Minnesota United looks to correct lack of player development

Minnesota United defender Carter Manley (2) and Los Angeles FC forward Mark-Anthony Kaye (14) battle for the ball during a 2018 game in Los Angeles. Kelvin Kuo / USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota United defender Carter Manley (2) and Los Angeles FC forward Mark-Anthony Kaye (14) battle for the ball during a 2018 game in Los Angeles. Kelvin Kuo / USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL -- Carter Manley’s rookie season was a prime example of how Minnesota United struggled to develop young players in its first two seasons in Major League Soccer.

Manley, a 2018 draft pick from Duke, played in six of seven games for United near the beginning of last season but was on the field for just 13 total minutes of the next 12. The 22-year-old’s development was stagnant.

Loaned to the Las Vegas Lights of the lower-level United Soccer League on July 31, the rookie appeared in line to finally get some quality minutes. Instead, he sat on the bench and didn’t sub into a game until Aug. 15.

Because United had no developmental deal with Las Vegas, the Loons had no control or influence on their prospect’s playing time.

“I thought I was going to play right away, but a new team and coach had what he wanted to do,” Manley said Tuesday. “So you just have to work hard and keep a good attitude and force your way in.”

That should change this season, as United now has a developmental deal with startup USL club Forward Madison (Wis). The Loons also are looking into starting their own USL team in 2020. There are two big reasons they haven’t so far: the $100 million MLS expansion fee and the construction of $250 million Allianz Field, which will open next month in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.

Without USL affiliation, United sporting director Manny Lagos explained, “You are just sending a guy around the country and saying, ‘Can he get a couple of minutes?’ It doesn’t resonate the same.”

In two years in MLS, United has sent only six players away on developmental loans to five clubs. The partnership with Madison gives United confidence it will have a better two-way street for developing players along Interstate 94.

Another early factor was a lack of first-team depth; the younger players were needed to participate in that week’s training in Blaine — high-level competition that also can help young players.

When the Loons went to Vancouver for their season-opening 3-2 victory on March 2, Manley, center back Wyatt Omsberg, goalkeeper Dayne St. Claire and midfielder Collin Martin went to Madison for extended preseason training. It was the first sign of how United looks to change course in its third season.

“We have some really, really good prospects on this roster, so … playing time is going to be very important,” United president Chris Wright said. “I think we structurally have put the right deal together with Forward Madison to make sure that those players do get the appropriate amount of playing time.”

Peter Wilt, a former leader of United’s predecessor, Minnesota Thunder, is the managing director of Forward Madison, which will play in USL League One — essentially the third tier of pro soccer in the U.S. Talk of an affiliation with Minnesota started a few years ago, Wilt said, but it ramped up when he came aboard last summer.

Forward Madison has built a light-hearted brand with a Flamingos nickname and a self-deprecating style on social media. Wilt said the club won’t be just a farm system for Minnesota but one focused on winning when its season starts April 6.

“The players Minnesota loans to us need to fit in that context, but Minnesota wants their players to be in that environment,” Wilt said. “They want their players to know the pressure of needing to win. This is a big part of that for them and for us.”

Flying under the radar of the MLS roster compliance deadline on March 1 was the acquisition of Ally Hamis Ng’Anzi, an 18-year-old Tanzanian midfielder and captain of his youth national teams. He comes to United on loan from MFK Vyskov, a club in Czech Republic’s third-tier league, and will be sent to Madison for the season.

“It’s exciting for us to sign a young potential player from Africa who is going to start his development career in Madison for the full year,” Lagos said. “We get to watch and see how he is and how it goes.”

Wilt anticipates Minnesota will send “four to six players” to Madison and that “most of them we anticipate will be on season-long loans that will put them in situations where they will be starting most games and contributing on a regular basis. If it doesn’t work that way, if for whatever reason they are not getting their minutes, coach’s decision or health or whatever it is, they will go back to Minnesota.”

When Minnesota is on a break from its MLS schedule next week, Madison will come to Blaine for a scrimmage. The Loons will go to Madison for a friendly on June 25, a game Wilt billed as the first MLS team to play in Wisconsin since the Chicago Fire played the Milwaukee Wave in 2005.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to show Wisconsin soccer fans the highest level of the sport in the country,” Wilt said, “and it certainly can be a revenue-generator for us as well.”

Added Lagos, “There is a little bit more intimacy between the two clubs because we are partnering in a lot of different areas to grow our respective brands and our respective sporting departments.”

MN UNITED FC PROSPECTS

The Loons have several young players who would benefit from consistent play at a lower level:

•Dayne St. Clair, goalkeeper — The seventh pick in the 2019 draft impressed in preseason matches but sits behind starter Vito Mannone and experienced backup Bobby Shuttleworth. A top candidate for a Forward Madison loan.

•Mason Toye, striker —The seventh pick in the 2018 draft played 17 games for Minnesota a year ago but is behind Angelo Rodriguez, Romario Ibarra and Abu Danladi on the forward depth chart. Went on loan to the Colorado Spring Switchbacks in 2018.

•Carter Manley, defender — The 23rd pick in the 2018 draft debuted for the Loons last March but played in only eight games all season, then played in only eight games on loan to Las Vegas. He’s now behind 2019 first-round draft pick Chase Gasper on the depth chart.

•Wyatt Omsberg, defender — The 15th pick in the 2018 draft played only 385 minutes in seven games and four starts for United as a rookie. The 6-foot-4 center back went on loan to the Tulsa Roughnecks in May and then came back to Minnesota.

•Collin Martin, midfielder — Acquired in a trade with D.C. United in 2017, he played 23 games for Minnesota in two seasons but has been outside the 18-man travel roster for the first two games this season in favor of 2019 second-round draft pick Hassani Dotson.