It may not have any basis in reality, but I like to think of Minnesota’s pro soccer history as being, effectively, one single team. The Minnesota Kicks, Minnesota Strikers (including the indoor version!), Minnesota Thunder, Minnesota Stars, and now Minnesota United – different names, different jerseys, different leagues, different owners, but one single team, one unbroken line connecting Ace Ntsoelengoe with Darwin Quintero.
I think that’s why I was so unhappy to see Minnesota United trade striker Christian Ramirez.
I feel like I’ve written Ramirez’s history a thousand times now, but here’s a quick retrospective. Ramirez, a California native, went to college powerhouse UC-Santa Barbara out of high school. He didn’t get much of a chance there, so he transferred to NAIA school Concordia-Irvine, where he proceeded to average a goal per game. This landed him with Charlotte in the USL, which at the time was the third division. When he found his feet there, in late 2013, he started scoring goals, including six in his final four games in Charlotte. This caught the eye of Minnesota United, which signed him for the 2014 NASL season.
He wasn’t supposed to play much that year. Minnesota had Pablo Campos, who’d been the best goal-scorer in the second division for most of the preceding three years. But Campos tore up his knee in the pre-season and suddenly Minnesota, which was gearing up for a title challenge, was depending on young, unknown Ramirez.
All he did was score goals. 20 that season, 13 and 18 the next two, and then when United hopped to MLS, he led the team there, scoring 14 goals. Alan Willey had 95 goals, playing for the Minnesota Kicks in the defense-optional 70s-era NASL. Willey’s the only Minnesota player to score more than Ramirez’s 72. Current Loons assistant coach Amos Magee had 64, in the days of the Thunder. Nobody else has gone past 50, and Ramirez smashed 72 in just four and a half seasons.
Connect all the disparate franchises of Minnesota soccer’s past, and Ramirez is still one of the best to ever play for Minnesota. But Adrian Heath, and the United front office, sent Ramirez to LAFC in exchange for some financial flexibility – around three-quarters of a million dollars in salary-cap space, effectively. The Loons signed Colombian veteran Ángelo Rodríguez as a designated player earlier in the summer, and his first game against Seattle – no goals and one decent scoring chance – was still enough to convince the Loons brain trust that Ramirez was expendable.
In the end, it wasn’t really a surprise. For whatever reason, Ramirez has never seemed to be all that popular with the Loons powers that be. Heath seemed reluctant to play Ramirez unless he had to. General Manager Manny Lagos, back in 2015, benched Ramirez to start the season even though he had scored 20 goals the prior year. Not only did the team sign Rodríguez, but drafted forwards with its top draft picks in both 2017 and 2018. With Rodríguez on the bench and Abu Danladi and Mason Toye waiting in the wings, selling off Ramirez was an easy financial decision, even something of a fait accompli.
What I still can’t explain is why Minnesota, which like all soccer teams is ever on the lookout for players that can put the ball in the back of the net, felt like its most accomplished goal-scorer couldn’t be trusted. And it only compounds the mystery when you realize that Ramirez was one of the team’s most popular players.
If such a thing exists, Ramirez was the face of the franchise. His picture was up outside the team’s new stadium in St. Paul. His number 21 probably adorned more jerseys in TCF Bank Stadium than any other player’s, possibly more than every other player combined, at least until Quintero arrived. Everyone loves the goal-scorers, doubly so if they smile big and work hard and prove the doubters wrong at every turn. Every fan loved Christian Ramirez.
I have tried to come up with a proper comparison to another Minnesota sports figure, and the smile and the hard work and the universal popularity keep pointing back to Kirby Puckett. I’m not saying that Christian Ramirez is as popular as Kirby Puckett was, but what I remember most about Kirby was that other Twins were loved, but Kirby was the one that people named kids and dogs and things they loved after. Kirby was everybody’s favorite. Christian Ramirez was everybody’s favorite.
Few other players in that long unbroken string of Minnesota pro soccer have ever achieved that kind of popularity. Ramirez was in rarefied air, not only as a goal-scorer but as a fan favorite, for the Kicks/Strikers/Thunder/Stars/United franchise.
It’s impossible to say, yet, whether this move will turn out to be a positive or a negative. Maybe Ángelo Rodríguez will score a dozen goals in as many games and we’ll have forgotten all about Ramirez by November. Maybe Ramirez will score in bunches at LAFC, and this will go down in the annals of the worst trades in Minnesota sports history.
One of the hardest things, as a fan, is trying to believe that your team has a plan and knows what it’s doing, even as the on-field results aren’t going the right way. Sometimes all of the losing does have a purpose, and things work out (see: the current Houston Astros). Sometimes all of the losing has no purpose and the team ends up farther behind than when it started (see: the collected history of the Minnesota Timberwolves).
We can’t say for sure which side Minnesota United is on. But it’s hard to see what plan includes trading a fan-favorite goal-scoring machine. It’s tough to squint at that move hard enough to see the master plan behind it. And it’s especially hard when, even when considered in the long history of Minnesota pro soccer, Ramirez is by any definition one of the best.