Amid wealthy new owners of Minnesota’s professional soccer team, three imported top players and a new team name stands stalwart coach Manny Lagos.
The fourth-year coach steps into a new season facing the highest expectations of his tenure. After leading the former Minnesota Stars FC to the past two North American Soccer League finals, including a title in 2011, Lagos helped convince former UnitedHealth Group CEO Bill McGuire to emerge as a buyer last fall as the NASL considered folding the team.
The wealthy McGuire’s purchase of the team instantly preserved soccer’s slim standing in the crowded Twin Cities sports market. The recent rebrand of the team, now called Minnesota United FC, adds a new challenge to an already difficult chore for Lagos: help sell the United to a public that, outside of a dedicated core, is largely indifferent.
The former Stars ranked fifth out of eight NASL teams in attendance last season. This season it plans to do better, buoyed by what team president and McGuire’s son-in-law, Nick Rogers, called a “significantly increased” budget. Some of it helped Lagos — whose father, Buzz, is synonymous with local soccer — lure two former league MVPs and a top goalkeeper to Minnesota in hopes of winning games and filling seats.
Wearing many hats — locker-room unifier, game-day tactician and salesman — does not deter Lagos, 41, a Major League Soccer veteran, former national team member and Olympian who is accustomed to pressure on the pitch.
United FC opens play at 7 p.m. Saturday against San Antonio at the Metrodome. A year ago, as defending league champions, the team opened there to 8,700 fans before retreating to the National Sports Center in Blaine and much smaller crowds. This year, seeking to raise the team’s profile, United FC will play its first five home games at the Metrodome and not play in Blaine until the first half of the season concludes July 4.
“I’m excited about the stress,” Lagos said. “You can have healthy adversity. Sports get stale if you don’t take yourself out of the box. The guys are looking forward to that challenge. It will be harder but it could be something really enjoyable.”
Season of dramatic changes
The team’s owners have stepped up in measured fashion, befitting what Rogers called “a marathon, not a sprint’’ to improve attendance. A marketing campaign was launched just this week, including four billboards along metro-area freeways. A new Facebook page has attracted 5,000 followers in three weeks and is growing by 200 a day this week, he said.
All-important sponsorship dollars are projected “to be more than double that of last season,’’ he said in an e-mail, although he did not disclose figures.
Great expectations serve as the latest form of pressure for Lagos. In 2009, he was team president as financial problems forced the Thunder, a team started by Buzz Lagos, to dissolve. Manny Lagos became the coach in 2010 when the National Sports Center started up the NSC Minnesota Stars. He remained coach as the NASL became owners in 2011 and weathered the ownership uncertainty through all of last season.
“One thing he’s picked up from me is optimism, that idea that somehow it’s always going to come through,” Buzz Lagos said. “But one place where he’s better than me is that he’s decisive. He knows what he wants and he goes after it.”
When McGuire and Rogers asked Lagos about prospective players to sign, he went right to the top, expressing interest in former MVPs and high-scoring forwards Eitenne Barbara and Pablo Campos. Signing those players, along with goaltender Daryl Sattler, gives United FC new talent to supplement a core group that won a title in 2011 and took second last season.
“What I keep hearing since I’ve been here is that it used to be, ‘This team could win,’ ” Sattler said. “Now it’s, ‘This team should win.’ I like that kind of pressure.”
The skill of blending talent
It takes a certain skill set to mold a low-budget team of blue collar players into league champions. Only one Stars player, defender Kyle Altman, was named to a league all-star team in the past two seasons. It is quite another challenge managing the egos of more prolific players. Buzz Lagos said he believes his son “comes with the background of having been a great player so he earns respect.”
Said Manny Lagos: “I think the key is, the culture of winning stays the same and that is what will get the group to buy in.”
Campos, whose higher-ranked Carolina and San Antonio teams suffered playoff upset losses to Lagos and the Stars the past two seasons, said joining the team helped him understand its strengths.
“There is no team that is going to win if players are not on the same page,” Campos said. “People here are very close. They are friends on and off the field. Manny created a good locker room atmosphere, and that’s why Minnesota was one of the hardest teams to play against.”
Kevin Friedland, a part-time player, assistant coach and member of the United FC front office, said Lagos “was a professional athlete and professional athletes hate to lose. We thrive on pressure. Our jobs are scrutinized by the public. When he’s the head coach, his name is in front of everything. He’s aware you live with the successes and die with the failures.”
Changes to the NASL playoff structure will force Minnesota, a team susceptible to slumps, to find its groove early and maintain it. The season is split into two halves, the spring and fall. Each is essentially a mini-tournament, with the winning team from the spring playing the fall winner for the league title.
“It’s going to be difficult, which is why we went out and got the players we did in addition to the group we have already,” said Djorn Buchholz, vice president of sporting operations and longtime front-office member for the Thunder and Stars. “The season dictates that we have to do something a little different than we’ve done the past two years.”