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Minnesota United unsatisfied with offseason but preaching patience

MINNEAPOLIS—Minnesota United will begin its second MLS season Saturday, March 3, with a vastly different starting lineup than one they fielded for their debut game in the league last March.

Only three of the 11 starters from the nationally televised blowout loss to Portland are expected to be in the same roles when the Loons face the Earthquakes in San Jose, Calif. Only five of the 12 players in that first game are even on the current roster.

While part of that turnover was essential after a dismal opening month in 2017, the Loons still employ 12 of the 14 players that saw action in the season finale against San Jose last October. For an expansion franchise, that continuity will be counted on to build on a 10-18-6 record from last year.

But all those familiar faces also betray the fact that United was unable to attract the top-end talent the front office was chasing this offseason. United's leaders have been candid in sharing how their ambitions haven't been met with results thus far.

"There have been a number of players that we were very, very close to actually, and it didn't happen," United's primary owner Bill McGuire said. "You all hear some of it; you don't hear all of it. I think that is true for every team.

"Sometimes everybody agrees to a deal and something comes flying over the fence that changes the deal. Then it doesn't happen and people think different about it."

But Minnesota is not finished. The transfer window to add players, internationally and within the league, remains open until May 1, and the secondary transfer window is available from July 10-Aug. 8.

"There are still opportunities," sporting director Manny Lagos said Wednesday.

In his year-plus as Minnesota's manager, and as a key voice in roster construction, Adrian Heath has routinely talked about adding "one or two" new players. That continued this week as the Loons turned to game-week preparations at their training grounds in Blaine.

"At times, it's been a bit frustrating," Heath said. "You would love it to all be here now, settled in, but that's not the case, so we will keep plugging away to get the right pieces to help the group."

Minnesota's most public offseason pursuit was Nicolas Benedetti, a 20-year-old Colombian midfielder. He and his club, Deportivo Cali, commanded a transfer fee above a reported $8 million. That price tag would have made Beneditti Minnesota's first "designated player," the biggest way for MLS clubs to add talent.

"We thought we were really close with the Benedetti one—which would have been a huge boost for everybody—but we couldn't get it over the line," Heath shared. "That shows the type of caliber that we've been looking at. But now the most important thing is that we are concentrating on the group that we've got."

While Lagos, Heath and director of player personnel Amos Magee haven't been able to finalize a deal for a top-flight player, they feel like they've made the roster deeper and younger.

They tinkered throughout the 2017 season, adding players such as Ethan Finlay, a former U.S. men's national team contributor, and they pulled off trades during the SuperDraft in January to then select young defenders Carter Manley and Wyatt Omsberg. They picked striker Mason Toye with seventh-overall pick. Minnesota has also added a young defensive midfielder in Luiz Fernando, on loan from a Brazilian club, and are bringing in two Cameroonian players, winger Franz Pangop and center back Bertrand Owundi Eko'o.

United supporters aren't focusing on that, however. Like any pro sports team, offseason maneuvering and juicy rumors can bring more intrigue than the games themselves. In that space, the Loons have been dealing with a fast-moving transfer market. Atlanta United, which also came into MLS in 2017, set an MLS record with the reported $15 million signing of Ezequiel Barco, an 18-year-old Argentine playmaker.

"That has a ripple effect on every other player underneath because all of a sudden they go, 'Well, he might not be as good as Barco, but he's nearly as good, so he is $10 million,' " Heath said. "This time last year, he might have been three. The landscape of the transfer market is changing drastically by the day."

In addition, a player might be receptive to coming to Minnesota while their club doesn't want to negotiate. Or United might be reluctant to raise their offer because a Barco-level signing doesn't seem prudent. Then there's the factor of MLS adding $2.8 million in target allocation money (TAM) for clubs to spend out of their own pockets. This is in addition to the $1.2 million in TAM the league already provides clubs.

"Agents aren't daft," Heath said. "They look at the market. I look at the Premier League in England. Every time there is a new TV deal, it just so happens that every top player gets a new deal because every agent goes, 'Oh, we got an extra $4 million this year, my guy wants half of that.'

"Hey, it's not as easy as people think. I think we should be honest that we made mistakes last year and we can't make them again. We are trying. I know that we are trying. If and when it happens, I'm sure that we will bring quality into the building."

McGuire said "in general" he's pleased with the work of Lagos, Magee and Heath in building the roster.

"We are happy with what we have; we are not satisfied," McGuire said. "We had some picks, some decisions that we've made that if you had the ability to do them over, you wouldn't do them, but that is hindsight. Everybody has that. That is just the nature of the game."

Another facet of United's growth is the $100 million franchise fee it paid MLS, and the dedication to build all of Allianz Field with $200 million of its own money. The stadium is set to open in St. Paul in time for the 2019 season.

"We are investing in the club broadly, not just one element—the players—and in our particular situation we are obliged based on our commitments and our beliefs to build this stadium," McGuire said.

The Loons finished ninth in the 11-team Western Conference in 2017, and based on the league's 13 previous expansion franchises since 1998, a marginal improvement has been the norm. From Year 1 to Year 2, those previous expansion franchises averaged 1.15 more wins in their sophomore season.

"We have to progress," Heath said. "We can't go backward, and I don't think we will because of the core of the group."

Heath has been here before. He shepherded Orlando City into MLS with a 12-14-8 record in 2015. With 47 percent of the season completed, he was sacked after falling off the pace for improvement with a 4-4-8 record.

Heath has maintained that building a successful new MLS franchise needs a commitment to a three-year plan, something he wasn't given in Orlando, and he is preaching patience.

"If we are going backwards and we don't get better, I think people have got a grievance," he said. "They can say we are getting worse, not better. If that's the case, then I think they have a fair point. At least let's play a game first."

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