A new bridge connects Minnesota United’s developmental youth academy with its major league first team that competes on Saturdays — and it goes through Madison, Wis.
That’s some bridge.
United reached a one-year affiliation for this season with new franchise Forward Madison FC, in the United Soccer League’s League One. The arrangement allows United to shuttle young players such as Mason Toye, Carter Manley, Wyatt Omsberg, Collin Martin and Dayne St. Clair — who haven’t cracked the Loons’ remade lineup — back and forth between states and leagues.
Just as the NBA grew its own development G League, an increasing number of MLS teams — well more than half — own their own USL team. Unlike the Iowa team the Timberwolves own in that G League, United doesn’t own its affiliate and doesn’t control operations that allow it to hire management and coaches and set a style of play that mirrors its own.
At least not yet, not until the franchise decides what’s next after new Allianz Field opens.
United Sporting Director Manny Lagos calls it a development partnership in which Forward Madison will move, uh, forward to become its own “awesome independent club,” while the Loons now have an affiliate a short plane ride away.
That’s where they can send prospects to play 90-minute games on weekends and still travel back and forth to train with the Loons all week.
“The important thing is both sides feel like they’re getting something out of it to build their respective clubs,” Lagos said. “For us, that means getting our young guys consistent minutes and get them in an environment where they’re competing to play.”
The partnership allows the two franchises to share scouting networks and technical resources as well. It also provides an opponent for closed-door scrimmages, such as the one held between the two teams Friday in Woodbury during United’s bye week. They’ll play a friendly in Madison in June, too, while United management ponders its own USL team after the new stadium opens.
“Once that gets running, we’ll decide what’s the best pathway from our academy to the first team,” Lagos said. “We’ll have to take a deep breath and make sure we do things the right way.”
United sent players who were not selected for the team’s top 18 to Forward Madison each of its MLS season’s first three weekends. Last Saturday, Toye and Omsberg each scored two goals in a 7-1 preseason victory over college team Wisconsin-Parkside.
Such assignments allow Toye, Omsberg, Manley, St. Clair and others to stay fit and sharp after they trained with the Loons for six weeks in preseason and then had no games to play when United started its MLS season.
“I’m really happy we have it,” said Toye, a 2018 seventh-overall draft pick who hasn’t broken into United’s lineup with any regularity. “Last year was a bit tough. I was on the bench most of the games. I didn’t play a lot. If I did play, it was like five or six minutes. So to have a place where I can go down, play 90 minutes and start getting some game time is pretty big.”
Players sent to Forward Madison each weekend so far have gathered to watch United games on a computer. It helps them stay in touch during USL assignments that have ranged from one game and a couple of days to more than a week.
Omsberg, Manley and Toye all acknowledged such assignments could be considered demotions if not viewed with what Manley called the “right perspective.” As Omsberg put it, “We’re there for a reason: to get fit, get experience and get better.”
A year ago, Toye said he couldn’t always see the bigger picture that he now does at the ripe age of 20.
“Last year, I probably felt like it was a demotion,” Toye said. “It was a tough season for all of us, for me especially. I had higher hopes for my rookie year. But I realized it’s a process and it’s really for my development. A lot of us are really young guys. I’d rather get the development and minutes now so when my opportunity comes, I’ll be ready.”