The simple question facing Minnesota United is whether the club can make the playoffs this year. The answer to that question, though, is complicated, and the club’s behavior for the rest of 2018 hinges entirely on the answer.
It’d be fairly easy to make a case either for or against the Loons’ playoff chances. On the one hand, a simple glance at the standings shows United right in the thick of the playoff race. After beating New England on Wednesday night, Minnesota is just three points behind the sixth-place Los Angeles Galaxy, and has won three out of its last four games.
On the other hand, United has been cartoonishly awful on the road so far this year, and has a five-game road trip coming up (the Loons won’t play at home between August 4 and September 22). The team still has the worst defense and the worst goal difference in the league, outside of the ongoing tire fire at Orlando City, and depends almost entirely on Darwin Quintero wondergoals for its offensive output.
I have virtually no doubt that coach Adrian Heath, as well as the rest of the Minnesota squad and the front office, are in the playoffs-or-bust camp. Every team wants to make the postseason, but Minnesota is desperate to have something positive to show for its first two years in MLS, besides the lingering memory of its debacle of a beginning to the 2017 season. Barring a major flop, like a five-game losing streak, the Loons are going to approach every game as a must-win for the rest of the year.
The issue with that is that if the club is wrong about its playoff chances, then it’s doing the team a disservice to keep on plugging away with some of the team’s veterans. And that covers up one of the team’s weaknesses over the past few years: despite accusations from fans that the club was more focused on building towards its new stadium in 2019, the truth is that the club has done very little on-field building at all.
Since the beginning of its MLS tenure, United has focused less on its future prospects and more on trying to cobble together something for the present. Veterans, not prospects, have earned most of the team’s minutes. No one under the age of 25 has played regularly for Minnesota this year. Forwards Abu Danladi (22) and Mason Toye (19) have been regular subs, defenders Carter Manley (22) and Wyatt Omsberg (22) have been occasional injury cover, and midfielders Collin Martin (23) and Maximiano (23) have struggled for minutes. Meanwhile, Tyrone Mears (35) has nine starts, Ibson (34) has been in the starting lineup virtually every game, and even Collen Warner (just turned 30) has gotten an extended chance in the starting XI.
None of this is to say that any of the young players are necessarily better choices than the veterans, which I’m sure would be Heath’s argument. Heath is trying to win today, not in 2019. But at some point the club needs to find out what it has in some of its young players. Martin could fill any of the team’s midfield roles. Toye and Danladi could prove to be attackers of the future. Minnesota, always short along the back line, could really use a look at Manley and Omsberg – and even 24-year-old Cameroonian defender Bertrand Owundi Eko’o, who hasn’t played a minute.
United made a nod to this with its first signing of the summer transfer period, as the team acquired 23-year-old Ecuadorian international Romario Ibarra. With Alexi Gomez still struggling in his extended audition at left wing, Ibarra will likely slot in on the left side of the United attack, where the team hopes he’ll bring balance to the offense.
Its second signing, though, was a reversion to the previous plan, as the team signed Colombian striker Ángelo Rodríguez, who at 29 immediately becomes Minnesota’s oldest forward. When Rodríguez arrives, it’ll drop Danladi and Toye even further down the pecking list – and add some confusion to the future of Christian Ramirez, the closest thing to the face of the franchise that Minnesota has had (at least, before Quintero’s arrival).
Since the very beginning, the Minnesota United brass has insisted that the Loons are not in a pre-stadium “soft launch.” The team has insisted that it is both trying to win now and build something for the future, while doing less than it hoped of either. One has to look only at Atlanta and Los Angeles FC, both of which are winning expansion teams that seem well set for the coming years, to know that doing both is possible. For the Loons, though, it’s time to think about doing either one or the other.
The playoffs seem possible. 2019 is coming up fast. Minnesota United has tried to focus on both, and has ended up stuck in the middle. With 14 games to go before the move to Allianz Field, it might be time for Minnesota to make a choice between trying to win now, and trying to build for 2019 – and beyond.