For more than a month, Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath avoided re-watching the Loons’ heart-wrenching 3-2 loss to Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference final on Dec. 7. He brought himself to finally play back the pinnacle game in the club’s four-year MLS history just last week.
Heath, in an interview Friday with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, reflected on the disappointment of leading 2-0 after 67 minutes, then losing a spot in MLS Cup by conceding three late goals —Gustav Svensson’s back-breaker coming in the last gasps of stoppage time.
Before facing a question on what has been a touchy subject with him, Heath admitted to second guesses over not making substitutions earlier in the game, when he said he could sense his players losing energy late in the match. But Heath is moving on and looking forward.
As the St. Paul club has said goodbye to Kevin Molino and Luis Amarilla, Heath shared the Loons, could bring in four new players this offseason, including one potentially taking a marquee Designated Player spot. That’s in addition to the three college players they drafted in Thursday’s SuperDraft.
“I would certainly think that one of the players that we bring in would be a DP,” Heath said.
One new depth addition expected to sign is Jukka Raitala, a source said. The 32-year-old fullback played for CF Montreal for the past three seasons, preceded by Columbus Crew in 2017 and in leagues across Europe since 2007. He is teammates with current Loons winger Robin Lod on Finland’s national team.
Heath also addressed questions about the hazy futures of household MLS names such as Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso, whether United might have a USL affiliate to develop players in 2021, and when a new season might kick off amid a labor dispute between the league, its clubs’ owners and the players’ union.
The following is an edited version of the interview:
Where does the club go now that Molino has decided to leave Minnesota for Columbus?
First off, I’d just like to thank him. He’s with me for over 10 years now (dating back to their time in Orlando). We go back a long way. I’ve seen him grow from this almost incredibly shy kid that even couldn’t look at people to the man that he is now. I’ve taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing him grow as a footballer, but more importantly as a father and a man.
As much as I’m disappointed, at the end of the day, it’s his decision and he will go with nothing but our best wishes. He didn’t play as much as he would have liked at times for us, but when he’s had a bit of a regular run from us, you’ve seen his quality. Certainly at the back end of the season, he was as instrumental as much as anybody in the league. … We’ll miss that.
But we’re not stupid and we’re not naive; we’ve been in the game a long time. We have to go another direction and that’s what we’ll be doing. We’ve identified a couple of guys that we’d like to bring in. We are actively pursuing them and we are confident. … We think we need to bring in maybe four players and are going well down the road in that pursuit of them players. It’s ongoing. If we bring in the players that we are looking for then, we think we are going to be in a really strong position.
With news of Luis Amarilla going to Liga de Quito in Ecuador, that must be a position atop the list.
At this moment in time, that is the one area (striker) that is glaring at you when you put our (depth chart) up on the board. We’ve got Foster Langsdorf, who we’ve taken, and although we like the kid (from USL club Reno 1868), he’s certainly not the guy we are going to start the season with. But we are actively looking at that position, and you don’t have to be Einstein to work out that we will probably bring in a couple of people in that position. … We are a lot more optimistic that Ike (Opara) is going to come back this season. If we can bring the three or four players that we are after, I think we will be in good shape.
What has changed for Ike? (The 2019 MLS Defender of the Year missed nearly all of the 2020 season with an undisclosed pre-existing condition. Opara also shared last week that his wife has overcome a scary health issue.)
He just feels a lot better in himself. We had a good chat at the end of the season because, obviously, it was a very frustrating year for everybody. For the kid more than anybody. You only get so many years to play, and he’s basically just missed a year. But he felt in a lot better place and all things we are hearing from him in the offseason is he is very optimistic and will be able to join in when we get back. If that’s the case, it will be like signing a new player and a very good new player at that. … If we could get Ike back fully fit and healthy, it would be a huge boost for everybody.
What’s the latest with the potential return of Ozzie?
We are hoping to have some information this weekend.
When could the season start? (MLS said Friday they are reviewing the players’ union counteroffer. In normal years, MLS clubs are in preseason camp, with seasons openers in early March.)
We are in a holding pattern like everybody else. The sooner we find out the better because we are going to have to go somewhere to play (in preseason). We are going to have to go somewhere to get on the grass. I really am just waiting for the league and the players to hopefully come up with an agreement that is satisfactory for everybody, and then we can go back to work. In terms of dates, I honestly don’t know.
Is the club any closer to a second team in USL in 2021?
Had this not been the COVID year, almost certainly we would have been up and running with the second team. But with the year that we’ve had, and as difficult as it’s been to suddenly start another new team when we don’t even know, or the USL doesn’t even know, when they are starting, (it’s difficult). I’m hearing as late as May for the USL. … For us to have brought another team on and the expense that would have come with that, in the current climate, I think would not have been right. It would have been irresponsible. I think we’ve done the right thing. I’m sure when everything gets back to normal, which is what we hope, that will be on the agenda.
Have you brought yourself to watch the Seattle game?
I deliberately didn’t watch it for a while and then recently I put it on. I’m obviously incredibly disappointed. I think what I said after the game still holds true. I honestly believe if we would have had an extra couple of days (of rest) … . I didn’t mind how Seattle had two extra days (after each club’s semifinal wins). I was just purely concerned about my own team. If we had an extra couple of days to come completely down from the highs of the (Sporting Kansas City) game and then build up, I think another 48 hours would have been a huge benefit for us, I really do. …
I knew it was going to be incredibly difficult, and even when we went 2-nil up, I could just sense the energy levels. The problem is, then, should I have changed things? Should I have changed things quicker? Then you are thinking, if we go into extra time, if we take sort of our match-winners off the field, it was a really difficult situation. The goals, when they came, I’m thinking, do we leave it a little bit longer and see where we get to that toward the 90? In the end, it’s all ifs and buts, could we have done something? Maybe. But that is all in hindsight.
It was a really disappointing end to what was an incredibly satisfying year considering everything that we went through with COVID. I don’t think many had the injuries that we had and the adversity of not being able to put the same starting lineup together very often. The players deserve an incredible amount of praise for what they did. Not only the staff, but the medical team. It was an incredible effort from everybody. We come up a little bit short, but the thing is now, we have to go again. It’s going to be difficult to do what we did last year.
If you look at the last sort of year and a half, we went to the (U.S.) Open Cup final, we got to the semifinal of the MLS is Back Tournament, then we get to the Western Conference final. The trajectory has been very, very good. Now it’s up to us to keep moving that forward. It’s going to be difficult, but that has to be the aim.