With Minnesota United nearly two full seasons into its Major League Soccer existence and having a combined record of 20-34-9, many have wondered if a change in leadership is on the horizon.
According to team CEO Chris Wright, the answer is no, as he believes both coach Adrian Heath and sporting director Manny Lagos have lived up to expectations so far.
“Both, in my mind, get a passing grade,” Wright said Monday of how Heath and Lagos have faired given the club’s circumstances. “You’ve got to start there. I think Adrian gets an awful lot out of the team that he has. I think that Manny has put together some really nice pieces for the team that we certainly can build around.”
Wright and others have commented at various times about the unique situation in which United entered MLS and how that has affected the on-field product. The club had only six months from the league’s official announcement that it would jump up from the second-tier North American Soccer League to ready a team for MLS play. The team also privately financed its new St. Paul stadium, $250 million Allianz Field, set to open this coming spring.
Specifically, Wright said Heath and Lagos did everything right identifying, scouting and acquiring designated player Darwin Quintero. Wright called Quintero a unique player the team has already begun to build around with the acquisitions of forward Angelo Rodriguez and winger Romario Ibarra.
Wright also said there are about eight or nine players who really deserve their roster spot and will be a big part of the team moving forward. Wright added the sporting staff has done well to add younger players they can groom as the next generation.
But the CEO is aware the teams needs to be deeper, to mitigate the effects of season-ending injuries like the ones this year to midfielder Sam Cronin and attackers Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino.
That glaring area for improvement has sharpened the focus for the final transfer window ahead of the third season, which will be the team’s first at Allianz Field. When the window opens this coming February, Wright said, the club needs to be prepared with players lined up to sign.
“Our soccer operations staff, first of all, have done a tremendous job of accumulating assets,” Wright said. “Whether that’s roster spots, whether that’s international slots, whether or not that’s GAM and TAM, whether it’s also alleviating payroll now that we can utilize in the future. We have built up what I would consider to be as sort of a small war chest.”
Should this offseason not go as planned, or should 2019 not produce a playoff team or at least marked improvement, job security might be a bigger topic of discussion for everyone at the club.
“Are we where we want to be? No, we’re not. Do we think we have some really great pieces? Yes, we do,” Wright said. “This next window is very, very important for all of us. I think it’s very important for Chris Wright. I think it’s very important for Manny Lagos. I think it’s a very important window for Adrian Heath. It certainly is important for our team.”
United has been without a reserve team since its inception in MLS. And the lack of a United Soccer League affiliate where the club can send its younger players to develop instead of stunting their growth on the bench has been a major complaint of Heath’s.
But that should change starting in 2019.
Wright said the team will have “an interim affiliation agreement for 2019” with a USL team.
“We are going to be very cautious relative to the length of period of time that we enter into any agreement,’’ he said. “In that, we really do believe that we do want to own the rights to a USL franchise sooner rather than later. ... Wherever we do go with that affiliation agreement next year, it will only be a one-year deal.”
Wright said he has a number of teams in mind, but many are seeking a longer commitment than one year. With United wanting an in-house team of its own, the club will have to find a partner that is OK with a short-term deal.
Allianz Field update
With grass going in to Allianz Field about Oct. 17, and the club receiving “the keys to the kingdom,” as Wright put it, on Feb. 22, the new stadium should play host to its first MLS game sometime in late March or early April.
Until then, United is working on several details for the first year of the stadium. Wright said there will be several events to christen the stadium, from ribbon-cuttings to community endeavors. The club also is in process of hiring part-time staff for the stadium, as it decided to self-manage the arena as a way to better control fan experience.
The stadium is set to host the U.S. men’s national team’s opening CONCACAF Gold Cup game next July. A U.S. women’s national team game next September might follow. Wright said the club is preparing to submit a bid for one of five games the U.S. women will play on a post-World Cup tour.
While Allianz Field has the potential to host everything from concerts to football and lacrosse games, United will be judicious on what else it adds to this opening-year schedule.
“In the first year particularly, we’re going to be a little bit more cautious around really what we do put on the field because we want the field to be pristine,” Wright said. “When the U.S. men’s national team comes here and plays, we want that field to be second to none.”
Wright also said the club has not submitted anything formally to MLS about hosting a future All-Star game. He said the most recent game in Atlanta, which attracted more than 70,000 to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, had him wondering if MLS would look to bigger stadiums in the future. But the league announced next year’s site in Orlando, which has a 25,000-capacity soccer-specific stadium, so Wright is planning to discuss the possibility in meetings with the league in New York City in a couple of weeks.
As far as ending this season at TCF Bank Stadium, though, the club has already sold more than 45,000 tickets to its final home game of the year Oct. 21. United hopes to break a record for a standalone soccer game in Minnesota involving a local team, which stands at 49,572 from a 1976 Minnesota Kicks game.