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Minnesota United must keep eyes on NASL as it prepares for move to MLS

Manny Lagos
Manny Lagos trades in his duties as manager of Minnesota United to become the club's sporting director in 2016.

Minnesota United occupies an odd space in the American soccer landscape. Its immediate focus is the upcoming season in the North American Soccer League, but looming on the horizon is the club's eventual move into Major League Soccer -- the NASL's nemesis -- possibly as early as 2017. And oh by the way, there's a stadium being built in the capital city of St. Paul that will eventually be the team's home starting in 2018.

Add in the public relations, promotion and sponsorship side of things, and it's enough to make Loons president Nick Rogers reach for a double of whatever adult beverage is handy.

"They're all sort of happening all at once," Rogers told ESPN FC via telephone of the club's various projects. "I'd say, there's no way to allocate time to a specific project. It depends what day it is."

Fortunately for Rogers, he has help on all fronts, including head coach Carl Craig and sporting director Manny Lagos. It will be up to that duo to put together a side for the current campaign, while at the same time thinking about the team's move to MLS.

It's almost a shame that MLS fans will have to wait a year or more for Minnesota to join the league, if for no other reason than to listen to Craig pontificate on the game. As Craig got on the phone, his side was less than 24 hours removed from a 4-0 preseason loss to the Chicago Fire. This was just days after another 4-0 hammering at the hands of the Portland Timbers that saw the Loons receive two red cards.

"The results can cloud what we're trying to do," he said through his heavy Geordie accent. "Of course, when you're conceding eight goals without reply, there will be a tendency to wonder what the heck we're doing. To say there were individual mistakes is a stupid statement to make, and I accept it's a stupid statement to make, but there were individual mistakes.

"We're in the second week of our program. We have a bunch of new fellas getting to know each other; a bunch of trialists dealing with the first few weeks of preseason and dealing with knocks and niggles. We're trying to piece together a cohesive squad at this point, and that [has] an impact on the result. Excuses? Absolutely, but valid excuses. We progressed from where we were against Portland at least."

Carl Craig
In two preseason friendlies against MLS opposition this week, Carl Craig's Minnesota United lost by a combined 8-0.

Ever since owner Dr. Bill McGuire rescued what was then known as Minnesota Stars FC in late 2012, the club has seen its fortunes rise, reaching the NASL playoffs the past two years. So have expectations, and as a consequence, Craig and Lagos are doing the utmost to keep the players focused on the here and now.

"For me, if we don't get it right this year, the club [won't have us] there next year," said Craig. "So the expectation is high to succeed this year, and I think every one of the guys in the squad needs to realize that because regardless of contracts, regardless of what you've done in the past, we very much have to live in the moment and we very much have to come together and operate as a cohesive unit this year and show a modicum of success for any of us to move into the next stage. It's the reality of football."

Lagos admits that between himself and Craig, he can afford to let his mind drift a bit more toward the future. Much as it did with previous expansion sides, MLS has already let Lagos know that he'll have priority to sign the players that are currently on the club's roster, which should allow for a semblance of continuity in the team's inaugural MLS season. To that end, Lagos has signed MLS veterans like Ben Speas and Danny Cruz, and also acquired Bernardo Anor on loan from Sporting Kansas City.

"It's creating a core of players that can potentially be part of the transition and be part of the future years of the team and be an important and integral part," he said. "Ultimately we're really excited about making sure we grow as a team this year so we can better not just this year but in future years."

Craig and Lagos also have to be mindful of the size of the squad. Minnesota has a reserve team, but it competes in an 11-team regional league called the Premier League of America. Craig readily admits it isn't of the same standard as the USL.

"It's a bit of a conundrum to be fair," he said. "It's not one everyone has, because MLS clubs certainly have an avenue where they can keep players sharp if they're not in the first team. We just don't have that. That's challenging."

Yet Minnesota is intent on making the transition to MLS as quickly as possible. Rogers confirmed that the club is intent on joining MLS in 2017, and a source confirmed a report from Northern Pitch that Minnesota is leaning toward playing its home games at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium until its new stadium is completed.

Christian Ramirez
Christian Ramirez is one of several Minnesota United players hoping to move up to MLS with the club next season.

"That's everybody's intention, but it's not done till it's done," said Rogers. "I think the league would like to see us start then. We would like to start then. It's just a matter of getting a plan buttoned up that everybody feels good about and can sign off on."

As for a Sports Illustrated report that Minnesota United would have to change its name, Rogers had no comment other than to say, "The brand issues will sort themselves out."

In the meantime, the club has been hitting up previous expansion teams for advice in a multitude of areas, though Rogers is quick to note that every situation is different. The further a team is from its expansion season, the less relevant its advice is, given how rapidly the league is changing. Even a more recent addition like New York City FC has little in common given the very different market and kinds of ownership it has. Atlanta United, who will join MLS next year, is starting a team from scratch.

Rogers indicated that the there has been a bit more overlap with Orlando City, even though the Lions have just the Orlando Magic to think about in terms of competing professional sports teams for local eyeballs.

"It's just a different challenge in a lot of ways," he said. "But learning from what Orlando has gone through and understanding how they went about the ramp-up to entering the league, what they thought about the process and how they tried to elevate their brand in the marketplace from what was perceived as a minor league team to MLS. I'd say Orlando has been the most helpful transitional conversation."

If Minnesota United ends up joining in 2017, each day will carry with it an extra bit of urgency, not that Rogers minds.

"There's an endless amount of stuff to keep me up at night," he said. "It's a fun time for us, and an exciting time, but there's a lot to do."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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