When it comes to teaching, there are two kinds of evaluation: formative and summative. Summative evaluation is what everyone skips to the end of their paper to see — it’s the letter grade after the teacher’s comments you don’t read. It’s the string of letters on your report card. It’s your GPA. And it is, in terms of continued growth and learning, pretty much useless. Things like semesters and papers and seasons have endings and so they must be assessed as successes or failures. Minnesota United’s inaugural season was a mix of both, but to focus too much on one or the other misses the extent to which it was about establishing a foundation and sowing seeds. Formative evaluation — the kind that looks at where a project has to go and how to get there — is much more useful heading into Minnesota United’s second season than any simple letter.
When MNUFC was at its best last year, the team was capable of beating — or at least pushing — any team in the league, as attested to by wins over the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United and even close losses to the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. From late August to early October, the Loons went 4-2-1, including their first road win against the Chicago Fire. That run featured rookie forward Abu Danladi coming on strong, scoring leader Christian Ramirez returning from injury, the acclimation of the recently acquired Ethan Finlay, a lack of international call-ups, a run of relatively good health, and players stepping up when the injury bug did hit. Although that clearly includes factors beyond the team’s control, the opportunism they showed when given a break and the resilience they displayed when they took a knock are just the kind of thing that the team will be hoping to replicate for longer stretches this season.
“Everybody is on the same page knowing our effort needs to be at 100 percent every match,” said midfielder Collen Warner. “And our teamwork and our togetherness is a strength of ours. Because you can see in the matches where we did do well last year, there’s always something going on on the pitch. Guys getting after it, being very confrontational in the right way. And I think those are things that were brought out last year that we can really bring along with us this year. We can say, that’s how we win a match. Edge and personality. I think our team has loads of personality, it’s just expressing that on the field.”
Some of that personality comes out in what the guys got up to in the offseason. Warner went to Anguilla in the Caribbean to run a soccer camp that took on a greater significance in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Defender Marc Burch went on safari in South Africa. Goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth traveled to Europe a few times. Midfielder Collin Martin went to Dubai. Others like midfielder Sam Nicholson maximized his time at home in Scotland with family, knowing it would be a long time before he could get back there. Kevin Molino did much the same.
“Being home with friends and family is very nice,” he said. “And being on home soil, which is Trinidad, and surrounded by water and the beach every day, catching fish, eating fish. And also to get the opportunity to play other sports. You know, play cricket, play basketball. So that has been fun. Coming away from the game a little bit. And know it’s time to be back to business. Focus is on the game now.”
The personalities that make up a team take time to gel and it takes time for a team to understand itself. While that understanding should eventually manifest itself on the pitch in plays that can look like telepathy, it has to start much further back. In that respect, the team is already well ahead of where they were last season. The team has a core of returning players and a group of newcomers and rookies to integrate — that alone is far different from working to assemble a team from whole cloth like last year.
“He’s a good guy to have within the group,” said goalkeeper Alex Kapp of Matt Lampson, who was acquired in a draft day trade with the Chicago Fire. “Does crossword puzzles every morning, so he kind of helped me out with that, because I’ve never done crossword puzzles. That was kind of our way of connecting with each other.”
Players have taken the opportunity of two preseason roadtrips to Florida and South Carolina to start building the relationships that will support the team throughout the season. Vets like defender Tyrone Mears and Lampson are in some ways both teaching and learning the ropes, while players who joined MNUFC during the season last year like Jerome Thiesson and Michael Boxall are getting their first chance at preseason with the Loons.
“When you’re coming in partway through the season and you don’t get that time,” said Boxall, “you can see how big, how important that is. So I think if we get all the right personnel signed up and ready to go for March, then the six, seven weeks is massive to incorporate how we play as a team and what we’re going to stand for this season.”
Throughout last year, one refrain Heath returned to constantly was the need for players to be pushed at their positions. With depth wanting in 2017, it was difficult for many starters to be challenged in that way. But whether it’s by older players with MLS experience or by rookies who force Heath’s hand or are pressed into service due to injuries, the starters at this weekend’s season opener at San Jose are guaranteed nothing. And that’s just the way Heath thinks it should be. The Loons went big at the MLS SuperDraft, turning a pair of first round picks into three first-round players in forward Mason Toye and defenders Wyatt Omsberg and Carter Manley.
“I don’t know what’s going to unfold as the season goes, or as the injuries start,” he said. “Now, sometimes [the rookies] get an opportunity earlier than you think, because a situation arises. A couple injuries, a couple of suspensions, and you get thrown in. And then it’s how you cope. Sometimes it’s too early for guys, sometimes it isn’t. The important thing is, for our supporters, is we haven’t drafted for next week. We haven’t drafted them for six months time. We think these guys are going to develop into MLS footballers over the next five, ten years. So, as much as everyone likes to see them on the field — me included — but you know, even Abu [Danladi] in the beginning, it was a stretch for him. He got in in the second half, and he showed us what he can do. If that happens to these guys, if they get their opportunity, it’s like anything. You have to take it when it comes along.”
In Minnesota United’s inaugural season, some things came into focus relatively quickly: all Christian Ramirez does is score goals; Bobby Shuttleworth was more than ready to step in and make big saves; the defense needed to get better — fast. Other things came more slowly, like Danladi’s eventual blossoming as a clutch scorer with four match-winning goals. You can look back on 2017 and try to come up with a letter grade that will wrap it up in a neat little package, but honestly, the most accurate grade is probably an “incomplete.” You’d be hard-pressed to come up with any team that didn’t win the MLS Cup that doesn’t consider their work somehow incomplete.
That’s the beauty of this, actually: every team gets to come back and keep working. Some things arrive ahead of schedule, some things a little later. Minnesota United is building and becoming and we get to watch it all unfold for another season.