Back from an offseason that was anything but, Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath returned from seven weeks in Europe with his passport worn and his hope strong for a crucial upcoming third MLS season.
He scouted 36 games from Scandinavia to Spain — and plenty in between — while United Sporting Director Manny Lagos scoured South America, after their team released 11 players following a 2018 season that produced only one road victory and no playoff appearance.
Now with $250 million Allianz Field set to open in April, Heath knows it is time for him, players and management to deliver with a roster remade for Season 3 that begins training Tuesday in Blaine.
“If I were owner of a team, at the end of three years I’d have to ask, ‘Is this team ready to compete at the top level?’ ” Heath said. “I think we will be. I’m under no illusions that we have to better than we have been, certainly on the road. As I said to some of our staff the other day, we’ve run out of excuses.”
United remade its midfield by acquiring four-time MLS All-Star Ozzie Alonso from Seattle for a salary approaching $700,000. It added Jan Gregus from F.C. Copenhagen in Denmark’s first division, making him the Loons’ third and final salary-cap-excluded designated player. Then it reached terms with right back Romain Metanire from France’s top league.
The Loons still intend to add another defender and goalkeeper, each of starter’s quality.
“We’re working hard on that,” Heath said about a team that brought back last season’s starter Bobby Shuttleworth and just drafted Maryland’s Dayne St. Clair.
You do the math. Heath did.
“If we get the two pieces we’re looking for, suddenly half the team has changed,” he said.
Beyond the newcomers’ arrivals, Heath sees a changed team in other ways: Veteran midfielders Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino each return from knee surgery, Finlay is a bit further ahead in his recovery and aimed toward the March 2 opener. The franchise’s first two designated players — Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez — as well as speedy goal-scorer Romario Ibarra are back after each was acquired a little or a lot of the way through last season.
“It’s not easy being in a new country, surrounded by new teammates, in a new system,” Heath said. “They’re little things, but they all add up. Those guys now have their feet under the table. They know where they’re coming. That’s a huge difference.”
He also said he expects more from United’s past draft picks, particularly No. 1 overall Abu Danladi, and wonders what kind of impact Chase Gasper, the 15th pick in last week’s SuperDraft, could have.
Suddenly, Heath says he sees talent, experience, leadership, flexibility and healthy bodies that were missing during the Loons’ first two MLS seasons.
“If I look now at the team we can put out, I can honestly say it’s the first time we go onto the field with a similar hand as the teams we play,” he said. “I always thought we were up against it, and that’s not an easy thing to say. You can’t come out and say that then, but I can now. If we get the pieces we’re looking to bring in, we’ll be going on the field with a far better opportunity to get some sort of result.”
Their makeover began with their two midfielders and what Heath calls a complementary combination of differing ages and skills. Arguably MLS’ best defensive midfielder this past decade and driven to win, Alonso turned 33 in November. Heath said his team has researched and studied how they might manage his age to keep him healthy late into the season. Allianz Field’s natural grass might help.
“People will only understand what Ozzie will give us when they see him week in and week out,” Heath said.
A Slovakian national team member, Gregus turns 28 on Jan. 29. He is a player Heath describes as “very smooth, very easy on the eye” and a passer with great range. At nearly 6-3, he also could provide a needed physical presence.
The two have been paired together, with both Lagos and Heath believing the defensive answers for a team that has given up 141 goals the past two seasons begin in the midfield. Heath calls Alonso a veteran whose presence and discipline will help solidify United’s back defensive line.
“We’re as good as most teams in the league when we have the ball,” Heath said. “Our problem has been when we don’t have the ball. If we can get in a real defensive structure and mind-set, our goals-against column — and the standings — will get significantly better.”
The two players also could help offensively as well when played behind both Rodriguez and Quintero. Heath hopes to use Rodriguez’s quickness and strength to get — and keep — possession of the ball. He just wants Quintero with the ball more, period.
“We have a really special player in Darwin, and we feel these guys will get the ball to him quicker,” he said. “The quicker we can get him the ball in dangerous spots, the better for us.”
Heath credits United’s ownership for buying an expansion franchise, investing in a practice facility, funding a new stadium and now improving the roster.
“Players don’t come cheap anymore, we’re starting to invest in the team,” he said. “We have every reason to be optimistic. I’m sitting here more confident and more excited than since I’ve been here. I feel this year with can match up with these teams now.”
This article was first published by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on Jan. 19, 2018.
Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.