Minnesota United players, Minnesota vs. Chicago, 3.17.18
Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | Minnesota off to strong start in the wrong expansion era

When teams like the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Philadelphia Union were coming into Major League Soccer, expectations of expansion franchises were relatively low. Though Seattle Sounders FC had pierced the playoffs in their first MLS season, memories of Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA, and Toronto FC still dominated expansion narratives. The reborn San Jose Earthquakes didn’t compete from day one, while endeavors like the Montreal Impact's climb from the NASL proved new teams’ first years were supposed to be hard.

Somewhere along the line, though, expectations have changed, whether teams’ results have lived up to those expectations or not. Atlanta United FC, last season, made the playoffs in year one, spending much of the season on experts’ lists of teams you don’t want to play in the postseason (spoiler: they lost in the Knockout Round), but fellow recent expanders have failed to meet similar expectations. Neither New York City FC nor Orlando City SC reached the postseason in year one, while Los Angeles FC’s path is too new to know. Within all those narratives, though, we’ve seen the era of expansion teams as potential superclubs has been born.

Within that era, we have Minnesota United FC, a throwback to when new teams were supposed to struggle. From the early days when the franchise was first announced, the team felt destined for modesty, entering the league without the same mega-backing that accompanied Atlanta, NYCFC and LAFC’s arrivals. When the team made it clear that some of its initial spend would be devoted its coming venue, its on-field prospects seemed muted. Famously, one prominent U.S. soccer writer predicted Minnesota would be one of the worst expansion franchises MLS had ever debuted.

The Loons did little to dissuade such notions in their first weeks in MLS, losing 5-1 at Portland to open their first-tier existence before a 6-1 home demolition at the hands of a fellow expansion team, Atlanta United. The club went on to concede 20 times in its first five games, collecting a minus-10 goal difference in the process, while seemingly living up to its negative hype. Was Minnesota United truly the worst expansion franchise in MLS history?

Fast forward seven months, and Minnesota had snuck up on the league, producing a better record than two Western Conference teams which reached the 2016 postseason (Colorado and the Galaxy). By that time, though, the curiosity around the Loons had waned, and people had their opinions. Adrian Heath’s team was bad, was going to be bad, and there was no point to following up to verify how bad they were.

Turns out, in terms of expansion’s past, Minnesota was not so bad, at all:

MLS expansion teams' first-year performance, since 2005.
Team Year GP Pts Pts/GP
Atlanta 2017 34 55 1.62
Seattle 2009 30 47 1.57
Orlando City 2015 34 44 1.29
Montreal 2012 34 42 1.24
Portand 2011 34 42 1.24
San Jose 2008 30 33 1.10
New York City 2015 34 37 1.09
Minnesota 2017 34 36 1.06
Philadelphia 2010 30 31 1.03
Toronto 2007 30 25 0.83
Vancouver 2011 34 28 0.82
Real Salt Lake 2005 32 20 0.63
Chivas USA 2005 32 18 0.56

That redemption, though, didn’t seem to change many opinions, and when the Loons fell down 3-0 in their season’s opening match at San Jose, all of last year’s skepticism resurfaced. Typical Minnesota, was the collective scoff, even though the Loons came back to within a goal by the final whistle. "What is Adrian Heath doing?" was the gallery’s chagrin, despite Minnesota winning its next two games.Perhaps the MLS’ new rules have made expansion easier, but within the modern era of the league growth, Minnesota’s first season was good. Their first-year returns fall right in the middle of the distribution, when it comes to debut seasons since 2005, and given how terribly their first year started, the Loons’ can take some redemption from their 36-point return.

Did that force a group rethink about Heath’s squad? Of course not. At some point in the past, possibly before the Loons even took the field, people decided the team was supposed to be bad, and no amount of redemption, progress, or improved results would change the conversation’s course.

Ahead of a Saturday game, one where most Portland fans may expect a win, it’s important to note: Those perceptions are not true. Look at how Minnesota has played this season, contesting four close games and losing another where their team was depleted in an international window. Look at how the Loons have performed against common opponents, taking six points from the teams both they and the Timbers have faced (while Portland’s only taken one). Look at the talents of players like Ethan Finlay and Carlos Quintero, and look at the improvements the team’s made since the last time they visited Providence Park. Nobody’s casting the Loons as a true playoff contender, yet, but to see them as lightweights ignores the arc of Minnesota’s results.

Giovanni Savarese won’t see them as such, saying Saturday’s opponent, despite the loss of their best player, midfielder Kevin Molino, “have enough players to put together a very good squad.” Orlando found out as much, in the second game of the season, as did Chicago, one week later. They’re two teams Portland has also faced this season; two teams the Timbers failed to knock off.

If Minnesota had come along at a different time in MLS history, perhaps the narrative would be different. Through a wider lens, United appears to be on the right track, compared to most second-year clubs. But in an era of Atlantas, New York Citys and LAFCs, the bar feels higher for expansion clubs. Though that creates an unfair context for the Loons, it’s important to remember the difference between perception and performance. Perception may continue to undervalue Minnesota, but in terms of performance, the Loons can cause trouble.