PORTLAND, ORE. – In the end, every expansion team probably wants to be like Chicago Fire.
The Chicago Fire of 1998, that is, which won the Major League Soccer Cup and U.S. Open Cup in its first season — not the present Chicago Fire, which has finished dead last the past two seasons.
Of the 13 expansion sides that have joined MLS since its founding with 10 clubs in 1996, only Chicago has managed such a stellar first year. Seattle Sounders FC turned in the next-best season, losing in the first round of the playoffs in 2009 and winning the U.S. Open Cup. No other expansion team has made the playoffs, and two don’t even exist anymore.
So as far as first-year expectations for Minnesota United FC this season, making the playoffs would be a great success. But building for the future is the necessity.
“The harsh realities of expansion are that it’s difficult,” Portland Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson said. “And when you face those realities, you either solve them and solve them quickly, or you have to look to rebrand, change direction as far as the philosophy on the field.”
The Portland model
Portland, which plays host to United in the 2017 league opener on March 3, joined the league in 2011 with Vancouver Whitecaps FC. While Vancouver finished last in the league, Portland finished one spot out of the playoffs’ play-in round.
Wilkinson said the team focused initially on building an entertaining, attack-minded and athletic team, but that became more refined after two years in the league. In hindsight, Wilkinson said that first roster had many hard-working players with great belief and character, but it lacked “difference-makers.”
However, Wilkinson also said overinvesting in players at the start can be high-risk if they turn out to be bad fits.
In many ways, Minnesota seems to be mirroring what Portland is trying to do, especially in comparison to 2017’s other expansion team, Atlanta United FC. While Atlanta has signed flashy designated players and made quite the statement ahead of its first season, the Loons have churned out a slower and more low-key roster build.
Wilkinson said he has spent countless hours on the phone with Minnesota sporting director Manny Lagos and director of player personnel Amos Magee, while Portland’s president of business, Mike Golub, said he has also spoken with Minnesota President Nick Rogers.
While finding the right venue and generating revenue are all big parts of becoming a MLS team, Golub said a team shouldn’t overlook figuring out the club’s identity and how that will relate to the community and fans. For Portland, that’s about being “authentic.”
“There’s lots of pressure on all of us … to produce now, win now and to be profitable now,” Golub said. “And one of the things we continue to talk about, because this is an ongoing process, is, yeah, we want to win now, and we want to produce results on and off the field now. But we are building this for the long term.”
Stick to the plan
United coach Adrian Heath echoed that sentiment when talking about what he learned as Orlando City SC’s coach when the team joined MLS in 2015.
“We had a three-year plan in Orlando that lasted about 15 months, so it wasn’t much of a plan,” Heath said. “I think the most important thing is, we stick to what the plan is because you can’t keep chopping and changing halfway through, and that’s what we did down there. Suddenly, you get caught in between a little bit of what you were trying to do and a little bit of what you’re hoping to do. And in the end, it doesn’t work.”
Loons midfielder Collen Warner was a part of Montreal Impact’s first season in MLS in 2012 and also played for Toronto in 2015 when the team signed big-name designated players Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. He said stars like that don’t always guarantee immediate success, as they have to adjust to playing in a new league and the core group of players still needs developing.
But Warner has felt good about how United has taken on the expansion process so far.
“One difference I’ve noticed is there’s a collective energy focused inwards, more so than at Montreal,” Warner said. “I was really happy to see when we were down in Arizona with the other teams that were there, everybody was really focused on what we were doing and trying to accomplish instead of looking across the field and seeing how other players are doing.”
So while 2017’s results might not quite be on that 1998 level, the Loons’ future just might be.
“If we allow this process to go straight through,” Heath said, “I expect us to be capable, in three years’ time, of challenging at the top of this division.”