Minnesota United have made the jump from the lower tier North American Soccer League into the glamour of MLS. Expansion teams in their first year always experience a unique set of challenges compared to the seasoned MLS clubs. The 2017 Minnesota United season will be no different.
Three Questions for the 2017 Minnesota United Season
Questions of their roster’s ability to gel together and successfully incorporate former NASL talent with players familiar with MLS will take center stage. As will the abilities of their head coach, Adrian Heath.
Will the former NASL players make it in MLS?
Minnesota took a less aggressive approach to roster building than their expansion counterparts down in Atlanta. Thanks to their right of first refusal to all Minnesota United NASL players, plenty of lower league talent is coming into MLS along with the club itself.
The most prominent of these is the thrice capped USMNT winger Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra made 90 appearances with Minnesota in the NASL before moving south of the border to Club Leon in Mexico. He returns to the USA with the expansion side after only eight appearances with Los Panzas Verdes. That’s not a lot of top tier soccer for a guy who spent so much time in the minor leagues.
Left back Justin Davis also comes up from the minor league club. Davis was a longtime regular down in NASL with 163 appearances over six seasons. The one time Real Salt Lake draft pick went down to the minors after he wasn’t offered a contract in MLS. His persistence down there has paid off with a promotion, but can he get up to the speed of MLS?
Another big question mark will be 2014 NASL golden boot winner, Christian Ramirez. He doesn’t figure to start right out of the gate, but his goal scoring record down below cannot be ignored. He can become a valuable bench piece and occasional starter if he can get up to speed quickly.
Other players making the jump from the NASL include defenders Kevin Venegas and Brent Kallman, and midfielder Ibson, who carries a wealth of European and South American experience.
Which MLS Experienced Players Will Make the Most Impact?
Sporting director Manny Lagos did manage to stock his roster with plenty of MLS experienced players. The highlights of these are in the attack with Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino. Venegas came over after two seasons as a part time starter with Montreal Impact. He only scored three times in 39 appearances in Quebec. He is expected to lead Minnesota’s attack as their lead striker. It will be his first major action as a regular since coming to the USA from Costa Rica in 2015. He will have to step into the roll quite quickly for United to do well.
The other highlight is former Orlando City winger Kevin Molino. He figures to be the more experienced leader of this attack. Whether they use him on the outside as a winger or in the middle as a number 10 remains to be seen. I have zero doubts he can be effective in either role though. His 11 goals last year are the most of any Minnesota player who played in the league last season. If he can form a strong partnership with Venegas he can be pretty powerful.
There’s also USA U-20 international Josh Gatt, who may not have MLS experience but comes in from Molde in Norway. The Plymouth, Michigan native is a versatile tool that can be used in a wide attacking capacity as well as defensively at full back.
Can Adrian Heath Successfully Build an Expansion Team?
There are also question marks surrounding Adrian Heath as their head coach. His first MLS coaching gig was with expansion Orlando City in 2015, but he couldn’t make it through two seasons with them before getting canned in favor of a more experienced leader. He had a strong team in that first season with Orlando. Kaka and Cyle Larin were immediate standouts and he also had one time USMNT player Brek Shea.
This time around he doesn’t have a lot of starpower. The biggest names on the team are hardly MLS superstars. Kevin Molino is great and all, but he hardly has the pedigree of Kaka, Brek Shea, and others from Orlando.
This might suit Heath better, though. He made his name by coaching Orlando City through the USL and did quite well down there without the starpower to get in his way. In Minnesota he inherits a mostly inexperienced team that may allow him to experiment better tactically and not worry about breaking up some star player’s ego. This greater flexibility with his lineups and game plan could lead to a tactical breakthrough.
One final point on Heath will be the lack of expectations. Orlando City was originally built to compete in MLS right away. This Minnesota United side has taken a far more conservative approach to building their roster. As a result, they aren’t expected to make a run at the playoffs the way Orlando had been in the last two years. This will allow Heath more time to develop a strong relationship with his team and build them into a winner over the course of several seasons without much fear for losing his job.
Overall, this will be a bit of a slow start for Minnesota United. They don’t have the pressure of a big market and high spending that other recent expansion outfits have put upon themselves, but that means they won’t be as competitive. They won’t make a serious run at the playoffs this year, but they will lay the foundations to become competitive in the years to come.