In the middle of the messiest snowstorm of the year (so far), MNUFC took over the Mall of America rotunda for what is often the most exciting part of the preseason: the kit reveal.
I had planned to be there to hear the fan reactions to the new design, but had to turn around after just five sketchy miles of freeway driving. While I waited in a checkout line with 100 pounds of tube sand to balance my car on my Monday morning commute, a quick peek at Twitter replaced the sound bytes I had hoped for: Meh.
The 2019 away kit is appropriately called the Drift Kit:
*For those of you who don’t follow winter sports, the Xcel Energy Center is home to the Minnesota Wild hockey team.*
Fans seem to be fed up with the Adidas templates that are sweeping the league and Minnesota United fans, still accustomed to the individualistic lower league designs of yore, are certainly no different. But, I’m going to put a positive spin on these icy whites.
The Loons are poised for an improved away performance this year that will put the design in perspective: The shirt is simply a template in which the Loons will build a road team identity. And if they don’t…
Maybe Clorox Bleach will replace Target as shirt sponsor.
The keeper kits are a tad more interesting, even more so given who walked out in one.
Italian keeper Vito Mannone has joined MNUFC on a one year loan from English Championship side Reading FC. He comes to MLS with Premier League experience, including seven seasons at Arsenal. Mannone is set to take the top spot between the sticks, demoting Bobby Shuttleworth (who, to my knowledge, was not seen at the kit reveal) to the bench.
When the Mannone rumors first started, I was not convinced he was the upgrade that Adrian Heath & Co were so openly shopping for. After some comparison between Mannone and Shuttleworth’s stats though, I’m a little more comfortable with this game plan. Based on numbers reported by Transfermarkt, Mannone averaged 62.5 minutes between goals conceded over the 2017/18 season, while Shuttleworth averaged 47.3 minutes in 2017 and 44.1 in 2018.
These certainly aren’t the definitive stats to go by, but Mannone, combined with the D-line upgrades made in January, indeed appears to be an improvement.
New looks abound in the North. Come. On. You. Loons.
With preseason matches kicking off this week, it is time for that deep dive I’ve been teasing. This will, unfortunately, be a low dive, but I’m sure the next few weeks will give us plenty of material to build on. After all, I believe there’s still some TAM, GAM and JAM (or is it jelly?) in the coffers, ripe for spending.
We’ve had enough Twitter. This one is all words. Ready, Loons? Dive.
Minnesota United is making strides in rebuilding one of its weakest links on the pitch ahead of the club’s third MLS season, with nine additions to the backfield: Osvaldo “Ozzie” Alonso, Jan Gregus, Chase Gasper, Hassani Dotson, Dayne St Clair, Romain Metanire, Mitchell Osmond, Kevin Rodriguez and, most recently, Ike Opara.
Of the five expected to immediately compete for starting roles, only two (Metanire and Opara) are true defenders, but doubling down on the defensive midfielders certainly isn’t a bad thing for this club.
In 2017 and 2018, compounding on the issue of the Loons’ leaky defense was a discombobulated midfield that struggled to move the ball into the final third and struggled even more to maintain possession in their own half, meaning the defense was nearly always on their back foot before they came face-to-face with the opposition’s attack. Adrian Heath’s experimentation with the 3-5-2 sparked hope, but like a line of dominoes, no matter the formation, one mistake would lead to total collapse.
So United needs to get back to the basics. Defensive stalwarts like Opara and Alonso will provide a solid backbone to a successful transition. Both would operate well in either the 4-2-3-1 or the 3-5-2. I would pair Opara with Michael Boxall in a four-man backline, with Calvo and Metanire to their left and right, respectively. In a three-man backline, I see Wyatt Omsberg (or Gasper?) on Opara’s left and Kallman on his right.
There are too many variables for me to lay out the midfield, but in either formation I want Alonso and Jan Gregus orchestrating with Rasmus Schuller and Miguel Ibarra anchoring the wings.
The varied experience brought by Alonso and Opara counteract many of the negatives cited (over and over and over) on Minnesota Soccer Twitter. These are two MLS veterans with hefty postseason resumes, not just grainy highlight videos from another league. Their composure and leadership will balance the youthful inexperience of the fresh legs around them and give the other Minnesota mainstays (i.e. Calvo and Kallman) more favorable conditions to rise to their potential consistently. And I have a feeling that consistency will be the buzzword this season.
Yes, we need depth. Yes, we need more starters. Yes, we need to score goals, too. But when the Loons’ receive their credit statement for the past month, the transaction history will, for the first time since the club’s promotion, hint at forward progress in the building of a team with playoff hopes.
Is the third time the charm? Either way…. [Insert photo of shiny, new stadium here.]
I know I teased a deep dive into a formational rabbit hole in this first piece of 2019, but then Minnesota United FC had a busy SuperDraft first round and I changed my plans. This will instead be a shallow dive into a very deep pool of my thoughts on Minnesota’s 2019 newcomers.
Following a disappointing sophomore season in which the Loons’ overall performance could not quite outshine their horrendous freshman year (they picked up one more W in 2018 than in ‘17, but shipped one more goal, finishing with 71 against, compared to 70 in ‘17), everyone expected – or, rather, hoped – to see Minnesota’s front office make immediate strides toward shoring up their defense and pulling together the stray threads in the midfield. Instead, they jettisoned many of 2018’s signings and then… Darkness. Silence.
Jan Gregus was announced as a DP No 6. Unfortunately, it’s pronounced like Grey Goosh, not Grey Goose. And, he’s not a No 6. While Gregus was occasionally shifted into the center-back role with his last side, FC Copenhagen, and the Slovakian international team, he usually played more of a center mid or right-wing role.
But that’s okay. Minnesota found themselves a real, true, bonafide, known-entity Number 6. (Yes, that’s a transition, but don’t worry; wings will feature heavily in the true deep dive.)
In a rare transfer-rumor-comes-true moment, Minnesota brought aboard a Seattle Sounders original: captain and center back Osvaldo “Ozzie” Alonso. This is one of few signings in United’s MLS era that makes perfect, immediate sense.
The Honey Badger not only fills a position of need but also brings 10 years of MLS experience to a side still searching for an identity. That resume and his history of playing (thriving even) through pain are nearly enough to overlook the fact that he is not the youthful puzzle piece that the Loons sorely need for league longevity, but his leadership may be more important.
On Friday, January 11, the club made three picks who all look set to join the fight for a place with the club, whether that role is off the bench in 2019 or on loan to train for the future. The two brightest prospects come with chemistry. Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and defender Chase Gasper, picked seventh and fifteenth respectively, played together for the Maryland Terrapins, the 2018 NCAA Champions.
St. Clair adds depth between the sticks, where Shuttleworth was the only rostered player going into the draft. Ideally, he’d be the second backup by opening night, but if the reports about his distribution style are true, St. Clair will be an intriguing addition to the lineup. And do you see how excited his roommate, Gasper, is in this interview?
That’s how excited I am to see the young fullback training next to Ozzie. This is a player who will buy into a system and develop quickly. We can only hope the aforementioned system is an effective one. There is lethal potential to a backfield with options like Alonso, Kallman, Calvo, Boxall, Gregus and Gasper.
United also picked up Oregon State midfielder, Hassani Dotson, with the fifteenth pick. Dotson is in the Potential Pool: If United hangs onto him into the regular season, he’s bound to be on loan to Forward Madison SC to hone his craft before being plugged into the Loons’ midfield.
How that midfield comes together in the preseason will be the biggest indicator of the season to come. Yes, the defense needs work, the forwards need to score; but defense starts up top. A composed midfield would make the Loons competitive. Those inside puzzle pieces are still floating aimlessly across the field.
So stock up on whiskey (or Grey Goose) and stay tuned for a deep dive into a jigsaw puzzle.
It is high time to put the 2018 season to rest, but how about one more chorus of our favorite Simon & Garfunkel song before we go? Sing it with me:
“Hello Darkness, my old friend…”
Minnesota United FC finished 2018 tenth in the west with 36 points, just 5 more than the Colorado Rapids and 15 more than perennial bottom dwellers, San Jose Earthquakes. Seventy-one goals against is hardly an improvement over the Loons’ record-breaking freshman finish. However, Orlando City SC shipped three more than Minnesota this season. Feel better? No? Sorry, it’s all downhill from here.
I could nitpick all the negatives, but you and I have other things to accomplish this offseason than to rehash all of that.
Instead, here are my overall reflections and expectations, uninterrupted by clips and tweets because I know you all remember the blunders vividly.
[Lack of] Defense
MNUFC’s goals against stats will always be a black mark on the club’s first two years in MLS. A key issue in the backline, noted again and again by anyone who followed 2017’s performance, was the lack of a No. 6. So fans rejoiced the signing of Fernando Bob in August and saw glimpses of a decent future in the Loons’ final third. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘Not good, Bob’ took a turn from sarcasm to exasperation. The club declined to exercise options on the Brazilian and his countrymen, Ibson and Maximiano.
Brent Kallman, Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo became mainstays on the backline, though Calvo’s primary role switched from centerback to left back upon his return from international duty, in place of injured Jerome Thiesson (also released at season’s end). It looks likely that the trio will remain intact going into 2019, but questions remain: Who will complete Heath‘s four-man backline and will they earn the respect El Capitan so often demanded? Between glimpses of brilliance and the great impressions of brick walls performed by both Boxall and Kallman, reinforcements will be desperately needed to staunch the bleeding.
And the young guys (Omsberg, Manley) if still on the roster, will need time to learn their role.
While the front office spent much of the season blaming injuries to key midfielders Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay for all their woes, the midfield at times showed significant improvement over last year with more consistency and drive. A new-and-improved Rasmus Schuller returned from loan to anchor the left and balance Ibson’s roaming efforts on the right, but the squad still frequently failed to connect with the attack and opened more holes for the already struggling defense to clean up.
The arrival of Darwin Quintero sparked more connections and possibilities in the final third, but you can only burn a candle from both ends for so long…One DP caliber attacking mid is not a fix-all solution and Batman (Miguel Ibarra) can’t run all night, every night.
The club appears to be eliminating all the question marks (Ibson’s inconsistencies, Maximiano’s temper, Alexi Gomez‘s poor passing) by releasing their core midfield line-up to start fresh. This December is now a carbon copy of last winter: A roster heavy on the wings, with no clear identity. But, hey, DPs score goals! … Sometimes.
Strikers Striking Out
Just as Batman can’t run all night, Superman can’t shoot strong and true every time. Fan favorite, Christian Ramirez, had a poor start to the season and was not the clutch goal scorer longtime fans had come to know and love. With the midfield’s poor movement into the final third, the arrival of Quintero’s wicked speed and sticky feet unlocked Ramirez’s potential once again.
However, the attack continued to struggle and the FO announced a new signing. A veteran striker who could supposedly score when expected and take the Loons’ attack to new heights. At the expense of the heart of the club who also happened to be their most valuable trading card.
Ramirez was replaced by Angelo Rodriguez, the club’s second DP. Unfortunately, no matter how much you pay a guy, he can’t be expected to reproduce his highlight reel at every match. Rodriguez said himself, on multiple occasions, that he was ‘ashamed’ of his performance and his guilt over not meeting expectations was painfully obvious.
But he seems determined to get back to full fitness and a youthful production rate. And MNUFC is going all in, designing their attack around the veteran and the rookies, 2018 draft pick Mason Toye and 2017 draft pick Abu Danladi, both struggling to find their footing and maintain fitness in the big league.
Remember when we all sang, “Hey – ho – the North is rising, rising up the table,” after the first 2018 home win? That was neat. Let’s carry that feeling through the offseason, just to balance out the #Panic. Someday we will sing it again. It could be a fluke, but it will echo through the Midway, if only for one night. Until then…
It may have been a less than stellar sophomore season for Minnesota United FC, but our Loons gave us plenty to be proud of off the pitch in 2018. Inspiring stories of players giving back and taking a stand only go so far in balancing out a non-competitive product, but they can reassure us of one thing: the Club places community on the same playing field as business.
Two Loons who did not receive much attention for actions on the pitch (and not because of poor performance, but because they did not have many opportunities to perform) made national headlines this season for two very different, but equally important, reasons. Matt Lampson is the other Loon who shines out of the water. Read his story here.
Among the banners in Minnesota’s Supporters Section is a rainbow flag reading “All Fans Welcome.” It has been on display since the club’s tenure at NSC, before the promotion. It is not an empty statement: If you are a human who wants to stand and support the club, you will be treated as a human. But at one match each year, it means more. This year, on June 29, an announcement by a quiet, young midfielder, added even more depth to that statement.
In response to a slew of homophobic comments and allegations that Collin Martin’s announcement was orchestrated by the club as a political statement, owner Dr. Bill McQuire responded by calling the announcement a “human statement.” The club affirmed their message of inclusion to the entire LGBTQ+ community, awarding the L’etoile du Nord (Star of the North) to Dot Belster, Executive Director of Twin Cities Pride. And Belster isn’t the only LGBTQ+ Star recipient. The first L’etoile du Nord, awarded on March 17, went to former Minnesota Viking, Esera Tuaolo, who came out in 2002 after his retirement from the NFL.
It is no small thing that the country’s only openly gay male athlete active in professional sports is one of ours. And it is no small thing that our club supports him so strongly.
For Maggi Heyer, a Dark Clouds member and self-proclaimed Token Queer Capo, the club’s handling of Martin’s announcement reinforced the positive aspects of MNUFC.
“For me, this year was a lot of ups and downs. I think overall the lack of progress from last year was frustrating. Some of the moves that the FO made, while I understand the need for them, were especially frustrating because the FO failed to handle them well,” she explained. “I’m not sure that Collin’s announcement changed my feelings, per se, as affirmed what we knew about the club. I have found our supporter culture here to be so open and welcoming and it was great to see that this extends to the team.”
The message goes well beyond this MLS season. Martin will make an impact on a new generation of athletes, fans and human beings.
“I am the mom of two kids and I think the visible support that the club has shown for Collin goes a long way to showing kids that they are welcome in sport, regardless of how they identify,” Heyer said. “Visibility is so important. I would love for an athlete coming out to not be headline news a few years from now, but for now, I truly appreciate Collin’s bravery and the clubs welcoming culture.”
During his time in Minnesota, Martin has taken an active role in advocating for human rights issues, even campaigning for, now governor-elect, Tim Walz. And the state and its greater sporting community have thrown their support behind Martin as well. At the 2018 Minnesota Sports Awards, Martin received the Courage Award.
Sure, the numbers don’t look good, but while we are all waiting for that famous Three Year Plan to come to fruition, we have plenty to appreciate and lots to look forward to.
“This years’ Pride Night did seem a little different [from previous years], especially from the supporters perspective,” Heyer told me. “I think the tifo really helped to set the tone and with Collin’s announcement earlier in the day there was just this amazing energy. I’m excited to see how we can top it next year in Allianz though.”
The lists of players who have been cut by their club usually includes at least a couple players who fall into either of these categories: ‘dead weight’ and not expected to stay, fan favorites who are poor performers, or great performers who are not fan favorites. More rarely, there is a player who, regardless of performance, is an incredible human being who you don’t want to let go. Matt Lampson is one of the latter.
With only two wins in nine appearances through a season bookended by 2-3 losses (in San Jose on March 3rd and Columbus on October 28th), Matt Lampson’s time in Minnesota was not fantastic on the pitch. His work off the field, however, was worthy of recognition.
This award is for every single person that has known cancer and became stronger, more appreciative and strives to make a difference because of it. https://t.co/F6eSKgZoLs
A cancer survivor himself, Lampson founded the Lampstrong Foundation to brighten the lives of childhood cancer patients and their families. Since coming to Minnesota from Chicago, he has built a relationship with the U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital, and with the son of a Minnesota United supporter who was ready to walk away from the out-of-reach club.
A few years ago, Nate Howells’ support for United was cemented when a number of the NASL club’s representatives threw their support behind his youngest son after a traumatic brain injury. Broadcaster Chris Lidholm and forward Christian Ramirez were among those who contributed to his fund. “And one player, Brian Kallman [the older brother of current defender Brent], came to the PICU at Children’s and sat with my family. It was an incredibly meaningful experience,” said Howells. “Because of these actions, I have a loyalty to the club.”
But a lot has changed since the jump to MLS. Fans are no longer able to linger on the touchline with the players after a match, they don’t have the same opportunity to become a surrogate family for international players. And the competitive product is no longer… competitive.
“In early August, my frustration with Minnesota United was at its highest. I tweeted angrily that I was considering cancelling my season tickets. How I’ve never hated this FO more,” Howells said. But the next day, while I was up at Masonic Children’s at the University of Minnesota with my 10-year-old son who is being treated for embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, Matt Lampson and Michael Boxall made a special trip downstairs to see my son. This was such a positive moment. They showed up wearing Loons attire, representing the club, doing something meaningful in the community.”
Hey all, I have an actual feel good @mnufc story to share. After Xavier’s chemo appointment today, @LampStrong & @boxy surprised him with a visit during his physical therapy. They’re great guys and continue the reputation the Loons have in their community. pic.twitter.com/u8zfUIXuaP
A goalkeeper himself, 10-year-old Xavier (a.k.a. Iggy) looks up to Lampson as both a player and a survivor. Lampson’s visits broke up the monotony of chemo treatments. “Week-long hospital admissions can get quite boring and Iggy, as positive as he most certainly is, sometimes feels that he is missing out on the normal, fun things that his friends and siblings take for granted on a daily basis,” his dad explained.
The Loons’ work off the pitch is certainly more inspiring and impactful than their play. “Soccer in Minnesota is more than a sport,” Howells said. “It is culture and it is community. It brings people together and shows that we can do good.”
Lampson’s representation off the pitch – and the club’s support of it – went a long way in patching up the Howells family’s support of MNUFC after the trade of fan-favorite Christian Ramirez and the squad’s flat-lining performance. But that complex relationship was dealt another blow on Monday when United released a list of players whose contract options were not being exercised. The third name on that list: Matt Lampson.
I reached out to Nate for his reaction to the news. From home, where Iggy is resting after his first five-day hospitalization of this chemotherapy cycle, Nate expressed the return of the same frustration he felt with sporting director Manny Lagos and the FO after the Ramirez trade: “This is incredibly discouraging,” he said. “This is actually devastating. I can’t tell my son this.”
“Xavier has said that when he gets older, he wants to do the same thing for other kids,” Howells said. “He hopes to provide hospitalized kids with opportunities to do the special or normal things they want to do.”
No matter what badge Lampson wears in 2019, his work in Minnesota will live on.
It could have been the social anxiety or that initial sense of imposter syndrome or merely my habit of observing rather than participating or any combination of the three. But my observational approach to reporting this season taught me more about this fanbase, this club, and this sport, than being in the stands or asking cerebral questions ever would. And it gave me some confidence in the club’s building process.
Minnesota soccer fandom is an obsession for me. Minnesota’s fans have been through it all. From “the team that nobody wanted” in the lower division to the team that everyone doubted in the Major League, they have been singing, chanting, screaming for their boys. The flags, the tifos, the scarves… through two dismal seasons in the MLS, they have not let up.
And they want more to cheer for.
On many occasions, I wanted to ask Adrian Heath: What steps are you taking to be competitive? How long are you going to use the same tactics that get the same crappy results? When does this ‘Three Year Plan’ kick in?
I did not ask any of these questions, or many others, in fact.
Instead, match after match, presser after presser, trade after trade, I’ve watched Heath respond and react to fan criticism and media skepticism; I’ve observed the players interact in the locker room after wins, losses and draws; heard everyone from the front office to the back plead for patience and confidence. I learned that:
Heath does have a plan which may, in fact, be leading somewhere, but which has sputtered along through the process of making fan favorites and potential standout newcomers mesh together on short notice;
the players want to be a cohesive unit and are willing to put in the work, but have limited opportunities to earn one another’s confidence while playing within the lines of the game plan; and
that the club knows full well where the inadequacies lie, where improvements need to be made to earn the confidence of the diehard supporters but have chosen to pave the way to their end goals one small piece at a time.
Yes, I would have like to have sung ‘same as it ever was, same as it ever was’ on more than one occasion, in response to Heath’s standby answer, “We know what we need to get better.” I wanted to ask, WHAT pieces?, every time he said, “We just need one or two more pieces.” But I did not.
Minnesota United FC is attempting to put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with all sorts of oddly shaped pieces. The border is complete. Next, they have to fill in the picture, but the package was missing a number of pieces so there are a couple completed sections floating around unanchored.
The fans want a hint at what the completed picture will be. At the end of Year One, Heath pointed to the completed border. “We know what we need to get better.” At the end of Year Two, he pointed to his two Designated Players in the front; the oft-noted trio Molino, Finlay and Cronin; Kallman and captain Calvo in the back – all roster groupings that appear to be semi-permanent portions of the picture, bent and faded as they may be today. “We need to bring in one or two more pieces.”
I have the same sources you do; I don’t know any secrets. I am as frustrated as you are.
I have seen them acknowledge the frying pan. Or, rather, the Iron Skillet. They know that they won’t have a pretty presentation of a shiny, nearly-completed stadium with which to distract the Supporters if that ubiquitous Year Three ends with the same bitter taste as the last two.
This Club is building its MLS identity the same way the squad has earned it’s tastiest goals: A series of clean passes, a couple of long shots and, occasionally, pure dumb luck.
So. Heath out? If we see too many long shots this offseason, maybe I’d board that train. Panic? If we start leaning on dumb luck, yes.
Minnesota United FC‘s sophomore MLS season ended the way anyone who had followed the club this season could have expected. In fact, the 3-2 loss to Columbus Crew is a perfect sample of the season as a whole.
It was momentous. Not in the Merriam-Webster approved sense of the word. It was full of moments. Glimpses of brilliance, glimmerings of hope, pleasant surprises… all things which the Loons present to us with every match. Two of the brightest moments of the finale came from Darwin Quintero and Francisco Calvo.
The only thing more surprising than defender Francisco Calvo notching two goals in the season finale was that Zardes was allowed to close a slow, regular season with a hat-trick. Except, Minnesota fans can’t actually be surprised anymore.
… and so the 2018 MLS regular season draws to a close exactly as everyone expected, with Gyasi Zardes and Francisco Calvo trading goals. #CLBvMIN
No, having a lightning delay called just minutes into the match certainly didn’t help things and an extremely slick pitch was not in their favor. But the Loons are no strangers to the proverbial wrench thrown into the game plan, a fact which coach Adrian Heath and the front office like to call attention to in every interview (injuries to key players Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay and Sam Cronin and questionable VAR calls, for example). By week 33, adjusting to these factors should not be an issue.
When asked about his team’s performance on Sunday night, Heath responded as he has every week, his assessment of this particular match a carbon copy of that of every other loss (and even a few wins) this season:
“You do not win many games conceding three [goals] on the road.”
“We know what we have to do to get better.”
“We need one or two more pieces. If we get them, we have a chance at being more competitive.”
Have we grown or improved in any measurable way on the pitch? Not so much, no.
Are we still just happy to be here? That will depend on what happens in the offseason.
I do not want to write this. Another loss in front of a lot of fans, another round of #HeathOut chanted instead of ‘Wonderwall,’ another night of bitterness and frustration.
But I do want to write about how real, live Minnesotans do indeed want to watch live soccer, for better or for worse; about how the Supporters could not be silenced, even after Zlatan Ibrahimovic left his mark; about the strides the club must make to erase the bitterness of these past two seasons; and about the fact that despite my frustration, when the fireworks gave way to a different kind of light show, I experienced the goosebumps usually reserved for ‘Wonderwall.’
Last weekend, Minnesota United FCset a new state record for attendance at a professional soccer game. 52,242 fans watched the Loons close out their residency at TCF Bank Stadium making the club’s #50ktoMidway promotion a huge success. The downside, however, was that there were 30,000 more fans present to witness the second consecutive home loss. L.A. Galaxy’s Ibrahimovic argued that they were all there to cheer for him and his squad and by evenings’ end a few United fans probably wished that’s why they had come.
Ibra kicked off what would become a 3-1 rout of the Loons, with a goal in the 30th minute which swung the momentum in Galaxy’s favor after a number of good opportunities for Loons came to naught. Three L.A. goals went unanswered until the 53rd minute when Angelo Rodriguez – who had scored in the first half only to be called offside – finally got his head on a long cross from fellow DP Darwin Quintero and sent it past Bingham into the net.
But that would be all for the Loons. Adrian Heath spoke positively about Rodriguez’s prospects, but seemed to blame the rest of the squad for his ineffectiveness: “I thought the big man [Rodriguez] led the line really, really well again… We’ve got to start to work out how to use him better and once we do, when we start to play off him, I think there’s a lot of promise in the attacking half.”
That response is too little, too late for me. He echoed what supporters said of the DP’s first appearances. That was quite some time ago and Rodriguez himself seems to know it. When asked about the fan support that night, he said, “That’s why I tell you that personally, I feel ashamed. We always try to do well during the week to give [the fans] joy on the weekend. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but truthfully I’m amazed [by their support].”
The squad’s poor performance was overshadowed by the MNUFC digital team’s response to Ibra’s talk in the lead-up about how the ticket sales reflected Minnesota’s love for him rather than support for the Loons. The Bank erupted in cheers and laughter when an error message appeared on the video board in place of Ibra’s head shot as lineups were announced:
But, true to form, Nach Karnik and the Dark Clouds turned that moment into a badge of honor:
Minnesota’s Supporters have learned to find joy in every moment. It’s a necessary coping technique in a season full of bitter losses, questionable decisions and poor performances. If MNUFC wants to fill Allianz Field, they need to do more than talk about improvements and tout the ubiquitous ‘Three Year Plan.’ According to Heath, playing at Allianz “will be nice. I think most people think it’s going to be good. I don’t think they realize how good it’s going to be. This is going to be a game changer for this club moving forward… but we’ve got a lot of work to do before we open up the stadium.”
That’s for sure. Heath and his staff will need to put those words into action, and quickly, to ensure that the emotions evoked by Allianz are matched by the club’s performance.
My anger and high blood pressure quickly dissolved into goosebumps and tears of joy as I watched a live stream on my phone of the Fan Appreciation Night fireworks. The Supporters present at TCF were able to watch a special presentation on the video board while the fireworks burst above them, but my stream showed only the pyrotechnic display, then faded to black. Then another light show began.
That stadium is ours. Our colors. Our club. Our home. But before we can enjoy our home, our boys must face another team celebrating a triumphant return. If Columbus Crew‘s Decision Day opponent was not MNUFC, I would be cheering for the black and yellow as they celebrate the success of #SaveTheCrew and vie for a playoff berth. But they will play the Loons, a club with no chance at the postseason, but with every opportunity to make a statement.
If the Loons lose, they must do so while gutting it out to the final whistle. Sunday is their last chance to prove to both their supporters and their detractors that they want to be here, that they are worthy of support and of their place in the league.
How did we get here? To the lowest of the low? The team that makes the worst look good?
From a club that won more than it lost, that entertained its fans no matter the scoreline; that was able to draw moral victories from nearly every loss; that brought the heart and soul of its lineup along to the big leagues. To a club that could only win at home; that saw its fans turn off their TVs and walk out of the stadium; that lost its temper in the ugliest way possible; that jettisoned its heart for some coupons and didn’t give its soul nearly as many opportunities as he deserved.
On September 29, I spent a chilly evening losing my voice in the Supporters Section of TCF Bank Stadium for the last time. Minnesota United FC still had two home games left to play after that night, but that match against NYCFC would be my last of the year to enjoy from the stands and was probably my last time seeing soccer at TCF. After a horrid road trip, United could have flopped that night. But the home turf magic took hold once again and the Loons soared to a 2-0 victory on goals from Angelo Rodriguez. And with stout defense fromBrent Kallman:
Singing Wonderwall with my friends was a great end to my year, but the season was far from over. United still had playoff hopes: a win on the road in Philadelphia could help them eek closer to that bold cutoff line.
They did not win. The Loons I watched on the 29th did not make an appearance in Philly on October 6. And I did something that I never imagined I would do during a MNUFC broadcast.
Twenty minutes into the match, I was still troubleshooting how to connect my tablet to the smart screen in our hotel room so my friend and I could enjoy it on the big screen. We were about to give up when Minnesota conceded a third(!) goal in the 23rd(!) minute. Rather than turn off the TV and watch on the tablet, we muted my livestream and watched an episode of Kitchen Nightmares from 2007 and turned off the tablet altogether with ten minutes to play after Minnesota conceded a fifth goal.
We chose a 10-year-old reality show over a Loons game and any regrets about that decision evaporated upon opening the post-match press release:
The Loons’ playoff hopes evaporated along with my regrets. Surely, their return home would be better, especially given the opponent, a Colorado squad on a seven-game losing streak. Neither club with a chance at the postseason, both looking for a moral victory on which to coast through the final weeks of 2018.
Narrator: Nope. No moral victories were had on October 13. But the Loons continued their streak of making bad teams look good.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview MN Kicks defender Alan Merrick about the growth of soccer culture in Minnesota. We talked about the winning tradition of his NASL Kicks and all the signs of growth around Minnesota’s soccer communities:
“We have a great soccer culture. We perhaps need to make it so it’s a little bit more, uh, into a winning mode [laughs], but that takes some time to develop…”
There were plenty of lows in his playing days (the Kicks folded along with many other NASL clubs and attempts at revival were short-lived), but the highs are legendary. Many of the positives we’ve seen from MNUFC are reminiscent of those from the Kicks.
I would like to think that in forty years I will stand outside the offices of a growing Twin Cities-based soccer club with a recorder in hand as I question Miguel Ibarra about his legendary days of playing for MN United FC in the MLS. With any luck, this past Saturday’s bench-clearing melee in the waning minutes against the Rapids will be a distant memory, a fleck of embarrassment overshadowed by the success of the club’s much-touted ‘Three Year Plan,’ a well-developed winning tradition and a backbone of players who came up with the club and shared in its successes before moving on.
Until then, all we have is a bitter loss in which two goals were given up much too easily, so easily that the Dark Clouds became lethargic in their support, a handful even leaving the stadium long before the whistle. Those were the lucky few who didn’t have to witness their favorite player shove an opponent who made the poor decision to taunt the home fans with his goal celebration and the coach’s son to spring up from the bench to grab the throat of another celebrant.
Until this match, our club had had its share of embarrassing moments, but we could make light of most of them, such as this lovely moment that garnered international laughs.
Until we made the joke our own:
But even the NASL Loons’ production department would not be able to salvage the club’s dignity from this moment:
There was no honor in that fight. No moral victories can possibly come from that night.
This weekend, MNUFC will honor the legends with #50ktoMidway, livening up the final match in their adoptive home with an attempt to break an attendance record set forty years ago by the MN Kicks.
I can only hope that forty years from now, when I interview Ibarra, we will not be talking about a club that folded decades ago after failing to maintain a foothold in a league that talked bigger than it acted; a club that was being celebrated for one or two moral victories, but also held as an example of how not to run an expansion club.
Instead, I hope that we will talk about how the Loons honored those legends and 50,000 fans with an epic rendition of Wonderwall; the fight all but forgotten; the club’s clear strides to get better with each match, with each passing season; and the community honoring the key players who saw that struggle through to a title.
I would like to leave you with a response to that fight in the tradition of #BlameItOntheJelly, but I’ve already said that such a thing will never exist.
All I have to offer you is this cover of ‘Wonderwall.’