Two different ways to build a team
For the 2017 season, Major League Soccer will be adding two new expansion franchises to the rapidly growing league. Joining the league’s Eastern Conference, we have Atlanta United FC, and joining the league’s Western Conference, will be Minnesota United FC. Despite joining in the same season, the teams could not be any more different when it comes to the way that each club has chosen to construct their respective MLS rosters up to this point. Atlanta United has chosen to throw money at it’s MLS roster, while Minnesota has chosen a more steady approach that, up to this point, hopes to win from cohesion and chemistry, making well thought out moves that are more, fiscally responsible, so to speak.
Minnesota United has existed as a franchise since 2010, previously plying their trade in the North American Soccer League (NASL), until MLS commissioner Don Garber officially announced Minnesota as a new expansion franchise in August 2016. The club didn’t start work on their MLS roster until October however, due to them being in the NASL playoff chase during their final season in the league. They started by adding to the coaching staff, tabbing Englishman Adrian Heath as their team’s manager for the inaugural season. Heath was the manager for MLS side Orlando City SC for one and a half seasons, before being sacked by the Lions in July of 2016. The club also welcomed the addition of Amos Magee as Director of Player Personnel. Magee is somewhat of a Minnesota soccer legend, having played 12 seasons with the now-defunct Minnesota Thunder, where he became a fan favorite. The team’s first player additions were two fullbacks who played for the NASL team last season, in Kevin Venegas and Justin Davis. They then added young defender Joe Greenspan in a low-risk, high-reward swap with the Colorado Rapids, sending a 3rd-round draft pick to Colorado in exchange for the defender.
Then came the MLS Expansion Draft where they added fullback Chris Duvall, two midfielders in Collen Warner and Mohammed Saeid, goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, and finally a young forward in Femi Hollinger-Janzen. They then traded Duvall to Montreal for Costa Rican winger Johan Venegas, and shortly after sent Attinella to Portland for the rights to Miguel Ibarra, who played for Minnesota’s NASL team from 2012 to 2015. They then added to their central defense, with the addition of 24-year old Costa Rican Centerback Francisco Calvo. The Loons haven’t done as much as their fans may have wanted up to this point, but it is clear that Minnesota is focused on making smart, cost-effective signings, that they hope will gel together and be a solid, cohesive team. The Loons still have 3 DP spots at their disposal however, but it is unclear how they will fill those spots. The coaching staff have reportedly taken trips to Scandinavia and South America in search of talent though, and we should know more in the coming weeks about the talent they scouted in those regions.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum, we have Minnesota’s Expansion counterparts, Atlanta United. Unlike Minnesota, Atlanta had to start completely from scratch, having not previously existed as a team in any form. The club knew that they had to add players fast, and to do so, looked towards the deep pockets of team owner Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta hit the ground running, tabbing former Barcelona manager Tata Martino to fill the same role in Atlanta, as well as adding high-profile talents such as Paraguayan playmaker Miguel Almirón, pacey Argentinian winger Hector Villalba, and powerful Trinidadian striker Kenwyne Jones, who previously played in the English Premier League, and English Championship. These exciting signings have helped put Atlanta on the map, as they try desperately to carve out their own place in the Southeast’s sports scene. Fans in the Atlanta area have responded, and the team has surpassed 20,000 season ticket deposits, a truly impressive number, especially for a team that, unlike Minnesota, had no pre-existing fanbase. The acquisitions didn’t stop there however, as Atlanta added 5 more players in the Expansion Draft. They added fullback Danny Toia, defenders Zach Loyd and Mikey Ambrose, and goalkeepers Clint Irwin and Alec Kann. Just like Minnesota, they flipped two of their picks for other assets, sending Toia to Orlando for a draft pick, and Irwin to Toronto for right back Mark Bloom. They then focused on adding experience to a relatively young roster, signing longtime MLS Centerback Michael Parkhurst, and reaching an agreement to acquire US national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan in January, who’s been looking to leave Premier League club Middlesborough, due to lack of playing time.
Like Minnesota, Atlanta has created a clear identity for themselves, a big-spending club that isn’t afraid to go after big names. As MLS opening day draws closer, it will be interesting to see which philosophy works best for a team’s inaugural season. Whether it be Minnesota’s grassroots approach of finding affordable players who best fit the team’s system, or it proves be Atlanta’s more glamorous philosophy of splashing cash in order to fill whatever holes may exist on their roster.