As with the journey of any good hero, Minnesota United’s season can be divided fairly neatly into three acts: the first, wherein our hero embarks, faces challenges, learns, adjusts; the second, wherein greater challenges force yet more growth; and the third, wherein the hero rises in the face of adversity and scores an emotional victory, ending the story with a greater understanding of the world and themselves. Here, we present Part One.
No team knows exactly what to expect before the season begins, but expansion teams know less than most. For Minnesota United — who signed their first players and Head Coach Adrian Heath just a few months before the team would open their first MLS season in Portland against the Timbers — their plans by necessity involved an element of luck and an understanding that adjustments would go hand in hand with growth. Even as players who were somewhat unknown quantities were being assessed, decisions would have to be made every week about who would lace them up and play.
For Heath, this meant undertaking the Heisenbergian task of balancing an assessment of where a given player was headed in terms of growth — both personal and within the team — and what they were ready for in the moment. Throughout the season, he consistently downplayed his own role in picking the starting XI, often using some variation of “I don’t take players out of the team; they take themselves out.” He spoke often of wanting there to be competition for spots, of the value of players pushing one another, of players making it impossible to leave them out of the starting XI.
By the end of the season, that was starting to happen. But we’re not there yet. Right now, we’re at the beginning, where the Loons stumble out of the gate before making some important changes.
Given the choice, no one on the team would have picked to start the season with a 5-1 loss, but it’s easy to forget that when Christian Ramirez scored the team’s first-ever MLS goal in the 79th minute, it made it 2-1 with over 10 minutes to play. But if it’s true that goals change games, this one appeared to have more of a negative than positive effect on the nascent team, releasing the pressure and unhinging the defense in the process. Portland tacked on three more goals in short order, leaving Heath disappointed in the result but sanguine about future fixtures.
“It’s been a strange evening with the way the game ended,” said Heath. “I thought we started a little apprehensive but we grew into the game in the first half. Second half, I thought we started to impose ourselves a little bit. Somebody just said we had the most possession this evening, which surprised me, but I thought we were in the game. We played against a really good team, but at the 82ndminute, it’s still 2-1 and we’re looking more likely at that stage. To finish the game with five goals against is a little bit of a poor reflection of the evening.”
The historic and snowy home opener against Atlanta at TCF Bank Stadium might have on paper appeared similar to the loss to the Timbers, given the 6-1 final score. The texture of the match, though, was entirely different. Atlanta leapt out to a three-goal lead in the first 30 minutes. Heath again emphasized the way chasing the match stretched a team whose players were still getting a feel for their roles. This loss also marked the emergence of the distinct sense that there was an imbalance on the pitch: the attacking play looked solid, if not yet entirely productive, while the defense was a shambles.
“We gave ourselves a mountain to climb when we were 3-0 down after such a short period of time,” said Heath. “Then we get it to 3-1 and we have a couple of chances and we hit the crossbar and I thought that if we got the next goal, we might make something of it. And that was all we spoke about at halftime. 'Can we go and get the next goal, keep the crowd engaged in the game?' But every time we got a little bit of momentum going, it seemed like they went down to their end and scored. Obviously, the more you chase it, the more you leave holes. As I said, there was some quality finishing but on the whole, I think a lot of it's to do with our bad defending.”
It’s not a very high bar to clear to say MNUFC found its feet at least to some extent against the Rapids when Colorado ended up being one of the worst teams in the league, but the Loons’ first MLS draw also featured the first minutes for a player who would come to be essential to the team: Ibson. The midfielder came on in the second half and made a positive impact in the 2-2 draw. He would go on to start in 29 of the 31 matches he played in 2017. The 33-year-old Brazilian had been a mainstay for the team in the NASL, but the move up to MLS brought out the best in the veteran. He stepped up his play and his work ethic in practice was something Heath pointed to many times as a model for younger players.
“I just wanted him to make his play, you know,” said Heath of Ibson. “He’s one of the most confident guys I’ve ever met in terms of his own ability. I thought we needed somebody to actually get his foot on the ball, to try and make people play, and I thought he did that. He’s got great faith in his own ability and sometimes he can give other people that. I think he did really well.”
At the time, the final score of this 5-2 loss made it look like a backslide following the team’s first MLS point the week before, but now it looks more like a harbinger of the challenges the team would face when it came to depth this year. Missing Francisco Calvo, Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino to international duty, plus Justin Davis to a red card, the Loons were forced to experiment. Although the team ultimately lost, this match solidified Brent Kallman’s place on the backline and his partnership with fellow center back Calvo would be a key component of an improved Loons’ defense, even if it that wasn’t immediately apparent in this match until Heath shifted the formation to feature five at the back.
“The first half was really, really poor defensively,” said Heath. “Every time they attacked it looked like they were going to score and that’s why we made the change. We had to put an extra body in there just to shore it up a little bit and it seemed to have the desired effect. I thought we were a lot better [in the] second half, but it was a little bit too little, too late.”
The Loons’ second home match began as so many had already with an early goal for the other side when Luke Mulholland (who played for MNUFC in the NASL) scored in the fourth minute. But the sense of “here we go again” dissipated quickly when the home side surged instead of cracking. Molino scored in the 16th minute and then things really opened in the second half as Ramirez scored the match-winner in the 52nd minute and added another in the 62nd. Venegas would add a fourth in the 68th but the Loons would also concede a consolation goal in the 87th — a sign that while the promising offense had come alive, the defense still left something to be desired.
“It wasn't the start that we wanted but I thought that showed a lot about the group tonight,” said Heath. “When you've conceded the goals that we have and then you concede after three minutes through another error … but I think there's been a real buzz about the guys and I'm just so pleased for everybody connected with the team: ownership, supporters, players, everybody. Because it's never easy when you have the start we had, it wasn't going to be easy. But the players have kept going, they've kept coming in every day and training really hard.”
In a season that ended with MNUFC 19th out of 22 teams, there are no real turning points. But the match against FC Dallas marked one of the first major evolutions of the team on the pitch as MNUFC traded Mohammed Saied and Josh Gatt in order to get MLS vets Sam Cronin and Marc Burch leading up to the match. This established a backline of Jerome Thiesson, Calvo, Kallman and Burch that would remain relatively consistent until Burch went down with an injury in early June. Cronin provided immediate relief as a holding midfielder and proved instrumental in keeping Dallas off the board until the 43rd minute, when the longest MNUFC had gone before conceding had been 17 minutes.
Although FC Dallas ended the season as a paper tiger, they looked quite formidable at the time and in spite of the 2-0 loss, Heath saw immediately what Cronin and Burch would bring to a team sorely in need of leadership. “They're both experienced players who can play at this level,” he said. “They've played over 400 games between them. There's not a problem for them — they can play at this level. They'll be two good additions for us moving forward.”
It was fitting that a draw would showcase both how far MNUFC had come and how far it had left to go. On the one hand, the team mounted a comeback after falling behind 2-0 in the first half and took a point off a Houston team that had won all three of its home matches to that point. On the other hand, chances went begging and the two goals from Houston came off miscues, plus the team’s depth was tested when both Rasmus Schuller and Bobby Shuttleworth had to come off in the first half.
"You’re thinking ‘here we go again’ you know," said Heath about the injuries. "Because every time you think you have subs we can use later in the game and all of a sudden we only have one. It is what it is. The lads had dug themselves out of a really big hole and they can be pleased with that work."
Heath spoke often this season of “nearly nights” — matches where the team nearly got the goal they needed, nearly fended off the other team’s offensive chances or were just generally nearly good enough. Playing against Colorado for the second time, the squad finally got one to go the other way in a messy, tough 1-0 win at home. For a team that initially looked decent offensively but woeful on the other side of the ball, it was a positive sign.
“We’ve been working on our shape tirelessly in training,” said Bobby Shuttleworth. “The coaches have really been harping on it because we’ve been conceding a lot of goals and it feels good for the group to kind of dig in. I’m sure everyone feels how gratifying it is to be consistently putting in that work and finally see some results.”
“Another tough game, but we want to keep winning at home,” said Heath. “We want to make this a fortress. Sometimes you get scrappy 1-0 wins. I've played in games where you don't really deserve anything. I think attacking-wise today, it was probably the worst we've been since the opening day of the season. But we got the result that I think the players deserved.”
The very next week, the Loons found themselves on the wrong side of another nearly night as they fell 1-0 to a San Jose Earthquakes team desperate for three points after going winless in their last six. The match did, though, feature Abu Danladi as a late sub and the rookie brought a spark of energy that foretold the improved consistency and performance he would showcase later in the season.
“[Abu] came [into the league] with a lot of hype and it's taken us three or four weeks to get him where I think he's match fit,” said Heath. “His training has been absolutely superb for the last two or three weeks. He gave us some energy and some life. I think he sparked his teammates, he sparked the crowd and it was a good shift for him. He's put himself very firmly in a chance to start next week.”
The first of four meetings with Sporting Kansas City in many ways represented the culmination of the first chunk of the season, with Heath later citing it as the most satisfying win of the season for him. Part of that is no doubt down to his respect for Peter Vermes, as Heath frequently spoke of SKC as a model for MNUFC to follow in many ways. But with Abu in the starting lineup for the first time, it was also the best representation of something like an ideal starting XI for the team at this point in the season. Calvo and Kallman were flanked by Burch and Thiesson at the back, Ibson and Cronin held down the middle, and Molino, Danladi and Ibarra created chances on attack with Ramirez there to provide finishing.
Additionally, Minnesota’s wins to this point had come against struggling teams in Real Salt Lake and Colorado, whereas SKC was sitting atop the Western Conference prior to this match. The 2-0 win fed into another consistent refrain of Heath’s: the need for the team to develop a belief in itself. Taking down an opponent of SKC’s caliber on national television gave them a taste of that and showcased the team’s grit, especially when Shuttleworth broke his nose and stayed in the match. That, along with the clean sheets in this and the 1-0 win against Colorado, also pointed toward the major role Shuttleworth would play as a standard bearer for the club as the season progressed.
“Probably the most complete 90 that we've had in terms of both sides of the ball,” said Heath. “We spoke about it in the week: we've had games where we look as though we're a real threat going forward and then we've had days where we've been solid [on defense], but actually getting into both sides in one game, this is probably the best we've looked. I thought that we showed a real courage in believing what we were doing. I'm really pleased for the players. I'm really pleased for everybody connected with the club because you know, live on TV, we've had a couple of horror shows. It's nice to see that we are improving and we're probably a little bit more than just having a nice badge.”
Up next: Part Two