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2017 Western Conference Preview: Minnesota United FC

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Expansion teams are hard to predict. I will predict, though, that MNUFC will be a lot of fun to watch.

MLS: Minnesota United FC vs Vancouver Whitecaps
Abu Danladi and the Loons will be fun to watch in attack.
USA TODAY Sports

I get to be the first person ever to preview the new MLS iteration of Minnesota United FC! Such a momentous moment. (Is that a redundant sentence? That felt redundant.) I’m sure this review will be a historic document for MLS archivists and Minnesota football historians in another 50 years. My name will be forever remembered. I mean, if the machines don’t rise up and enslave us or the nuclear apocalypse doesn’t render all of this quaint and pointless. Either/or.

Minnesota is so very hard to pin down; in the words of Donald Rumsfield, “there are known unknowns.” We know the players on the roster. We have no idea who will start. We have no idea if they can jell, since they’ve never played before together. We have no idea if they will be good or bad or in-between. So, please, when we do the midseason review of these predictions, try not to laugh too hard at how wrong I get this one. And if I get it on-the-nose, honestly, it’s just dumb luck.

2016 Record / 2016 Goals For / 2016 Goals Against

Not applicable.

Key Stat:

DESIGNATED PLAYERS (DP): 0

Key Additions:

Everyone.

(Here’s the roster)

GK (3): John Alvbage, Patrick McLain, Bobby Shuttleworth

DEF (7): Francisco Calvo (INT'L), Justin Davis, Joseph Greenspan, Brent Kallman, Jermaine Taylor, Kevin Venegas, Vadim Demidov (INT'L)

MID (12): Bernardo Añor, Josh Gatt, Miguel Ibarra, Ibson (INT'L), Bashkim Kadrii (INT'L), Collin Martin, Kevin Molino, Mohamed Saeid (INT'L), Rasmus Schuller (INT'L), Johan Venegas (INT'L), Collen Warner

FWD (2): Abu Danladi (GA, INT'L), Christian Ramirez

UNSIGNED DRAFT PICKS: Alec Ferrell, Thomas de Villardi, Tanner Thompson

TRIALISTS: Marco Carducci, Charlie Lyon, Andrew Tinari, Raul Gonzalez, Duke LaCroix, Eugene Starikov, David Goldsmith

Key Subtractions:

Nobody.

What they have going for them:

Minnesota will be forever linked with Atlanta United, much the way Orlando and NYCFC have a mystical expansion bond that transcends time and space. Nobody expects MNUFC to win the league. They just have to be better than ATL to be judged a success.

To that end, they have history, while Atlanta does not. Atlanta chose to cut ties with the areas storied soccer past, AKA the NASL Atlanta Silverbacks, and form as a total reboot franchise. Minnesota, instead, is a promoted side from NASL, which despite their protestations, in my eyes, has been the second division of the American soccer pyramid since MLS began in 1996. Sorry, kids.

That experience as an existing soccer franchise means the team carries with it a name, a logo, colors, fans, and history. All of that is valuable, especially if your on-the-field product is a giant unknown.

MNUFC has five players that I think are talented, MLS-ready assets that give them a fighting chance to be relevant in the Western Conference. Francisco Calvo, in defense, comes from Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa. Saprissa was picked clean by MLS for 2017, as FC Dallas took midfielder Aubrey David, Portland Timbers acquired d-mid David Guzman and defender Roy Miller, and Minnesota liberated Calvo. Calvo is 24 years old and has 21 caps for the Costa Rican national team, and all signs point to him being an excellent centerback for Minnesota.

Miguel Ibarra was a USMNT callup by Jurgen Klinsmann a few years ago. He’s fast as lightning and has some good technical ability and a great work rate. He’ll likely play on the wing, and he returns to Minnesota after a stint with Club Leon in Liga MX, mostly riding the pine. He was with the Minnesota NASL club from 2012 to 2015, playing 90 matches and scoring 17 goals and formed a great tandem with fellow Loon Christian Ramirez.

Ramirez is the reason why bringing up a franchise from another league to MLS is a good idea. He’s popular in Minnesota, and he and Ibarra are good friends with a history of good chemistry: the club has dubbed them the ‘dynamic duo’. Ramirez has 90 games and a stunning 51 goals for the NASL club, in just 3 seasons. He’ll play striker, and maybe his production declines a little as the level of competition increases. But goal scorers score goals, and I’ll bet Ramirez can bang in at least 10 this season. Also yesterday, he did this:

Alongside Ramirez will likely be 2017 Superdraft first pick Abu Danladi, of UCLA. Danladi has had a few injury problems in the past two seasons, but everyone thinks his ceiling as a striker is basically Jozy Altidore, or better. If Danladi is given some time to adjust to MLS before becoming a starter, Johan Venegas, who saw limited use with the Montreal Impact, will likely play alongside Ramirez. It make take some time to get there, but it already feels like MNUFC has firepower in attack.

To feed those twin fires is the LAST guy to get promoted from a lower-league side to MLS and make the jump, Kevin Molino, who was sold to Minnesota by Orlando City SC for $650,000 in GAM and TAM. Molino has impressed me since I first laid eyes on him as the number 10 for the USL Orlando team when they came to Commerce City for the US Open Cup back in 2015. If he can stay healthy, he’s an attacking mid that can absolutely exploit defenses, especially if he can get a little holdup play from his forwards.

From their two preseason games, it looks as though manager Adrian Heath has Minnesota going with either a flat 4-4-2 or a diamond 4-4-2, but either way, it feels like a team that wants to put offense first. It feels like these guys have a lot of attacking pieces that could make some serious noise in MLS in 2017.

What’s troubling:

Everything I didn’t mention is pretty questionable. Their defensive midfield includes Collen Warner, who is a Coloradan, but also was the regular d-mid for a pretty porous Houston Dynamo midfield last season. Alongside him is probably Rasmus Schuller, a Finnish footballer that played in 2016 for Swedish club BK Häcken. Is he good? I dunno. I’m not big on watching the Allsvenskan. Although I was able to spell it correctly on my first try.

The defense is somewhere between ‘suspect’ and ‘problematic’, and possibly ‘a catastrophe in waiting.’ Jermaine Taylor is one of their veterans who will likely play right back, and he was part of a Portland Timbers defense that conceded a conference-high 53 goals in 2016. Let’s check in with MLS expert Matt Doyle on that decision. Matt?

The rest of the defense is, besides the aforementioned Calvo, similarly questionable. Centerback Vadim Demidov is 30 years old, and played last year for Brann in the Norwegian first division. I have no idea if he’s any good. He’s fighting to be the starter over former Colorado Rapids draftee Joe Greenspan. I saw Joe play twice in person in 2015 and 2016. Once was against the much-inferior Colorado Springs Switchbacks in an Open Cup match, in which Ensign Joe beast-ed everyone, and even got himself a goal. The other time was against in an exhibition with Joe playing for the Switchbacks in an exhibition against Bundesliga team Mainz 05. He and the rest of the Switchbacks were absolutely torn apart by the German team, 8-0. So maybe Joe’s ready to be a big-time MLS starter. Maybe not.

Justin Davis is the probable left back, I guess. He came up from the NASL also, and has 163 appearances for the lower-league loons from 2011-2016. That could be fine, but again, we’re looking at five guys from five different leagues, and to my eye, only one of them looks like a proven winner. That’d make me nervous if I was a member of MNUFC’s supporters group, the Dark Clouds.

Finally, at GK, it looked like it would be John Alvbage from the Swedish league, but on Wednesday Minnesota made a move to get Bobby Shuttlesworth from the New England Revolution. I though Shuttlesworth was below-average last year for mediocre Revs squad: good reflexes, poor command of his box, occasional bad decision-making. Trading for him implies to me that they thought all of that was an upgrade over Alvbage, so, yikes.

2017 Forecast

Between ‘young upstart that shocks the world’ and ‘promising team with a lot of issues’, I’m going to go with the latter. Minnesota will score at around a league-average or better rate (AKA, better than the Rapids) but will be utterly and completely abused in defense, to finish between 9th and 11th in the Western Conference. They’ll still be fun to watch, and you can still count me as a fan.