By most measures, Minnesota United’s on-field performance in its second season as a Major League Soccer operation was underwhelming.
The Loons finished with the same point total as in their inaugural campaign, well outside the playoff picture. They set an MLS record for the most goals allowed in a two-year span. And they won exactly one road match in 17 attempts.
Asked about the job performance of his club’s leadership, CEO Chris Wright gave both coach Adrian Heath and Sporting Director Manny Lagos a thumbs-up, saying each deserves a “passing grade.”
Professor Wright must be grading on a curve.
If that constitutes passing marks, what qualifies as unacceptable? The bar needs to be raised considerably as United moves into its new home, Allianz Field, starting next season.
Season 1 almost required a free pass because everything was thrown together in haste. Season 2 should have revealed measurable growth that was reflected in better results, and yet the Loons stayed in the same spot in points earned while remaining one of the worst defensive teams in the league’s 23-year history.
Season 3 means no more excuses. The Loons are established enough to field a competitive roster. They’re not playing on artificial turf in a college football stadium anymore. Their new stadium will be a crown jewel that creates a rowdy home-field environment.
At a minimum, United should be a legitimate playoff contender. The owner expects as much.
“We should at least be in the discussion,” Bill McGuire said during a 30-minute interview in his office this week.
McGuire views his club’s performance through two different lenses. The business side is thriving. The stadium is nearly complete and looks fabulous. Sponsorships are robust. And United finished fifth out of 23 MLS clubs in average attendance, despite a losing team playing in a temporary home in a crowded sports market.
McGuire’s view of the on-field product: “Frustration and disappointment,” he said.
“We expect to be credible on the field,” he said.
They’re not there yet. Their loyal fan base deserves better.
McGuire declined to answer a question about whether he considered making changes with Heath and/or Lagos. Instead, he talked in generalities about his ownership style.
“You watch [sports] teams hire and fire like they’re flipping coins some days,” he said. “How does that work for most of them? You have to have a plan and you have to work towards that plan and that’s what we want to do.”
McGuire noted that injuries to key players early in the season hurt depth and affected Heath’s lineups. But the owner also sounded annoyed by the road record and what he deemed occasional lapses in effort.
A common complaint among fans is United’s strategy in acquiring talent, particularly when compared to other teams’ aggressive financial approach. McGuire acknowledged that privately financing $250 million Allianz Field has impeded his ability to spend more on the roster.
“Of course it does,” he said. “Then you add a franchise fee of $100 million. If somebody else pays for 50 percent of your stadium, now you’ve got more capital to put into other places. Is that excuse for not doing better? No. It’s just a factor that could influence it.”
United officials have grown weary of comparisons to their 2017 expansion partner, Atlanta United, which has made the playoffs both seasons and finished with the second-most points this season.
Atlanta has outspent Minnesota United on player acquisition by a wide margin. In fairness, Atlanta is owned by Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Blank’s soccer club plays in his football stadium, eliminating the financial burden of building a new stadium.
So comparing the original blueprint and infrastructure of those two franchises is somewhat apples-to-oranges.
“Markets are different, situations are different,” McGuire said.
Minnesota United’s situation will be different in its own stadium. The club should be positioned to commit more financial resources to signing better talent.
McGuire doesn’t sound convinced that spending extravagantly guarantees desired results. Yes, there are always examples in which teams with massive payrolls flop and teams with low payrolls succeed. But in general, teams get what they pay for, and good talent costs more than average talent.
United’s payroll must increase next season because the club needs sweeping upgrades defensively after two historically poor seasons. McGuire sat in personnel meetings this week that focused on scouting and developing players.
“We can do better and we will do better,” McGuire said.
A lack of significant improvement should not get a passing grade. The awe factor of a sparkling new stadium won’t feel satisfactory without a performance on the field that matches it.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org