PORTLAND, Ore. — When Minnesota United players reported to camp for the first time as an MLS club last month, coach Adrian Heath gave a presentation at the team’s first meeting. It was a typical introductory message to a room full of new players about what was ahead.
But at the end, there was something not so typical. It was a quote from SI writer Grant Wahl predicting the worst for Minnesota, based on what MLS insiders were telling him.
“I make a lot of calls around MLS, and I can’t tell you how many coaches, GMs and agents there are who are saying Minnesota in its first year might be one of the worst teams in MLS history on the field.”
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That quote was from October, before Minnesota had officially signed any players. For Heath, it could’ve cast doubt about his approach. Instead, he saw it as a challenge that his players should be ready to take head-on.
“There’s nothing more motivating for a group of individuals to come together than when people are writing you off before the season has even started,” Heath told FOX Sports during preseason.
“I think we’ve got a surprise in store for one or two people,” he added. “It’s interesting people make them assumptions before they’ve even seen us play or who we bring into the club, but that’s experts for you.”
Heath isn’t just imagining this narrative. Most MLS experts don’t expect much this season from the Loons, who play their first-ever MLS match on March 3 against Portland (9:30 p.m., FS1). Minnesota haven’t signed a Designated Player – a high-priced star that won’t count toward the salary cap – and have built a roster of mostly young players with no one on the roster approaching a household name.
This isn’t the blueprint most MLS teams have followed to success. But Heath says it’s a strategy by design. Though fans panicked and pundits cast doubt as the roster slowly took shape, Heath says the Minnesota coaching staff was methodical in its approach.
“We didn’t want to rush and pick the wrong ones,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard at bringing in the type of player we want to bring in.”
It hasn’t helped, however, that Minnesota are entering MLS alongside Atlanta United, the new expansion team that has taken a bold, ambitious approach and earned the fawning of soccer pundits. They hired coach Tata Martino, who previously coached Lionel Messi in Argentina, and have brought in a batch of talented, highly touted South American players as Designated Players.
The approach Minnesota is taking is unquestionably different than Atlanta’s path, but for Heath, the comparisons don’t make a lot of sense. While Minnesota have invested a lot to make the club a winning one – including a new soccer-specific stadium that will open next year – whatever Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was going to do with his MLS franchise wasn’t going to be the same.
“We are what we are and we’ve got to be what we are. Our owners built a franchise, are building a brand-new stadium, are building a training ground – it’s an incredible amount of money,” he said. “Now, Arthur Blank with all his resources, they’ve gone about it a different way, and good luck to them. I don’t think anyone wouldn’t have done what they did if they had that money at their disposable.
“They look as though they’ve bought some really good young players, so hey, it’s a different approach, but I’m quietly confident that were going to be a lot better than people think.”
It’s a good bet Heath knows what he’s talking about. He’s built teams practically from scratch twice before, once with the Austin Aztex, which later became Orlando City SC in USL, and then again when Orlando joined MLS. It’s rare for MLS expansion teams to make playoffs in their first year, and Heath makes no guarantees for 2017, but he came close in Orlando, staying in contention until the final week of the season and finishing just below the red line.
Minnesota’s roster doesn’t resemble Orlando’s in many ways – there is certainly no Kaka-like player there – but Heath says he’s learned from his time building Orlando’s roster. He wants young players, but Orlando’s regular players skewed a bit too young. Recognizing that Minnesota isn’t the vacation destination that Orlando is, he’s looked for players who want to be there.
“All’s we got to do is concentrate on what Minnesota is trying to do,” he said. “We’ve got a plan, we’ve got a pathway that we’re going to try to stick to, and if we do it, and we do it well and we pick the right players, we can still be competitive in a different way.”
While Minnesota lacks a marquee star, they quietly have built a bevy of strong attacking pieces. Kevin Molino, a proven MLS goal-scorer, follows Heath to Minnesota from Orlando. Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez make the move from the NASL Minnesota team to the MLS one, but Ibarra was good enough to catch the eye of former U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Rasmus Schuller, Bashkim Kadrii, and Josh Gatt make for interesting newcomers to MLS that, if they adjust well, can carry an attack. The team has looked solid in preseason, but it can be hard to tell until the regular season starts.
The defensive end of things is more of a question, but that wouldn’t be all that much different than Orlando, where it was the attack that got them close to playoffs in Year 1.
Heath was fired by Orlando in his second year as their MLS coach, and he could’ve easily packed up and moved back to England, as many foreign coaches often do. He had offers back in Europe, but his ambition is to succeed in MLS. Much like the dismissive quote he showed players at the start of their 2017 journey, his firing was not reason to run, but an incentive to double down.
“I feel as though I’ve probably got a little bit of unfinished business and a little bit of an extra chip on my shoulder maybe because of the way things panned out in Orlando,” he said. “But it is what it is. It’s another thing that motivates me.”
Minnesota United might be underdogs coming into their debut season, but that suits them just fine.