Minnesota United FC’s most marketable player is gone. The goal to secure a Major League Soccer expansion franchise is in limbo. And a bid to repeat as North American Soccer League spring season champions collapsed as the Loons kept allowing goals late in matches.
None of these factors has dampened the outlook of coach Many Lagos, who anticipates success selling tickets and winning matches in the fall season. Minnesota renews its push toward the playoffs against the Carolina RailHawks at 4 p.m. Saturday on the road.
“How clubs react when they feel like they’re having tough times is really important,” Lagos said. “All clubs go through processes, even within a season, where they are not as good as they want to be. The reaction from the players, the coaches and the overall environment of the club, I think, really dictates your longer-term success which is a consistent winning product on the field.”
The optimism comes despite a tough three-week stretch for local soccer enthusiasts.
On June 11, former league MVP Miguel Ibarra transferred to Club Leon of the Mexican professional league Liga MX in a deal valued at seven figures. Ibarra, a midfielder, had become the face of Minnesota’s club. He showed up everywhere from televised appearances with the U.S. national team to refrigerator magnets with the Loons’ season schedule.
“Yes we lost a great, marketable player,” Lagos said. “But I think we’re going to gain on our ability to attract new players and our global relationships. I really do believe with the environment we’ve created, we’re going to absorb that loss and get better from it.”
Then earlier this week, MLS officials expressed doubts about Minnesota as a potential expansion destination after the state was awarded the rights in March. United FC’s ownership group, headed by former UnitedHealthcare CEO Bill McGuire, failed to get a stadium deal done in Minneapolis by the league-imposed deadline of July 1.
MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said he plans to come to Minnesota and learn more about St. Paul’s interest in building a stadium, a positive sign, Lagos said.
“My role is to try to first and foremost create a good product on the field and be successful to piqué the fan interest,” Lagos said to a group of local soccer media over lunch Thursday. “I certainly try to help in terms of educating lawmakers and others about what’s going on and the potential of [the MLS] situation. A lot of these deals are negotiating and networking and trying to create relationships and I’ve had some relationships with certain people in the Legislature.”
Uncertainty on the field in the wake of Ibarra’s departure, plus the loss of three additional midfielders, coupled with slowing MLS momentum should not affect the team’s spike in attendance, Lagos said.
The team announced sellouts in all five spring season home matches, averaging almost 9,200 fans per match — up from an average of 5,947 for all of 2014.
The club added 500 seats for the 10 home matches this fall season.
“I’m not worried about the attendance,” Lagos said. “It just feels like to me there are a lot of people that want this to be part of their lifestyle and they’ve gotten up there.
“We’ve gone beyond the question of whether soccer is going to be here or not or whether this is a viable market. I think a lot of people have now proved and shown there can be soccer here.”