he won the golden boot in both 2014 and 2016, and scoring fourteen goals in MLS from 30 appearances last season. He was rewarded with a call into the January men’s national team camp (though he did not get to play in the friendly against Serbia). For the Loons offense to continue making progress, Ramirez will need to learn how to overcome defenses keying in on him as the primary goal scorer and continue to make smart runs and outwork defenders which will allow Ethan Finlay, Kevin Molino and company to find him in the box. Ramirez will have plenty of chances to bang home the goals in Heath’s preferred 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3.
Best Case Scenario: Just miss out on the playoffs
This team still feels a year off. They finished ninth in the western conference with 39 points in the table last season, and honestly as the roster stands heading into 2018 that feels about right. They could get above forty and sniff the last playoff spot in the west, but with the retooled Galaxy and expansion side LAFC that might be a stretch. If everything goes well, the team stays injury free, Ramirez gets close to the twenty goal threshold, Abu Danladi continues to develop they find someone to play the #10 role, and the defense holds steady and Lampson and Shuttlesworth push each other, the Loons could be in contention for that final knockout round spot. However, that’s asking a lot. Most fans see the process and are looking toward next year and the debut of Allianz Field for the team to truly be competitive.
Bold Prediction: An influx of talent in the summer transfer window
2018 is the second step in the three year plan for MNUFC. They have a fresh influx of potential laden youth, a new stadium on the way, a partnership with USL (perhaps St. Louis FC?) seems likely, and Adrian Heath will continue to develop Abu Danladi (and now Mason Toye), but it seems that they just do not have enough talent yet to compete for a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Manny Lagos has been working on it, but they have not been able to get across the line with any high impact players. There is a nagging fear in the fanbase that the front office may be too enamored with a “moneyball” type of team, which is not a terribly bad thing when you take into account the restrictive salary and roster mechanisms of MLS; however, as in most leagues it takes money to win trophies (hello Toronto and Seattle). Until the top half of the roster is filled out with impact players, you can expect Minnesota United to be near in the bottom half of the table. Here’s hoping the summer transfer window addresses some of these issues, for the sake of the fans.