Adding the first of as many as five new starters, Minnesota United on Thursday signed its third and final designated player, Slovakian national team and FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus.
The club auditioned Brazilians Maximiano and Fernando Bob at a defensive midfield position — the “No. 6” spot — last season. But the team chose to return Maximiano on loan to his team there and didn’t renew Bob’s contract when it made a series of post-season roster decisions last month that left many spots to fill.
Instead, United sporting director Manny Lagos, coach Adrian Heath and other staff members hit the road for weeks after their team missed the MLS playoffs for a second consecutive season. They’ve searched Europe and South America, looking to upgrade at two midfield positions, a right-back defender and goalkeeper.
They’ve decided first on Gregus — a big, technical player entering the prime of his career — to fill a glaring roster need at that defensive midfield position, one of soccer’s most unsung but important jobs.
A member of his country’s national team since 2015, Gregus signed a four-year contract with FC Copenhagen in 2016 that was set to expire in 2020. The first-tier Danish Superliga team acquired him from his Czech team in 2016 for a 1.1 million euro transfer fee.
“I think it has been a very good day for the club,” Lagos said Thursday. “Not only for the short term, but for the future with a player who will be here for several years. I think we made ourselves incredibly better today.”
Lagos calls Gregus a “really good” two-way midfielder, “very good’ defensively who can play in front of the team’s four defenders and with precision “spray the ball over the field.” Lagos also praised Gregus’ ability to create with both feet, pass and score from distance and win battles for the ball in midair.
When done well, that defensive midfielder controls a game’s tempo with his savvy and deep playmaking and unifies his team’s defense with its offense. But it can be a thankless role.
“There are guys people know who stop goals and guys who get goals and assists and the accolades,” Lagos said. “But then there are players who you don’t notice and, ironically, by not noticing them means they’ve got done a great job. They’ve connected the dots and made everyone else around them better. They bring out the skill sets in everyone around them. He certainly does that for us.”
Lagos traveled to Denmark to meet with Gregus and his Copenhagen team and watch him in train in a negotiation Lagos finalized Thursday in Minnesota.
After considering Maximiano and Bob for that job, Lagos and the Loons chose to go forward with Gregus.
“All players are a little different,” Lagos said. “Maxi was more physical, Bob more skilled. Jan, he’s a little bit of both.”
Gregus is 6-2 and turns 28 in January. He made his debut at age 18 in the Slovak Super Liga in 2009 and spent the 2013-14 season with England’s second-tier Championship league Bolton Wanderers, primarily on its development squad.
“He’s at a great age,” Lagos said. “We’re really excited he’s at a time and place and age in his career where he wants to take the next step to come here. improve and grown. We certainly couldn’t be happier today.”
By acquiring him now, Minnesota United makes him its third “designated player” alongside striker Angelo Rodriguez, 29, and dynamic midfielder Darwin Quintero, 31. A team is allowed as many as three players whose salaries and transfer fees can exceed its salary-cap limit.
The MLS’ designated-player rule is intended to allow teams to compete on the open market for higher-profile players in leagues around the world. The Loons still could add another designated player if they “buy down” one of their existing ones such as Rodriguez.
In player salaries published by the MLS Players Association in September, Quintero earned $1.65 million. The Loons made him their first designated player when they acquired him from his team in Mexico last March. Rodriguez earned $565,000 in base compensation after Minnesota United added him as its second designated player in July when it reached a transfer agreement with his team in Colombia.
After adding Gregus, expect United to further concentrate on signing a central (No. 8) midfielder, a right back to play with defenders Brent Kallman, Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo, and a goalkeeper to supplant starter Bobby Shuttleworth, one of six players whose 2019 contract options were exercised by the team in November.
When asked if the Gregus signing will make his Christmas more joyful, Lagos said, “I hope we keep going. I hope this gets us on a path to really improve the roster. It was a good day for Minnesota United.”
The Loons, who open their 2019 regular season on March 2 in Vancouver, will inaugurate their new $250 million, soccer-specific Allianz Field in St. Paul on April 13 in their home opener against New York City FC.