During the 2014 round of Major League Soccer expansion, both Orlando City and New York City FC signed big-name players long before either squad took the field. Orlando landed Kaká, the Brazilian veteran who’d once been FIFA World Player of the Year. NYC secured David Villa, the Spanish striker who’d won everything with Barcelona and with the Spanish national team.
Minnesota United, meanwhile, has an entire squad of players and a long history but no stars like Kaká or Villa to drum up interest. Given the dearth of available national team standouts, and the unlikelihood of Minnesota bringing in an aging European star, the Loons might have to look for other options, including some hometown heroes.
The expansion draft might provide a few options in the form of Minnesotans who could lead their home team into MLS, a little like former Mr. Hockey and Gophers standout Darby Hendrickson did in the Wild’s inaugural NHL season.
All three current Minnesotans in MLS might be available in the December expansion draft. Woodbury’s Eric Miller, currently excelling at right back during the Colorado Rapids’ resurgent season, is probably the best of the three. Each team gets to protect 11 players, though, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise to see Colorado choose to hold on to the 23-year-old defender. If he’s available, he’d be an excellent addition to United’s squad.
Teal Bunbury, the Prior Lake native and New England Revolution striker, has a better chance of being available. At 27, he doesn’t appear to be in New England’s long-term plans. While he’s scored just twice this season, he could provide some homegrown firepower for United. Sibley’s Calum Mallace might be the most likely of the three to be part of the expansion draft, as he’s made just nine starts this year for the Montreal Impact.
The most intriguing Minnesotan option, though, might be UCLA midfielder Jackson Yueill. The Bloomington native is expected to be available near the top of this year’s MLS SuperDraft, in which the Loons have the first selection. It would be a lot to expect from someone who won’t turn 20 until after next season starts. But it’s impossible not to see a potential parallel to Joe Mauer — a local boy turned No. 1 pick, destined to be the face of the franchise for a decade.
Striker Christian Ramirez might be an in-house candidate, too. If fans know a single current Loon, it’s Ramirez, who’s scored 53 goals for the Loons over three seasons. Ramirez is a virtual lock to be included in the team’s first MLS squad and likely will be the best-known link between the old squad and the new. If Ramirez keeps scoring goals, he could blossom into the team’s first MLS star. For a team like United — seemingly much more focused on winning than marketing — that might be just fine.