When Minnesota United takes the pitch to open their inaugural MLS season tomorrow in Portland, it will be with a roster built from a staggeringly diverse array of experiences. Given the range of player backgrounds, this is far more complex than just rookies and veterans — a simple spectrum of years. What you have is a new team that manages to combine veterans from the club’s NASL days, veterans of MLS, players with copious international experience and young players looking to prove themselves.
“It would feel kind of weird right now if I went up to a guy who's new to the club who's played in MLS,” says defender Kevin Venegas, “and tell him where to go and what to do.” He’s part of a core of players who arrive with multiple years of experience from Minnesota United’s time in NASL: defenders Justin Davis and Brent Kallman, midfielders Miguel Ibarra and Ibson, and forward Christian Ramirez have all been in Minnesota for at least two seasons, several for three or more. Add in Bernardo Anor and Ismaila Jome — who joined the club last year — and you have a group that brings a continuity and familiarity with the club’s history and Minnesota itself.
“With the guys that we've drafted and some of the younger guys that have signed,” continues Venegas, “I try to be nice and offer a hand and get them out of the hotel wherever they're staying and show them some good spots to eat. That's important for them to be comfortable. They're not going to be able to play well if they're not confident and don't feel like they're welcome.”
The players who are coming to MNUFC from other MLS teams — defender Jermaine Taylor; midfielders Kevin Molino, Mohammed Saied and Collen Warner; and forward Johan Venegas — bring a different kind of experience to a team that’s learning how to play at a higher level.
“One of the things about MLS is that it takes experience and it takes youth,” says Taylor. The mixture of those two things is important, and Taylor wants to see it come together over the course of the season. “One thing we want to do is have team chemistry on and off the field. We want to live like a family. Once we share that, it's going to show on the pitch.”
“It's not like they started playing the game yesterday,” says Saied of his teammates without specific MLS experience. “They've played for a while so they have experiences from other countries and I'm sure that will help. Everyone has different parts, different styles. You just try to input your information, your experience and they do the same.”
Minnesota United’s preseason has been a mix of positive developments and things that still need work, as well as a lot of draws, but Warner has seen that the focus is in the right place. “So far it's been a joy,” he says. “A lot of the guys have brought good energy into the squad and I think everybody is directing their energy within the team. All this is a new experience for them but the energy is more focused on building the team.”
And then there are the international players, who bring a wealth of soccer experience from the highest levels of play, but little familiarity with the United States or MLS. Some of them, at least, are familiar with Minnesota’s type of climate.
“I'm from Norway, so this weather doesn't bother me at all,” says defender Vadim Demidov. “The cold doesn't bother me at all.” Several of the club’s international players are from or have played in Scandinavian countries, including midfielders Rasmus Schuller and Bashkim Kadrii, defender Jerome Thiesson and goalkeeper John Alvbage.
Francisco Calvo, a Costa Rican who comes to Minnesota from Deportivo Saprissa, isn’t as used to the climate, but has warm feelings about the team’s potential. “Some people are thinking Minnesota United is going to be the last team in the league, because maybe we don't have designated players,” he says. “But I mean, for me, it doesn't matter. You can see, in England, for example, Leicester City without stars in that moment? They won the championship and hopefully we can make history for this club and for the league.”
All these different players with all their diverse experiences have to come together now as a team, but by all accounts, it’s already building.
“It's exciting that the chemistry on the field is actually working out very well,” says midfielder Bernardo Anor. “Usually it takes a little longer, but from the games that we have played and the training sessions, you can tell that that chemistry between guys is growing fast.”
“No one thinks they're too big time or this or that,” says defender Joe Greenspan.
“You can tell that we are right there competing at the same level as the other teams,” adds Anor. “Putting them in danger and creating situations, defending well, getting good position on the field.”
“Seeing the group and seeing what we've done in a short amount of time, I think the expectations are getting higher every day,” says Justin Davis. “You can say it's an expansion team, nobody thinks you guys are going to do much, but with the group we've had and some of the signings and the guys we've held over, I think the expectations are there where we're thinking, 'Why not get in the playoffs? Why is that a reach?'”
If anyone on the team has experience with what it means to be part of an expansion team, it’s Head Coach Adrian Heath, who was a major part of shepherding Orlando City SC from the USL to MLS in 2015. Whatever the players think, he knows that the broad expectations for the club are low, and he intends to milk that.
“We've used it every single day,” he says. “It's motivation stuff for us. We had it in Orlando. 'Ah, expansion teams: they're going to be no good.' Well, let's see. Let's see what this one is like. We are an expansion team, we haven't been together: we've got a lot of excuses if we want to use them.”
And then he smiles.
“We won't be using them,” he says.