When Minnesota United FC won the NASL Spring Season title in June, it continued a remarkable run of success for the franchise. Now that they’ve qualified for the The Championship playoffs this season, it marks the fourth playoff appearance in five seasons for the club, a run that includes the 2011 NASL Championship.
Head Coach Manny Lagos has been at the helm of MUFC for since the beginning. A former U.S. Men’s National, U.S. Olympic, MLS, and Minnesota Thunder player, Lagos started his administrative career with the Thunder in 2006 after retiring from the pitch. He was named head coach in 2010.
Prior to his team’s game against the Atlanta Silverbacks a few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with Coach Lagos. I asked him what he thought has been the key to sustaining the team’s success.
“I think a couple things,” Coach Lagos replied. “You get a little lucky. But I think we do kind of create our own luck by trying to go about things, we think, the right way. We’re trying to create a vision for the club, and a culture.”
What makes Minnesota’s success even more amazing is the fact that they’ve accomplished it while playing under three different ownership groups. Manny explained how the team dealt with the distractions that caused.
“I think the consistency of our staff is really important. And there was a nice legacy of good people who were involved with what was then called the Minnesota Thunder, who I think created a nice base to really try to create a winning environment.”
“It was definitely a very emotional time for everybody that was involved in the club, and particularly because the club had been around for so long. So I think that was a distraction. But once people in the community stepped up and figured out a way to keep pro soccer going, it galvanized and reminded people the special part of the sport that we have in Minnesota.”
Lagos had great success as a player. Despite dealing with numerous injuries, he finished his MLS career with 27 goals and 36 assists. He scored a goal in the US Olympic team’s 3-1 win over Kuwait in 1992, and has three USMNT caps to his credit. He told me how he uses his success as a player in his coaching role — which is something not every successful player can do.
“In the mid-’90s I really had a bad injury. I had to change the kind of player I was. I was happy to continue to play professionally, but there were moments there where I didn’t know if it was for sure going to happen. I think that gives you a little perspective and maybe you step away a little bit and you observe the game from the other way.”
“And the other thing is I had this nomadic career where I ended up playing for some really amazing coaches. I start with my father just because he, unlike me, didn’t grow up playing and had to kind of really learn the sport from the outside perspective. And then I played for two national team coaches, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena. I played for a World Cup champion coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. I played for a former Manchester United assistant, Real Madrid Coach, Portuguese national team coach, Carlos Queiroz. Frank Yallop: outstanding MLS coach; Canadian national team coach. Dom Kinnear was assistant coach at the time and then won three championships in Houston. So I just look at that and I say, maybe there are some negatives about having somewhat of a nomadic career, but just like anything else, they’re experiences that you try to look back on and try to grow from.”
Last season was an anomaly for MUFC in that they did not make the playoffs, although if you were to combine the Spring and Fall seasons, the Loons would be fourth on the table, and would have qualified if this year’s format of The Championship were in effect last year. Coach Lagos talked about how he and his staff evaluated the team after last season.
“I still feel like I’m learning every day. And every season is going to be a huge learning curve. So I think there had to be a lot of looking in the mirror about what, both individually and collectively as a group, we did well and we didn’t do well. We had a new ownership group last year and the new ownership has given us some nice resources and a vision to help push the club forward. It’s important that we take the good things we did last year, but also really have an honest assessment about what we were doing well and weren’t doing well. The moment the season ended, we started to try to build the team again.”
“I think the type of players we bring in — we have to be a little bit more cognizant that they fit in with the group and fit in with what we’re trying to do overall as a club. Last year there was a lot of transition. The league competition was a little bit different last year. Individually for me, I felt like I grew a lot because there were some stresses there that I hadn’t been used to. You’re learning every day about what it means to try to set the goals — both within the team and now there are front office goals that are unique to this club as well.”
Eight out of the twenty-four players on MUFC’s roster this year were not on the roster last year. I asked Coach Lagos about the reality of turnover for an NASL team.
“It’s probably somewhere between 40 and 70 percent turnover on every team in the league. You’ve got to remember, there are contracts, there are free agents, there’s trying to keep a base. But it tends to depend on how your team did, the contract situation of the team, and the financial piece of what you can afford. So all those things come into play when you build for the next year.”
Christian Ramirez is one of the new players on the roster this year, and contributed immensely this season. He leads the league in assists and is tied for the lead in goals scored. I asked Coach Lagos how he and his staff go about finding players that fit the team out of the many soccer players out there.
“I think it’s a smaller pool than you think. At the level we play, it’s very hard to find them. And we look all over the world. But we certainly look at the USL. That’s the league that Christian played in last year. The nice thing about Christian is that we identified him not only for what he does on the field. We brought him in for training at the end of last year, to kind of see what kind of kid he was, and to see if he would be the right fit. And I found it really important because a lot of people are talking about his success right now; I always want to talk about how good of a kid he is. So I think that’s the base. We brought in somebody who we didn’t feel like was just a really good soccer player, but was a really good person.”
“The sport of soccer has a nice foothold in this country now. Soccer is going to be here for a long time. People embrace the love of the sport, the passion of it now. I think these current players are still pioneers, though. They’re still the ones that need to kind of humanize the sport for our fan base and for our community leaders, and to really cultivate the kind of business relationships that we need to sustain soccer financially. So there’s no doubt we are looking for players that believe and want to be involved in our community and give something, so we can foster those relationships.”
In addition to trying to win the NASL Spring season championship, MUFC was also in the middle of the US Open Cup tournament during June. They had just won their first Open Cup match earlier in the week and were going to play MLS side Sporting KC later in the month. I asked Manny how Minnesota prioritizes league games versus Open Cup competition.
“It’s interesting. We’re below MLS in terms of the tier on the pro soccer scale. But we [NASL] also have some great potential to do things differently and to create potentially even better teams. So I look at the Open Cup, as a club, as very, very important. It’s something that if you win, you have a CONCACAF Champions League spot. And it’s important for us to try to challenge ourselves to play the best competition possible in North America. That means trying to play teams outside of our league, whether it’s preseason, but even more importantly, for games that matter like the Open Cup. It [the Open Cup match] was a complicated fixture for us just because we’re really in a position where we have to take these final two [NASL] games very, very seriously. So it was a difficult one to manage in terms of how we approached the game on Wednesday. But I was really proud of the guys who probably weren’t getting as many minutes as usual, and came in and did a great job.”
With NASL taking a four-week break between the Spring and Fall seasons, I asked Coach Lagos what the team would be doing during the break.
“Unfortunately, they’re not going to get a lot of rest. We have an Open Cup game on the eighteenth of June. And then you’re almost preparing for preseason. We actually are playing an exhibition game against the Mexico U21 national team on July fourth. We started in early February from preseason. So they’re probably looking for a little break. We’ll have to figure out ways to get them a bit of time to make sure they’re getting better, recovering for the next season. But again, I think we’ve created a culture in our club where guys understand this break is not off-season. We don’t have the time or resources to build their fitness up like we did in the preseason.”
Manny Lagos, his staff, and the MUFC community have built an organization predicated on doing things the right way, with the right kind of people. It’s no wonder that the Loons continue to be one of the most successful franchises in the NASL.
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