Expansion draft finally delivers sense of momentum to Minnesota

In part two of our series tracking Minnesota United's move into Major League Soccer, the Loons' management team begins making up for lost time.

MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath was in his natural element.

Surrounded by fans decked out in the colors of his new team, Heath stood at a tallboy table in the middle of a bar called The Local and, as 10 p.m. neared on a Tuesday night in November, held court. Fans surrounded him and listened intently as Heath explained his philosophies.

“I think it’s important players recognize who they are playing for,” Heath told the group of fans. “That’s often forgotten. It drives me [fricking] mad. The only thing [the fans] ask of you is to play for the team the way they would if they got the chance.”

Heath didn’t need a stage for his introduction. This was it.

The English-born coach became a beloved figure in Orlando because of these types of interactions. He is as comfortable among the fans as he is on the sideline, maybe more so. Heath had spent much of his first official day on the job in Minnesota doing interviews and shaking hands. He had looked forward to being in this bar, so much so that he didn’t mind joining in on the singing as fans started up their Minnesota United rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

Heath did not stop smiling through the night, partly because he knew there’d be little time for these types of celebratory evenings in the immediate future. The task of finding 26 players to build out a roster awaited.

Twenty hours later, Heath would board a plane for a scouting trip to Argentina and Costa Rica.

Getting started

Minnesota United was behind.

According to some in league circles, the club had fallen so far back in roster building that it might be impossible to catch back up. Heath was hired on Nov. 29. The expansion draft was two weeks away and preseason awaited in less than two months. United had not yet announced a player signing.

The expansion process already presents plenty of challenges. Signing 28 players is hard enough with a full year of preparation. To do so in a matter of months felt next-to-impossible. Minnesota, though, had stayed focused on its NASL season. That left some catch-up once it officially moved into the MLS era.

It’s an evolution … There’s pieces of each, and we’ll figure out how we fit with each other, and we’ll sort of mold these philosophies.

- Amos Magee

Minnesota general manager Manny Lagos had been extremely tight-lipped about the entire process, but he put in plenty of scouting work on his own before the technical staff was finalized. That included a trip to Scandinavia to seek out prospective players. Every previous expansion team was broken down piece-by-piece to study best and worst practices. A database with player profiles on every player in MLS was put together.

The work picked up almost as soon as Heath arrived in Minnesota. His Monday was packed with player personnel meetings. Heath spent most of the day in a meeting room at team headquarters along with United director of player personnel Amos Magee, Lagos and assistant coach Ian Fuller. The group bounced names around. For the first time, their respective lists were compared and common names discovered. Fifteen to 20 targets were identified for a trip to Argentina.

If it sounds a bit like Football Manager, it is. Only livelihoods are stake with each decision.

The voices in the room came from different backgrounds.

Magee spent time with the Portland Timbers and then D.C. United, where he learned to find bargains in overlooked MLS players. Lagos spent the past few seasons with Minnesota in the NASL, but has a good understanding for the league in which he played for nearly a decade. Heath, of course, had gone through this expansion process before with Orlando City two years prior. He knew the missteps and the mistakes, and he understood where the team had taken advantage of the process.

As the figureheads finally came together, ideas began to meld, and a plan was mapped out. The indications those first few days was that Minnesota would skew toward a more experienced team. There would certainly be room for young prospects, but the core would be built around MLS experience and what Magee described as “hardened veterans” from abroad. D.C. United meets expansion Orlando City.

“It’s an evolution,” Magee told FourFourTwo that first week, shortly after one planning meeting. “You take what’s successful in both situations. Cyle Larin, [Cristian] Higuita, [Darwin] Cerén, [Kevin] Molino. A lot of these guys in Orlando I thought were exciting good players that adjusted quickly to the league. Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Lloyd Sam, Patrick Nyarko. Experienced players with a little bit of a new lease on life I think have been fantastic. … There’s pieces of each, and we’ll figure out how we fit with each other, and we’ll sort of mold these philosophies.”

A scouting foundation

On the ground in Argentina, Lagos and Heath had little down time.

The pair hit eight games in five days, from first-team matches to reserve contests, at the biggest clubs in the country to some of the smallest. Lagos and Heath looked for players who might be able to help both in the short- and long-term.

It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of looking at players and seeing what you like. And trying to see their value and figure out their value.

- Manny Lagos

“Some deals may take potentially up to 12 months,” Lagos said.

Heath said the middle of the field would be his focus in the first season. In the 4-2-3-1 system he often likes to use, Heath relies on a No. 10 to facilitate possession-based play. Argentina is a good place to look, but price point comes into play. It’s not easy to pull a quality playmaker out of South America without putting down some significant cash. All of that was considered as Lagos and Heath hit games.

Among the stops: Quilmes against Sarmiento; Estudiantes and Talleres; a reserve game between Boca Juniors and Racing Club; Independiente vs. River Plate; Tigre against Aldosivi; and Arsenal against San Martín. The duo stopped in Costa Rica on the way home to catch the Costa Rica Clasico: Alajuelense against Saprissa.

Heath said there were about 10 times he and Lagos looked at each other and said, “We need to sign this guy.” But being impressed by a player and being able to sign him are two different things. There were some players identified in reserve games that Minnesota will track in the long-term. Heath called it “a foundation off of which to work.” Neither Heath nor Lagos would confirm if they identified any prospects in the short-term, though Heath will return to Costa Rica this week.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of looking at players and seeing what you like,” Lagos said, before chuckling. “And trying to see their value and figure out their value.”

A sense of momentum

Heath had tried to sign Johan Venegas earlier in 2016.

He was still coach of Orlando City then, and a deal was pretty close to getting done, but Heath was fired just after the start of the summer window. It didn’t take long after being hired by Minnesota for Heath to try to snag Venegas again.

For the new teams, the expansion draft often devolves into a tornado of trade inquiries. Teams around the league spot players they are interested in acquiring on the unprotected lists. They call to see if trades can be arranged. Others, still, will offer players in exchange for protection in the draft.

In the draft room, United had several lists up on the wall: each team’s unprotected players, ready to be torn down whenever a team went off the board; top players to take if available; and players who might factor in a trade, including what package would come back if said player was selected and flipped.

Up until two minutes before the draft, Lagos was fielding calls from teams trying to make trades. The night before, a deal with Montreal was being hashed out. The particulars would change, but not the end result. Minnesota wanted Venegas. Minutes after the draft ended, the deal was finalized.

Minnesota sent its first pick in the expansion draft, New York Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall, and an undisclosed amount of general allocation money to the Impact for Venegas, a Costa Rican forward who has impressed in his limited time in MLS. It would be the centerpiece of what was the most exciting day thus far in the team’s expansion season.

Finally, a team was coming into place.

While it still didn’t have enough players to fill a lineup, Minnesota United’s identity was starting to form. Venegas joined expansion picks Collen Warner, Mohammed Saeid, Jeff Attinella and Femi Hollinger-Janzen, as well as NASL signees Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas and one player added via trade, center back Joseph Greenspan.

The night before, Heath had left the office with all five of those names on a list of players he wanted to acquire.

“If we end with these pieces,” he told the staff, “we’ll have had a good day.”

About 12 hours later, Heath was ecstatic with how the day turned out. It wasn’t the first step, but it felt like the most substantial one to date.

Finally, there was a sense of momentum in Minnesota.

Click here for part one of Paul Tenorio's look at expansion in Minnesota.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.