Minnesota United management traveled the world all winter seeking starters who would transform the team’s leaky defense in an MLS Season 3 aimed squarely at making the playoffs.
Five veteran players were acquired — one born each in Italy, France, Slovakia, Cuba and North Carolina – with expertise and experience intended to make United live up to its name.
A year after United added three South Americans in-season to boost its offense, it fortified this past off-season what coach Adrian Heath terms its defensive “spine,” from goaltender all up the lines. A roster remake coinciding with the team’s move to its new $250 million Allianz Field that debuts in April.
Obtained through loan, trade, transfer, waivers or acquired with Targeted Allocation Money, all five newcomers are anything but new, age 28 to 33.
Goalkeeper Vito Mannone has played in England’s prestigious Premier League. Central midfielder Jan Gregus comes from Copenhagen in Denmark’s top league, now as United’s third and final “designated player.” Attacking right back Romain Metanire played in France’s top league.
The oldest of the bunch, defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso, was a four-time MLS All Star in Seattle. Center back Ike Opara won the league’s Defender of the Year with Sporting Kansas City in 2017.
Two seasons after it set a league single-season record for goals allowed, United suddenly turned stingy this preseason, surrendering just one goal in four outings against MLS competition. Whether a new defensive shape found in February translates to summer and beyond will be answered beginning with Saturday’s opener at Vancouver, the first of five road games to open the season.
All five players join a core that went 10-6-1 at TCF Bank Stadium last season, but won just once away from home. Placed alongside offensively gifted Darwin Quintero, Angelo Rodriguez and Romario Ibarra – all added during the 2018 season – and that’s eight starters added this last year in a sport that fields 11.
“We have two groups, in my opinion,” said veteran Ethan Finlay, a United midfielder its first two MLS seasons. “We have guys who have been here, who have become part of a team that people have written off in a way. Now you have new guys added who’ll start to feel like, `OK, this team is wanting to go somewhere, I’m part of something.’
“This is no Minnesota United 2017 or 2018. This is a team that has playoff aspirations and will accept nothing less.”
Sporting director Manny Lagos and Heath consider Gregus and Alonso complementary midfielders. A Slovakia national team member, Gregus is a free-kick expert expected to improve set pieces on both sides for a team that’s taller and more physical. Alonso, beloved in Seattle this last decade for his tenacity and poise, remains a presence Heath still considers one of MLS’ best at his position.
United paired them to help defend better from the front down through the lines. The hope is that offensively they’ll move the ball ahead more quickly into the open pockets where Quintero, whom Heath calls all-star talent “without a shadow of a doubt,’’ prefers to work.
“I’ve noticed a change in the team,” Rodriguez said through an interpreter. “A change with players who are more mature, with more experience. Most of the time, it’s not about just being able to run and run, but knowing when to stop, knowing how to communicate on the field. That was something I didn’t see a lot of last season.”
With Opara anchoring the backline and Alonso the midfield, United now starts two players accustomed to making MLS playoffs annually.
“Both of them have played on winning teams for a long time,” veteran defender Michael Boxall said. “Both of them have a bit of bite to them defensively, which is no secret what we’ve needed.”
The last of the five acquired, Mannone, has played on some of England’s biggest soccer stages.
“Everyone who has arrived came here to add their grain of sand,” Quintero said through an interpreter, “so we can all get better as a whole.”
Opara played on Sporting’s 2013 championship team. Alonso captained Seattle to the 2016 MLS Cup despite playing on a sprained knee.
“We both come from teams that like to win, be in the playoffs, fight for the championship,” Alonso said. “That’s our mentality. That’s why we came here. Every time we take the field, we like to win. If you win games, you have the chance to make the playoffs and win the Cup.”
Alonso’s Seattle team allowed 37 goals last season. Opara’s Kansas City team allowed 40. The Loons surrendered 71, one more than they did their record-breaking season before.
“Guys are very prideful,” Opara said. “It never feels good giving up goals. Coming from where I did, giving up even the amount of goals we did still hurts. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like to give up 70 goals.”
Speaking the same language
Opara was raised in North Carolina. Alonso walked away from his Cuban national team at a Houston Walmart 12 years ago, defected and kept on going. The three other new Loons come from across Europe – born in France, Metanire plays for Madagascar’s national team – and all five speak their separate native language.
Gregus speaks Slovakian and English and understands German. He knows enough Spanish to direct teammates left and right. He calls Alonso a vital link between United’s front and back lines because he speaks both English and Spanish. Metanire knows a smattering of English.
“I’m still trying to figure English out, my French not yet,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “Soccer is the universal language. To play the game, you do not need English, French or Spanish. If your teammates can understand how you play the game, then you do it that way. Soccer is about responsibility and each player has their responsibility.”
It’s also about experience and all five newcomers brings theirs aplenty in a collaboration that will take longer than one preseason to solidify.
“You’re looking for not only quality on the field, you’re also looking for personality, character and leadership,” Lagos said. “That comes from experience. We ended up gravitating toward guys who ticked all those boxes. No doubt there’s got to be adversity. The season’s story will be told by our entire group growing, building confidence and creating an expectation of excellence. If you have that mentality, winning follows.”
Last season Heath often looked down his bench seeking help and found little. Now he’ll have veterans such as Finlay and Kevin Molino champing to get in.
“We’ve got a better group of players, a better squad, more depth,” Heath said. “This is not being critical of what has gone on before, but this is one of the first times we’ve been on an equal footing with a lot of other teams in the league.”
So maybe you’ve heard this before? United veteran defender Francisco Calvo has.
“I see more skill, more leadership, more intensity, more family. I think this year will be a different story,’’ Calvo said. “Totally different. I know the two last preseasons I said the same thing. But the feeling around the group now is totally different from the past.”