About a month ago, Collen Warner went to see Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath. It was right before a road trip, and the midfielder had learned he wouldn’t be traveling as part of the gameday squad.
Heath braced for a message he’s heard before during his coaching career, something along the lines of players telling him he’s wrong for not playing them or even putting them on the bench. But Warner surprised him.
“ ‘I’m just telling you that I’m fully committed to what we’re doing here, and I’m going to be ready when called upon,’ ” Heath recalled Warner saying. “ ‘I’m really happy here. I’m fighting every day to get back into the team. And I just want you to know, I’m available if you need me.’ ”
“Great attitude,” Heath said of Warner. “I’m a firm believer that you get out of life what you put in, and at this moment, he’s reaping the rewards for all the hard work he put in maybe early on in the season when he wasn’t getting a sniff of looking around the first team, sometimes not traveling with the group, and that’s a lesson for some people to look at.”
Since Warner, 30, started in MLS in 2010 with Real Salt Lake, he had developed into a consistent starter with many of his five teams. But while he had started a majority of every season since 2014, his time at United wasn’t up to the same standard.
The Loons picked the Denver native in the expansion draft ahead of the 2017 season. He began the year as a starter, then fell into a bench role, starting 12 of 25 games played with one goal and one assist. This season began even rockier. In the first two games, he came on as a second-half substitute and had one starting opportunity in a 3-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in March. He then didn’t play for 10 games and wasn’t even on the squad for eight of those.
“It was really tough this year,” Warner said. “I’ve really been trying to grow from last year, and last year was difficult. But I think in a way it made so I was ready for anything this year. So even at times when things weren’t going well, I was able to stay focused and continue to try and block those things out and just focus on how I can get better as a player and improve physically and on the field.”
With Heath’s preferred system a 4-2-3-1, Ibson and Rasmus Schuller had locked up the two midfield spots all season. Warner, who is more of a defensive midfielder while Ibson and Schuller both have offensive tendencies, tried hard to expand his game to be successful in that shape.
But his opportunity actually came once United switched its formation to more of a three-midfielder setup. He has started and played a full 90 minutes the past five games, including the first two in the U.S. Open Cup.
Heath said the system change highlights Warner’s strengths, and Warner is currently playing “excellent” and making it so that Heath can’t leave him out of the lineup. That’s a big change from not even being the bench earlier and possibly worrying about his spot on the club.
Schuller said playing with Warner gives him and Ibson more freedom to roam while Warner helps build the attack from the back. Center back Michael Boxall said Warner covers a lot of ground and likes to be on the ball, and defensively, he usually makes the right decisions to be in the right spots and isn’t afraid of a tackle.
And beyond his contributions on the field, he’s been a good example off it.
“He didn’t play for months and then his first game he played, he went 120 [minutes] against Cincinnati,” Boxall said. “There were regulars who were probably cramping up worse than he was. So [that] says a lot about his work rate and his professionalism.”
Warner said he’s been proud of how he’s helped the team control and dictate games since he’s been starting. But he still has more to give.
“We’re just scratching the surface of what we’re capable of, and I hope that everyone here understands that their chance will come,” he said. “My experience so far this season has been an example, and it may not work out every time because I got a chance early on to play against New York, and it didn’t work out. But our team needs everyone here to keep raising the level each training session each day.”