How Minnesota righted its wrongs to find respectability in debut season
Ever since their NASL title run in 2011, Minnesota United fans have sung Oasis' "Wonderwall" after victories. Four games into their inaugural MLS season, the Loons found themselves with just one point and a minus-12 goal differential. To adapt a phrase from the Gallagher brothers, they needed someone to save them.
At the time, Minnesota was seen as something of a laughingstock, with many ready to deem the expansion side the worst MLS team of all time. After allowing five or more goals in three losses to Portland, Atlanta and New England, even the players themselves were surprised.
"I didn't think we were going to leak goals like we did," director of player personnel Amos Magee told ESPN FC. "I thought it was a difficult opening for the season. The Atlanta game was the real kick in the gut. It was at home, against a fellow expansion team, we had a bunch of Scandinavians. In theory, we should've been favored."
Deciding to wait to make roster decisions until after its 2016 NASL season, Minnesota had an abbreviated timeline to build its roster. Seven players joined the club from its second-division days, which meant the team had to acquire 19 new players ahead of a February preseason.
Manny Lagos signed five players, including American Josh Gatt, after a two-week scouting trip to Scandinavia last fall. Among the pieces brought in from that trip was Vadim Demidov.
The Norwegian defender was added for $550,000 a year to stabilize the back line and serve as a leader on the field. Although he had captained Norwegian club SK Brann through a relegation battle in 2016, the wheels fell off quickly for Demidov.
"It's a tough one to swallow," Lagos reflected on the signing. "For whatever reason, whether it's the way we started, the way Vadim prepared for his MLS campaign or bad luck, it happened."
Having to witness the calamity from the touchline, Adrian Heath couldn't help but understand what was going on with his initial captain.
"Having played abroad, I actually feel sympathy for Vadim," the United manager told ESPN FC. "He came here with every great intention. We're hopeful that he can go and resurrect his career somewhere else and continues what he was doing in Norway."
Lacking pace and positioning to stop some of the league's most dangerous attackers, Demidov's defending needed to be mitigated quickly. Heath turned to a newcomer to the league, though this one grew up and developed right in the Twin Cities metro.
"I remember telling my staff in the preseason that we'd find it hard to leave Brent Kallman out of the team," Heath said. "That's not in direct competition with Vadim. However, you have the start that we have, and you have to make changes. From then, Brent's performances dictated that Vadim didn't get back in. Can he take it to the next level next year? Brent has the potential to go and get recognition to be in the national team."
Meanwhile, Lagos and Magee were working hard to acquire further defensive aid before the primary transfer window closed. Prior to the expansion draft, Minnesota was close to acquiring Colorado midfielder Sam Cronin. Although the deal fell through, negotiations picked up in the third week of the year, when the Loons earned their first MLS point in a 2-2 draw to the Rapids.
"I give Manny a lot of credit," Magee said. "He was aggressive and relentless about making sure that we exhausted all opportunities to address some needs. Cronin and [Marc] Burch aren't necessarily sexy additions. We just needed more stability, more leadership, more MLS know-how."
Throughout the season, the Loons continued to see success in bringing in MLS veterans. An early-season injury to Swedish loanee John Alvbage brought former New England Revolution goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth into action. Shuttleworth was one of three Minnesota finalists for the Landon Donovan MVP award. In the summer window, Duluth, Minnesota-born Ethan Finlay left Columbus for Minneapolis and has seen a rejuvenation in form, seeming poised to replicate his career year in 2015.
Within the locker room, Heath continued to integrate the fresh faces into a roster that had yet to settle into a rhythm. The lineup from Minnesota's first week shocker at Providence Park saw a massive overhaul in the following 33 weeks. Even leading scorer Christian Ramirez -- himself an NASL holdover -- was on the bench that March evening.
"There's been only two from the original group that are still regular contributors," Heath said. "There's been a gradual changing of the guard, if you'd like, throughout the season."
Whether the reinforcements came from within the ranks or outside, they all played a role in righting the ship. From April 1 onward, Minnesota averaged 1.2 points per game, within clawing distance of the rate set by sixth-place San Jose.
However, the Loons did not roster a designated player during their inaugural campaign, a rarity for any side in the league. With a stable core in place, there's reason to believe one will join the fold before March rolls around.
"With [targeted allocation money], the designated player is simply a label," Magee said. "For us, we've really wanted to continue to improve our roster with an idea that there has to be room to grow. We have a core that we feel good about but isn't, in my mind, a group that can win an MLS championship yet. That's the key, while remaining competitive and growing next year."
The club's objectives for next season are clear: make the playoffs and see what happens.
"People think it's easy to make the playoffs," Heath said. "It took Toronto eight years to get there, and they had three DPs all the way through this. They've spent a lot of money. It's more difficult than people think.
"We've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go. I'm never satisfied until we will be competitive at the top end of the league. We get compared with Atlanta because we joined the league at the same time. Totally different project. We've got to work really hard. Our recruiting has to be better this time around."
Jeff Rueter is a St. Paul-based writer for ESPN FC and also contributes to The Guardian, FourFourTwo and Howler. Twitter: @jeffrueter.