With the announcement of Forward Madison as the club’s USL affiliate, Minnesota United has added a vital piece to its team structure. In past seasons, MNUFC has set up agreements with USL teams like the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Las Vegas Lights and Tulsa Roughnecks to get minutes for young players or those rehabbing from injuries, but each of those agreements was set up on a case-by-case basis. Having the newly launched Forward Madison as an affiliate presents a wealth of opportunities for both clubs to benefit as MNUFC takes steps to better establish a pathway for professional soccer in the Upper Midwest from its Pre-Development Academy all the way through the first team in MLS.
We recently sat down with Sporting Director Manny Lagos to learn more about how the partnership is going to work as a collaboration, what this partnership augurs for the future and why Forward Madison.
“Proximity is probably the most important piece of this relationship right now,” said Lagos, alluding to some of the challenges inherent in sending players back and forth to different time zones over the last couple of years. “If we're going to collaborate in terms of trying to help each other grow and use our resources to continue to lift our club in certain key areas — whether that's development for us or whether that's a competitive level of recruitment for them — it makes sense. Both sides have a pretty good perspective on what it takes to have a true partnership to help each other get something out of it where we can grow and build to be more competitive as a club.”
Although MNUFC will be able to send players to other USL teams if the situation warrants and will not exert the level of control over how Forward Madison plays that would come with its own USL team, the collaboration opens up avenues of mutual benefit that will not only help the individual teams but help soccer grow as a whole across the region. And just from a logistical standpoint, it makes it much easier to get guys minutes and for those minutes to have a bigger impact.
“This creates an opportunity where we have more of a handle on seeing them play,” said Lagos. “We have more of a handle on getting them to the environment as quickly as possible. And Forward Madison's going to come to our environment quite a bit, so we can combine and really look at our players and how they're doing when we ship them to get minutes. It's much easier for our guys recovering from injury to go train and play games there where we can make sure they're getting the proper treatment and training that they need so they’re healthy and ready to compete for us.”
Although Lagos affirmed that in an ideal world Minnesota United would own and operate their own USL team, the club wanted to make sure it wasn’t launching a venture that would end up being unsustainable. The Development Academy structure in MLS had begun to show dividends for clubs like New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, but soccer in America overall and here in Minnesota specifically doesn’t yet have a robust pathway for youth players to take to becoming professionals. That kind of pathway doesn’t get built overnight, but the USL represents a major part of bringing talent up from Pre-Development Academy level through the Development Academy and into professional playing situations.
“One thing that's exciting about USL is that it's a real competition that has a real business plan that has real ramifications for winning and losing on the field,” said Lagos. “Those are perfect environments for kids to develop. They have to start feeling the pressure and stress of the game outside of MLS. If they're not ready to play in MLS, we need to create an environment, an atmosphere that can help them develop to get ready for MLS.”
As with many things MNUFC has dealt with since joining MLS, the key is balancing immediate needs with crafting a sustainable system. The partnership with Forward Madison strikes a good balance between these two desired results, affording the team the chance to keep players close while getting them needed minutes but also laying the groundwork for a future in USL, either with Forward Madison or its own USL team.