Minnesota United has drawn on front office and ownership connections to other professional teams in town to put the club’s first two MLS seasons in perspective.
“To be successful on the business side in sports, you can never rely on the team on the court or the field to make your job easier because you just have no control over it,” said Bryant Pfeiffer, United chief revenue officer and executive vice president. “We never focus on wins and losses. It’s always a bonus when your team performs. And there are some aspects that make your life easier.”
United’s business side is, in many ways, thriving, with a new soccer-specific stadium set to open come spring with 14,500 season-ticket holders and more than 2,000 people on the wait list. But the on-field product has lagged as its second MLS season draws to a close with a game Sunday afternoon in Columbus. The team, which again missed the playoffs, will finish with the same points, goals allowed and goal differential as its first year if it falls 2-0 to the Crew.
That minimal improvement has frustrated fans and players alike. Yet the club is committed to seeing out its three-year plan through the first season at Allianz Field, with CEO Chris Wright giving his support to coach Adrian Heath and Sporting Director Manny Lagos.
The players know 2019 needs to be a marked improvement to keep the fans’ faith.
“Next year is kind of do-or-die,” center back Brent Kallman said. “Next year is a huge year for us and for everybody at the club, proving what they can do and proving that they should be here.”
That sentiment has already prevailed. Heath has said several times the players should view the last few games of the season, when playoffs were already out of the picture, as a way to cement their jobs. Heath and Lagos might have at least one more offseason transfer window to make improvements, but the players — minus a handful of core guys — might not have that much of a runway.
Goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, who missed the first and last few games of the season with injuries, has been one of the most consistent players on a turbulent team. The 31-year-old has an option left on his contract and wants to stay, but he’s concerned the club’s need to inject new life into the team after two seasons of failure might leave him jobless.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of decisions made at the club,” Shuttleworth said, “and a lot of guys don’t know if they’ll be back next year. There’s going to be turnover in the team.”
For the players who stay, the goal will be to “catch up” to the club’s off-field hustle, winger Miguel Ibarra said.
While United’s merchandise is easy to spot in the Twin Cities with that catchy Loon logo, United’s star player Darwin Quintero said the business side might have peaked in its ability to build the brand. Now the team needs to shoulder its share.
“We all have to be plugged in so that the club has more visibility, so that people from other places start to look this way more,” Quintero said in Spanish through a translator. “When the team has good results and is fighting at the top, that’s when people start to look toward the club and when you can best sell the product. In the end, when the team wins and does well, that’s when media from other places looks this way.”
Wright said once the output on the field matches the business side, everything at the club will reach a new level. The goal is for that to happen in 2019. The team isn’t spending much time contingency planning for another repeat of 2017 or 2018.
“We’re positioned to do very, very well,” Wright said. “… This year has been a great opportunity for us to level set in all areas of the club and really to define a path that we can all agree to going forward that will bring some level of success to this team on and off the field. Foundation is there, and the plan is there. Now we’ve got to execute.”