Modest Minnesota, ambitious Atlanta plotting different paths in MLS
Both Minnesota and Atlanta, the Uniteds who square off on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium, have shed their expansion-team tags. In each side's respective second year in Major League Soccer, there's less to differentiate them from the herd. They've settled into their respective lanes. No longer are they the shiniest new toys -- that mantle has been picked up by LAFC, which takes on its crosstown rival Galaxy in this weekend's more anticipated match.
Yet in some senses, Minnesota and Atlanta will be forever coupled, as much as the Loons might wish otherwise. Franchises that enter the league at the same time are kindred spirits, fated to be measured against one another for the entirety of their existences. Up to now, that comparison has been unflattering to Minnesota. That impression will hold, too, even if both teams enter Saturday level in the overall league standings with six points apiece.
Atlanta was MLS' most impressive debutant since Seattle in 2009, not only reaching the postseason with 10 points to spare but becoming the first team to ever outdraw the Sounders in attendance. It checked every box from impactful designated players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, to a state-of-the-art training facility and the visual spectacle of a packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Already, the team's definition of success has risen from reaching the postseason to competing for MLS Cup not just once but annually.
"I don't know that [our goals] have changed, they've just maybe gotten a little bit loftier," said technical director Carlos Bocanegra in a phone interview. "The realistic goal and challenge is to be in that conversation and be challenging for the Cup every year."
Meanwhile, merely sneaking into bottom part of the playoff bracket for a one-off knockout-round game would constitute a major success for Minnesota at this point in its existence.
Atlanta had almost a full year more to prepare for its inaugural season, being given an expansion bid in April 2014 versus March 2015, and it has felt as though Minnesota has been scrambling to catch up from the start. If the theme of Atlanta's expansion strategy was shock and awe -- big crowds, lots of goals, a stadium with a retractable roof inlaid with a massive video board -- Minnesota's has been forced austerity.
Unlike Atlanta, which is backed by Arthur Blank's billions and a business infrastructure provided by the NFL's Falcons, Minnesota had to build from scratch and on a budget. The Loons' own training ground and home stadium are both still under construction. They have made up costs with a leaner roster bill than most in MLS, a roster that as of this writing has still never officially boasted a DP, though confirmation of signing Colombia attacker Darwin Quintero appears imminent.
"We are a long, long way from where I want -- and where the club wants -- us to be," Minnesota coach Adrian Heath told ESPN FC this week. "That is just the reality of where we are at this point in time.
"We live in a here-and-now world. Everybody wants to go on reality TV and be a star overnight. Nobody wants to put in the work that takes years."
Minnesota has taken mere baby steps down a long road that could wind for a good while yet. Again, though the area does have an underrated soccer history and owner Bill McGuire previously headed up the city's NASL franchise, it is basically building from the ground up.
None of this is necessarily worthy of scorn, mind you. There is little indication that the Loons' powers that be are hoarding a secret goldmine while bilking their hard-working fans. Plenty of expansion teams of yore have started life conservatively (Philadelphia, Montreal, San Jose) before settling somewhere closer to the league's middle class. Up until last year, such growing pains were taken as a fact of life for first-year sides.
Minnesota was just unfortunate to have been paired with one of the most ambitious expansion teams in league history, the younger sibling of the most popular kid in school. As fate would have it, the Loons will be reminded of this yet again Saturday night, trying to keep their own modest bit of positive momentum going against a team already setting its sights on bigger and better things.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.