Minnesota United FC took a key step toward reworking itself into a Major League Soccer franchise on Wednesday, promoting Carl Craig to head coach so his predecessor, Manny Lagos, can focus exclusively on his role as sporting director (general manager).
Craig has been an assistant coach since 2010, the same year Lagos took over as head coach. They saw the franchise win a league championship, nearly fold, then get purchased by a wealthy owner amid growing fan interest in the Twin Cities.
The changes come as the team moves into what could be its final year in the North American Soccer League and prepares to step up to the MLS. An announcement on when that will happen — either 2017 or 2018 have been mentioned — is expected in “weeks, not months,” team President Nick Rogers said.
He emphasized the need to remain competitive in 2016 in the NASL, where United, considered a model league franchise, has fallen in the semifinals in each of the past two years after bolstering its player payroll and investing more into training and development.
“Really it’s about, as an organization, trying to look down the path and say, ‘How do we best address the challenges that we’re going to face in the short-term and long-term as well?’ ” Rogers said. “I don’t think we’ve made any decisions around MLS.”
Relieving Lagos of both duties brings Minnesota in line with MLS clubs, none of which have coaches responsible for off-field club management.
“To have someone be responsible for the X’s and O’s and having that same person be the one trying to build the pipeline of talent that’s going to come in, identifying new players, negotiating those deals — it’s a big task whether you’re talking about NASL or MLS,” Rogers said. “It’s been a big job for one person and it’s only getting bigger.”
Craig, a native of England, moved to the U.S. in 1994. He has attained national and international licensure and coached at the club and high school levels in Minnesota before joining the then-Thunder staff. His jovial persona came through in the club’s “Tea Time with Carl Craig” videos on YouTube. And he was the bass player for an ’80s punk rock band, Reality Control.
He was not available for comment Wednesday. The team is expected to formally announce the moves Thursday.
“Carl knows who he is and who he isn’t,” Rogers said. “He’s not a guy with a big ego. And he has a great working relationship with Manny.”
United FC forward Christian Ramirez described Craig as vocal and more hands-on during training sessions. “He’s a players’ coach and he has the respect of everybody from the top down,” Ramirez said. “He’s been a huge help to me in terms of becoming a professional.”
Rogers stopped short of christening Craig as the coach that will usher Minnesota into the MLS era.
“He is going to be our head coach in 2016. Beyond that, we haven’t made any decisions,” Rogers said.
Lagos has long been the most visible soccer leader of the franchise. In 2010 he was named coach of the Thunder, which was co-founded by his father, Buzz Lagos. He led Minnesota to the NASL championship in 2011.
A former MLS player and member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, Lagos tapped his soccer network and brought players into Minnesota from several countries. The current roster includes nine Brazilians plus goalkeeper Sammy Ndjock, a member of the Cameroon national team.
Lagos said the club recently signed 24-year-old forward Stefano Pinho, winner of the 2015 NASL Golden Ball, which goes to the league’s most valuable player. He scored 16 goals and added seven assists for Fort Lauderdale.
The team was purchased by Bill McGuire after it lost in the 2012 championship game amid uncertainty about the franchise’s viability.
United was awarded an MLS franchise in March. The team has announced plans to build a soccer stadium in St. Paul near Snelling and University Aves.
Rogers said Saturday’s MLS Board of Governors meeting “is not any kind of deadline” in terms of deciding when Minnesota plays its inaugural MLS season: “I don’t expect anything to happen this weekend.”