Minnesota United began Tuesday with three defenders under contract — its only rostered players — but used the Major League Soccer expansion draft and a trade orchestrated beforehand to bring welcomed additions at forward, midfielder and goalkeeper.
The Loons, who will make their MLS debut in 2017, chose second from a list of players left unprotected by their teams behind fellow league newcomer Atlanta United. They selected New York Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall with their top pick, but he did not stay in Minnesota’s plans for long.
About an hour after making its fifth and final expansion draft pick came confirmation that Minnesota had traded Duvall to Montreal for Johan Venegas, whom the Impact had protected from the draft. The offensive-minded midfielder played forward for his native Costa Rica in international matches.
The trade capped a draft that brought the Loons midfielders Collen Warner and Mohammed Saeid, goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and forward Femi Hollinger-Janzen.
“We were spot-on with our plan and what we wanted to get out of the day,” said United Sporting Director Manny Lagos, who participated in the draft from the club’s Golden Valley headquarters. Venegas, 28, no relation to veteran Minnesota defender Kevin Venegas, appeared in 25 games for Montreal last season and started seven. He scored one goal and added two assists. He tallied seven goals in 30 career national team appearances, including three goals in 10 appearances this year. He scored a goal in Costa Rica’s 4-0 drubbing of the United States in November and drew raves for his consistent pressure.
“This is a player for the last two years I’ve been trying to get hold of,” said United coach Adrian Heath of the trade, which also provided Montreal with general allocation money, funds available to a club in addition to its salary budget. Heath called Venegas “one of the best players in the league. You only have to see what he did to the U.S. last month to see his qualities.”
With its second pick, Minnesota grabbed Warner, 28, lauded by Heath as a “physical presence. He’s a guy you don’t like to play against.” Warner started 24 games for Houston last season.
Saeid, 25, the Loons’ third pick, is a left-footed central midfielder. Heath called him “a really good continuity player. He makes things happen.” Saeid started 24 games for Columbus and tallied five assists.
Attinella, 28, is a name that makes Minnesota soccer fans wince. In 2012, he made three shootout saves in the final to help Tampa Bay clinch the North American Soccer League’s Soccer Bowl championship against the then-Minnesota Stars.
A backup goalkeeper the past four seasons at Real Salt Lake, Attinella is poised to start.
“We really thought very highly of him,” said Lagos, the Stars coach in 2012. “We knew that he was somebody that was still growing and who has a lot to prove and can help our team.”
Hollinger-Janzen, 23, had two goals and an assist in just 273 minutes with New England.
“There’s a huge upside with him, a lot of potential,” Heath said. “You can see by the reaction of people up in Boston, they’re disappointed to have lost him. If we can get working with him and let everything that he has come out onto the field, then we could have a really exciting player on our hands.”
Free agency opened at 5 p.m. Tuesday, but none of the 37 available MLS players wound up Loons.
Heath, Lagos and Amos Magee, Minnesota’s director of player personnel, sought to draft two or three potential starters and felt they did.
“All of our players are under 28,” Magee said. “These are guys that are on their way to their prime or hitting their prime. We believe that we’re in a great position now.”
Roster-building will continue in earnest as the team seeks to fill 28 positions. Training camp begins Jan. 23.