In the past two seasons, Minnesota’s professional soccer team enjoyed success on the field while being troubled by questions of stability off the field.
The team formerly known as the Stars was owned by the North American Soccer League for two seasons and in danger of being folded after failing to defend its NASL championship last fall.
One year later, the team now called United faces an opposite set of challenges. The season ends with Saturday’s game at Tampa Bay, and players and coach Manny Lagos are disappointed to be out of the championship picture. But new ownership has brought stability and reasons for optimism that did not exist for several years.
“Considering we started in February, I feel that we accomplished a lot,” said owner Bill McGuire, who rose to prominence nationally as the head of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group for more than 15 years. “It was good but it can be better.”
High points included expanding the front office staff from four full-time employees to about two dozen, doubling fan attendance numbers — including five games in the Metrodome — and getting two late-season games on local cable television.But on-field struggles, from injuries and personality clashes to a lack of identity, made the team less competitive.
“It wasn’t good enough this year,” Lagos said. “That starts with me. But I think we can learn from this transitional year. Some guys didn’t work out but we have a new core now that’s building toward a better team next year.”
Infused with a bigger budget, United made an offseason splash by signing two former league most valuable players — Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara — as well as talented players Aaron Pitchkolan, Bryan Arguez and Daryl Sattler. Campos led the team in goals but injuries wiped out most of Sattler’s season and kept Pitchkolan out of action for stretches. Barbara and Arguez were traded midseason after clashing with Lagos.
Barbara, now with Tampa, fired back. He criticized Lagos for the “team’s lack of tactical discussion and preparation.” United ranked fifth in goals scored out of the seven NASL teams playing in the spring season.
Campos felt a similar frustration with the team’s offensive execution but believes familiarity will breed success.
“We can have a system but it’s not going to work if we don’t have the right players,” said Campos, who scored the fewest goals of his three seasons in the league. “We have to be more competitive and we have to push players to be better.”
Team President Nick Rogers said “a few things” Barbara said “may have held some validity” but backed Lagos.
“You need to be decisive about locker room issues if you have a player that is challenging the authority of the coach in a way that’s not productive for the whole,” Rogers said. “If anything, we should have moved more quickly than we did” to trade Barbara.
Going into this offseason, Rogers and Lagos agreed they must look for players both talented and of the right temperament. Lagos said “40 to 60” percent of the roster turns over annually. Player/assistant coach Kevin Friedland said Minnesota’s relatively new status as “a destination” for top players remains intact.
“There are still players in the league reaching out to me saying they want to play here next year,” Friedland said.
The team expects to play all of its 2014 matches at the National Sports Center in Blaine after starting the 2013 season with five games at the Metrodome. But acknowledging the advantage of playing closer to the Twin Cities, the team was recently encouraged to pursue a site at the Farmers Market near Target Field.
The 2020 Partners, a downtown stakeholders group that called on the Vikings to build in Minneapolis, asked United to explore “a soccer stadium as the potential anchor for development of a multiuse complex.”
Rogers said the team did not solicit the 2020 Partners support. But the team will research the site.
“Dr. McGuire has pretty extensive ties to the business and governments communities in this area,” Rogers said. “People see him get involved in a project and they have expectations for where it’s going to go and want to be involved.”
McGuire said the team was “not even close to making money this year” given myriad investments by new ownership. But a “number of organizations came forward and started to get involved” in sponsorship talks.
United will join the rest of the NASL as spectators of New York and Atlanta in the Soccer Bowl. But team officials believe, after a season of transition, it can challenge in 2014.
“The model that’s typical is a team joins the league and then has a 12- to 16-month ramp-up period before they start playing games,” Rogers said. “We jumped in and tried to do everything at once. It’s going to be nice to have a full offseason to plan.”