Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire predicts a successful Major League Soccer debut next season for his club despite a recent history of expansion team struggles.
McGuire, brimming with optimism after Friday’s 2017 start-date announcement, the largest launch event in MLS history, said the “first game next year” will prove the Loons belong.
“I think we are going to be competitive,” McGuire said. “We aim to be competitive. That doesn’t say we expect to have a championship, but I think we can play.”
McGuire drew the biggest roar from a crowd of 1,500 fans when he confirmed the United FC name would follow the club to MLS. Next up: keeping fans in a clapping mood at TCF Bank Stadium next season if on-field results are difficult to attain. None of the league’s five expansion teams since 2010 posted a winning record in their inaugural seasons.
“It’s harder than what you envision,” said Gavin Wilkinson, Portland’s general manager/president of soccer. “In a one-off game you can be competitive but over time you become more prone to certain deficiencies. It’s a major, major jump.”
Minnesota will be placed in the Western Conference, with fellow expansion club Atlanta in the Eastern Conference, bringing MLS to 22 teams.
Atlanta, also known as United, already has signed seven players. Manny Lagos, Minnesota’s sporting director, said he has worked the past year to prepare and expects “in the next four or five months, we’re going to have major announcements to make” as the team overhauls its 25-man roster by the season’s start in March.
Key dates include the expansion draft, which takes place after the MLS Cup championship in December, as well as January’s SuperDraft for college players and the winter international transfer window for foreign players.
Then there is the question of which Loons are kept. MLS veterans Jeb Brovsky, Danny Cruz and Ben Speas signed before this season. Christian Ramirez (age 25), Stefano Pinho (25), Kevin Venegas (27) and Justin Davis (28) are proven North American Soccer League players.
Contracts of players, as well as coach Carl Craig and his staff, are not transferrable. Lagos stopped short of saying Craig, a first-year head coach this season, will return.
“We have an existing coaching staff that we believe in,” Lagos said. “But our staff as a whole will be evaluated as we transition to be ready for MLS next year.
Building a team
Bob Foose, Major League Soccer Players Union executive director, said new teams such as Minnesota build the middle and bottom of their 28-man roster through the expansion draft, the SuperDraft and the signing of existing players. Top-tier players come via trades and international signings.
Wilkinson said the formula typically includes 10 players via the expansion draft, four to six current players signed, two college players from the four-round draft and eight international signings.
“Making the playoffs your first year is getting harder and harder,” said Wilkinson, who initially signed younger players with growth potential. It worked. Portland, a 11-14-9 expansion team in 2011, won the MLS Cup championship last season.
Greg Anderson, Vancouver’s vice president of soccer operations, said the Whitecaps took 10 players in the expansion draft, then traded five of them for assets used to sign international players.
Wilkinson said Minnesota, unlike Atlanta, can benefit from already having a team.
“Having a club and that infrastructure in place is easier than starting from scratch,” he said. “Minnesota has players who know the culture and can help with the transition.”
Patience is paramount, said Foose, for expansion teams that realize “it’s very difficult to get deep enough fast enough.”
Selling a vision
Vancouver, 6-18-10 as an expansion team in 2011, underestimated that difficulty.
“We set some unrealistic expectations within the organization with how successful we would be the first couple years,” Anderson said. “While we had challenges the first year, it was still an exciting ride.”
Minnesota, averaging a little less than 9,000 fans at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine, will enjoy the buzz and novelty of being a new MLS franchise. A similar jolt awaits in 2018 when the team likely begins play at its new 20,000-seat, open air, grass field stadium in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.
Amid the excitement, said Portland Timbers president of business Mike Golub, the club must communicate and maintain its vision for on-field success and a unique fan experience.
“What our fans wanted to see was — Are we doing it right? Are we headed in the right direction?” Golub said. “If fans believe you are, they’ll stay through thick and thin.”
Savvy local soccer fans are taking a longer view.
“Historically, expansion teams are really bad,” said Jim Crist, on the board of directors for the Dark Clouds, the team’s supporters group. “What I would like from the front office is accessibility for all fans, not pricing people out of it and making sure they are introducing new people to the game. It would be nice to win but I don’t necessary expect to win right away.”
Bruce McGuire, a respected local soccer blogger, wants to see a club built the right way.
“I just don’t want to be embarrassed,” McGuire, no relation to the United owner. “All the people I know who are big soccer fans across the United States have all known about Minnesota for a long time as having a team that’s always respectable. That’s what I want.”