The Designated Player label can be a tricky one. It was, after all, invented to accommodate David Beckham, the first giant, imported MLS star and one who still looms large over the game here in the U.S. and Canada. In a salary cap league, the Designated Player tag is seen as a team’s chance to get an expensive and wildly talented player, as a treat. As such, DPs come with plenty of baggage in fans’ minds — they should score, they should lead, they should be on all the merch, they should define a team’s identity.
On first blush, Jan Gregus — signed as the team’s third DP prior to the 2019 season and currently the team’s only starting DP as Thomas Chacon continues to evolve and grow as a Young DP — didn’t really appear to do any of those things. As a central midfielder, he occupies a position that can sometimes disappear into the woodwork. His partner in the dual pivot, Osvaldo Alonso, scored the first goal at Allianz Field last year, captained the side and established his place as a bulldog in front of a backline bolstered by the arrivals of Ike Opara and Romain Metanire and the emergence of rookie Chase Gasper. Amidst a stunning defensive turnaround, Gregus didn’t initially feel like a difference maker. And as a personality, he initially seemed frustratingly balanced. Not shy, but not cocky. Not introverted, but not exactly outgoing. Neither petulant, nor galvanizing.
But look again. The core of last year’s team that returned for this year exhibits a certain character that’s a bit hard to pin down. They go hard in training and on the pitch, focused entirely on working with and for each other, but they leaven that grit by not taking themselves too seriously away from the game. Gregus embodies that dichotomy. Catch him playing soccer tennis after practice and you’ll see him stoking the competitive fires. He exults in a win, curses at a loss, but then walks away, ready with a joke for a teammate. He’s capable of providing athlete bromides about focus and aggressiveness to the media, but he can also be charmingly snarky and playful away from formal settings.
We tend to expect talented or important players to put their stamp on a team, to shape it in their image. This can be obvious when their personality is large, but as we saw with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s time with the Galaxy, it was less about culture and more about cult. Gregus’ stamp might just be a little more subtle, a little hard to define, something that grows over time — less about culture than cultivation. There’s a certain steadiness to Gregus that’s shared with the other veteran leaders on the team, and it’s certainly part of the makeup of younger players like Hassani Dotson. As a team, they get after each other in training, snapping and barking and pushing each other, but it’s in service of the work and they leave it all out there when it’s done.
It can be easy to mistake that kind of emotional fluidity — that ability to dive headlong into the game with everything you’ve got and then pull back and disconnect from it — for a lack of a definable character, but Gregus and his teammates are gradually building the case for it as the defining characteristic of this MNUFC side. Resilience is one of Minnesota United’s core values, and it’s easy enough to wave your hand at. Sure, resilience. Who wouldn’t want to say they’re tough? But resilience isn’t just about not getting knocked down, it’s about taking the hit and coming back from it. Every defeat doesn’t have to be crushing and every comeback doesn’t have to be a redemption story. The groundwork for success is laid by showing up every day and so it’s possible that Gregus’ standout trait is not standing out too much at all.