Minnesota United's 'misfits' have a point to prove in MLS after shaky start
Whatever its weaknesses, the Minnesota United squad was never likely to give up that easily. Too many Loons had scrapped for too long to fold after just a few losses, no matter how humiliating.
Coach Adrian Heath said before his team's inaugural MLS season that he liked how many of his players -- a number of whom ascended with the club from the NASL -- had chips on their shoulders and points to prove.
After a month, when Minnesota had bled 18 goals in four games, that felt like a hollow excuse for a roster compiled on the cheap. Now that United has steadied itself and pulled within two points of a playoff spot, Heath's sentiments help explain how his resilient squad weathered such a horrid start.
Minnesota has an opportunity to increase its standing further on Sunday afternoon, when it hosts an LA Galaxy team (5 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) ahead only on goal difference.
The bounce back could prove temporary, of course. Minnesota is averaging just a point per game, which is not exactly playoff pace. Even in parity-flattened MLS, money spent is a decent predictor of success, and United's payroll is second lowest in the Western Conference.
Still, to get caught up in the Loons' flaws is to miss some of the feel-good stories of the season. A year and a half ago, Brent Kallman was struggling for playing time on the minor-league version of the team; these days, he teams up with Francisco Calvo to help plug the gaps in defense. Meanwhile, 29-year-old Justin Davis and 27-year-old Kevin Venegas combined to make more than 250 NASL appearances before finally getting their respective shots at the big leagues. Christian Ramirez had been angling for a shot at Major League Soccer from the moment he turned pro in 2012.
"A lot of players that we signed had a lot of points to prove and a lot of questions to answer," Heath told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. "Nobody more so than Christian."
Ramirez figured a breakthrough was imminent after 2014, when he was named the NASL Young Player of the Year, but he would have to wait two more seasons to climb the ladder -- eventually through MLS expansion.
Nearly a third of the way into his first season in the top flight, the 26-year-old is tied for sixth in the league with six goals, alongside players such as former Spain World Cup winner David Villa, 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. national team regular Jozy Altidore.
"It's humbling, just because for however long, I've been on the outside looking in on this league," Ramirez told ESPN FC. "People don't have that excuse on me anymore: that I'm playing in the second division. That question has been over my head, asking if I can get it done at the highest level."
According to Ramirez, Minnesota's first day of preseason "was sort of like a bunch of misfits coming together." But, like Heath, the team was confident of its chances once the real games kicked off.
Instead, Ramirez's first MLS goal was rendered a footnote of Portland's 5-1 rout on opening night. Then Minnesota's inaugural home game ended in a 6-1 defeat to fellow expansion team Atlanta United, and two weeks later, after the first point came from a 2-2 draw with Colorado, New England dominated the Loons 5-2 at Gillette Stadium.
That United didn't simply fall apart from there is a testament to Heath as well as his players. Minnesota rallied, beat Real Salt Lake 4-2 and won two of its next three home games without conceding. The English coach knows a thing or two about turning personal slights into motivation.
"It didn't look like this group could handle it, but I saw enough during the preseason to know that there were better days ahead," Heath said. "There are an awful lot of people with an awful lot to prove at our club. ... I'm one of them."
Minnesota is actually Heath's second attempt with an expansion team. And he still smarts about how it all ended at his first, in Orlando. Despite having coached the Lions for four years before they made their own leap to MLS, he lasted just a season and a half before being fired midway through 2016.
Heath had no illusions about the Minnesota job, with finances always likely to be tight, especially in comparison with ambitious Atlanta. Asked earlier this year why he chose this, of all potential jobs, Heath matter-of-factly responded that it was the first one that came up after he was let go by Orlando. Like so many of his charges, he was chomping at the bit for any opportunity to prove himself.
"I knew it was going to be really tough," Heath said. "But I have enough confidence in myself that if given enough time -- time that I don't think I was given in Orlando -- I can turn this team into a team that can compete."
The Loons have competed, admirably so. A legitimate challenge for the postseason still seems unlikely as they sit eighth in the West, but people have had more serious doubts about this group before.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.