Minnesota United: Cold open favors MLS expansion club in home debut - Sports Illustrated

Cold open is just what Minnesota United has in mind entering inaugural home MLS match

Minnesota United hosts fellow expansion club and polar opposite Atlanta United in the club's first MLS home match, and temperatures should be in the 20s.
Publish date:

That which would incite apprehension or dread in other cities is welcomed in a place where there’s a tradition of toughness.

“We’re the North, and part of the North is that it’s cold sometimes,” Manny Lagos said. “It’s embracing who we are and what we are.”

It’s going to be cold this weekend. As far as MLS is concerned, it’ll be historically cold. According to Friday’s forecast, as Minnesota United takes the field Sunday afternoon for its first home game in its new league, the temperature could be dipping into the low 20s. That would make the game one of the four coldest in MLS’s 21-plus years, the league said. And there’s a 60%-70% chance of snow.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are ready. The crowd at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium is expected to exceed 35,000, which is impressive considering the conditions (the New England Revolution, who also will be impacted by the national cold snap, have postponed Saturday’s game against Orlando City). They’re accustomed to it.

“I’d even argue that it’s beautiful and seasonal,” said Lagos, a St. Paul native who’s now MNU’s sporting director.

Minnesotans embrace it. “There’s a side to us that’s eccentric and hardened because of that weather,” Lagos said.

Then it must be in the blood, forged by generations of residents who’ve found connection or comfort amid the beauty and brutality Lagos described. Good luck finding Minneapolis or St. Paul on a list of America’s most transient cities. People tend to stay there, and strength accumulates over time.

When Minnesota United meets their celebrated expansion partner Atlanta United on Sunday, the contrasts will abound. They share a name and a date of MLS entry, but not much else. The northern United will hope to use the contrast in climate to its advantage (perhaps Atlanta’s cohort of South American stars will have difficulty coping), because the others appear to favor the guests.

Atlanta (0-1-0) was better than the New York Red Bulls for a half last weekend but succumbed to the more experienced side late. Meanwhile, Minnesota (0-1-0) was thrashed, 5-1, at Portland. That scoreline was a bit harsh, as the Timbers scored twice in stoppage time. But the relative difference in the debutants’ performance didn’t surprise many. Read the stories, listen for the buzz and measure what’s been assembled, and you’ll see something close to a consensus emerge. Atlanta has established a new expansion standard.

Its list of preseason achievements is impressive: More than 30,000 season tickets sold; former Barcelona, Argentina and Paraguay manager Gerardo Martino hired as head coach; a state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium it’ll share with the Atlanta Falcons and plans for a $60 million, six-field training center it’ll call its own; and the signing of the sort of Designated Player that typically has been beyond MLS’s reach. Miguel Almirón, Héctor Villalba and Josef Martínez are young, impact players who had options. And they chose a first-year MLS team.

The largesse of Atlanta owner Arthur Blank certainly is a factor. But time was on southern United’s side as well. Blank initially bid for an MLS team back in 2008 and reached an agreement with the league in April 2014. He had ages to plot and plan and then two and a half years to prepare. In September 2014, Tottenham Hotspur director Darren Eales came aboard as club president. Former U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra signed on as technical director six months later.

Atlanta, Minnesota take stark differences in approach to inaugural MLS season

Compare that to Minnesota, which was awarded MLS entry in March 2015 but didn’t confirm its 2017 kickoff—2018 also was a possibility because of stadium issues—until late August. That’s last August, when it finalized a temporary deal to play at the college. And that means MNU had under six months to hire a coach, expand its front-office staff, sell tickets and sponsorships, switch its equipment and kit manufacturer, and scout, identify and then sign its entire roster. And all of this had to be done while Minnesota was finishing its NASL season.

On January 1, 2017, Atlanta’s academy already was up and running and the MLS team had 23 players officially under contract. Minnesota had 10.

Asked to describe the challenge, Lagos told SI.com, “It’s been a whirlwind.”

How much of one?

“Well, at least I’m still married,” he said.

“We definitely have had some serious adversity to go through this year,” he added. “This office has worked very hard. It’s by far the latest turnaround from an MLS announcement to actually playing in MLS in the history of MLS. And I’m very proud of the work that’s gone on, on and off the field, to get ready for his moment on Sunday.”

The work that’s been done hasn’t hit the headlines like Atlanta’s, and that’s partly due to circumstance and partly by design. Coach Adrian Heath, now with his second expansion team, and director of player personnel Amos Magee weren’t in place until late November. Lagos was living out of a suitcase, taking trips to watch players in Central and South America and different parts of Europe. Rather than rush into signing DPs, Lagos said, the club believed it was smarter to spread the money more evenly through the squad and then look to spend more on positions of need. Three players—Finnish midfielder Rasmus Schüller, Costa Rican defender Francisco Calvo and Norwegian center back Vadim Demidov (the team captain)—would have been DPs but were bought down with allocation money.

Additional principles helped guide the process, and they form a chunk of Minnesota’s unique identity. One, Lagos said, was to pursue players from Scandinavia.

“It’s a market very similar to our market—level of play, culture, environment,” he said.

Another was to ensure that several key components of United’s NASL squad made the transition.

“It builds out from our existing legacy and gives those guys a shot and an opportunity,” Lagos said.

There are five Scandinavians on the roster and six who played with United in the NASL. Among the latter are 2014 NASL MVP Miguel Ibarra, who has returned from Mexico’s Club León, and his best friend Christian Ramirez, who scored Minnesota’s first MLS goal last weekend at Providence Park.

That continuity is crucial, Lagos stressed. It’s how Minnesotans thrive in the cold. Strength comes from deep roots.

“We’re embarking on this with a legacy and the interactions that come from decades of history with pro soccer,” Lagos said. “None of this is done without that legacy and the history of soccer here and the people working with the club. A lot of this business is about using the resources you have, and what you have no to build and to grow on. Certainly you have a plan. You have to have a process.”

MLS Power Rankings Week 1: FC Dallas, Portland take strong first steps

Regarding the rough inaugural match and the inevitable comparisons that'll be made when Atlanta visits this weekend, he said, “I don’t mind it at all, this journey. The arc of these two weeks are special no matter what the scorelines because it’s the start of our MLS journey. It’s challenging. It has adversity. It’s got moments we have to endure.”

Spoken like a Minnesotan. Lagos has a front-row seat to the Twin Cities’ long soccer history. He was a kid when the NASL’s Kicks were in town and said those teams “helped plant the seed” for the region’s love affair with the sport. His father, local legend Buzz Lagos, filled the breach left by the original NASL’s demise by launching the Thunder, a team of local amateurs and college players who competed independently before the joining the USL’s predecessor in 1994. There’s been pro soccer in Minnesota every year since. Manny Lagos played for the Thunder before embarking on a successful MLS career and then returned to coach. There were two championships, ownership changes, league changes, a few rebrandings and a very close shave with oblivion before Dr. Bill McGuire bought the club in 2012. 

That timeline, trajectory and the ups and downs therein shaped the club’s approach. Even though it had to hurry, it really is in no hurry. It took this team, through its assorted iterations, more than a quarter century to get to Sunday. Many who’ve been along for much or all of that ride will be there (the Dark Clouds, the Loons’ largest supporters group, launched in 2004).

“We have such a fervent fan base here—maybe not with the depth of the sales of Atlanta, but this team has fans that have lived and breathed it,” Lagos said. “They look at this club as a part of their culture and lifestyle.”

2017 MLS Ambition Rankings: Who strives for greatness the most?

In that, United will find fortitude during a season that almost certainly won’t end with a playoff spot. This is about patience and permanence. Don’t mistake the dearth of DPs for a lack for resources. McGuire and an impressive array of partners, which includes the owners of the Minnesota Twins and Timberwolves and the family that owns hotel and travel juggernaut Carlson, intend to spend.

They’re paying for the construction of a new, open-air, 20,000-seat stadium between the Twin Cities that’ll boast a 360-degree canopy and a heated, natural-grass field. That’ll set them back around $180 million, if not more. They’re putting some $15 million into their old home at the National Sports Center in suburban Blaine, transforming it into a modern training facility that’ll feature indoor and outdoor pitches, about 10,000 square feet of building space and room to grow. The academy will be up and running this fall, and USL and NWSL teams should follow. Target already is on the front of MNU’s jerseys and Germany financial services firm Allianz will put its name on the new stadium.

“We’re building and adding pieces that are going to make this club successful, not just for the next couple of weeks but for years to come,” Lagos said.

The long view goes both ways. Prior to Sunday’s game, United will pay tribute to the roots that strengthen it. Sixteen players—four from the NASL days in the 1970s, four from the original Thunder in the 1990s, four from the 2000s and four from the Stars and Loons of recent vintage—will be honored. Perhaps Atlanta will take note of that history. The Southerners will bring the big names and glitz. MNU will counter with its unique arsenal of tradition and temperature.

“I love the fact that it’s going to be freezing. It’s so appropriate,” Lagos said. “It’s actually been one of our warmer winters so far. But this weekend will bring out the real Minnesota.”