Last offseason, Minnesota United’s front office had one primary goal: Bolstering a defense that conceded the most goals in MLS in 2018.
Building an entire position group from basically the ground up in five months is no easy task for any organization in any sport, but a mix of solid scouting, willingness to spend and a little bit of luck took the backline from the team’s biggest weakness to arguably their largest strength in 2019.
Heading into this offseason, the Loons prioritized filling holes in other positions, as they should have, but they also put an emphasis on continuing to build depth in the front third.
Here’s how the defensive roster shakes out right now for the Black and Blue:
A second-round pick in the 2019 SuperDraft, Gasper was thought to be an investment for the future and a solid potential depth piece for Minnesota United in the short term.
The University of Maryland product proved to be so much more.
Many rookies who get a starting opportunity benefit from injuries or unforeseen circumstances. When the Loons traded Francisco Calvo last summer and Brent Kallman missed some time with a leg injury, Gasper received that chance. When he made his first start on July 29 in a 7-1 win over Cincinnati, the rookie took over a left back spot he managed to keep for the remainder of the season.
Now, heading into his sophomore campaign, Gasper is seen as someone who could easily become one of the league’s premier defenders, and his recent cap for the USMNT senior team proves those with influence in American soccer agree.
Boxall was acquired by the Loons during their inaugural MLS season in 2017 and immediately established himself as a regular starter.
Last season, even with all of the upgrades within the defense, the New Zealander maintained his starting center back spot and continued to prove why he deserved that continued selection from Adrian Heath. Goal saving tackles, blocked shots, creating turnovers. Boxall did it all as the backbone of the Black and Blue’s brick wall.
Minnesota will turn to its veteran Loon, who his entering his third full season, to help it take yet another step forward and advance further up the table and into the playoffs.
Aside from Darwin Quintero, Opara may have been the most impactful acquisition in Minnesota United history when they signed him from Kansas City in January last year. The former MLS Defender of the Year was the literal and metaphorical pillar in which Heath and the Loons’ front office built their backline around.
Opara delivered on every expectation.
Not only did the 30-year-old bring Minnesota’s defense as a whole to a new level, he upped his individual game as well, earning yet another MLS Defender of the Year honor.
With the caliber of their starting four, and the depth the Loons have built around them, the Black and Blue don’t necessarily need another “league best” season from Opara to repeat their success from last year, but if he’s able to put together another campaign like he did in 2019, there’s no reason to believe the Loons can’t make a run all the way to the top of the West.
Metanire is yet another relatively new Loon, signed right around the same time as Opara last offseason. Just like Opara, Metanire made an instant impact as a game one backline starter for Minnesota in 2019. Not only did Metanire see success in MLS, but that Malagasy national also received the opportunity to represent his country in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
The right back did have his share of “off” moments last season, but he was far better than worse overall, and should maintain his position as one of the most important Loons heading into 2020.
Kallman has been with Minnesota United since the Loons were in the NASL and was officially signed to the MLS team before their inaugural 2017 season. The Woodbury native spent the team’s first two MLS seasons as a regular starter.
With the improvements to Minnesota’s front third, Kallman came into 2019 as one of the team’s premier defensive options off the bench, but found himself back in a consistent starting role by April. The Woodbury native played all 90 minutes in every MLS game for Minnesota from April 19 to June 8.
A leg injury sidelined Kallman and allowed for the emergence of Gasper, and a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs left the 29-year-old suspended for the final five games of the year.
Kallman will finish up his suspension over the first five games of 2020.
Aja, the most recent addition by Mark Watson and co., brings much-needed depth at the center back position after the Wyatt Omsberg trade.
The Uruguayan will be the main backup CB option during Kallman’s suspension and should get some playing opportunity right off the bat. This will be an excellent opportunity for Aja to prove himself and show he deserves a consistent slot in the 18.
The depth the 26-year-old provides will also come in handy during the dog days of July and August, where preserving the starters’ legs is extremely important for the stretch run. Plus with the Olympics this summer and a few Loons set to represent their countries both in Tokyo and elsewhere internationally, Aja will assuredly be a piece the team relies on to make it through that stretch unscathed.
The Loons’ 2020 first-round SuperDraft pick could be a backup right back option for the club this year, but likely won’t be in the team’s initial 18-man dressing roster.
Musa, a midfield/defensive hybrid player, was acquired this offseason from USL’s Phoenix Rising. His ability to play both roles should make him a consistent option for Heath off the bench, and he will be another great depth piece for Minnesota.
Edwards is another recent Loons acquisition who has the versatility to play both left midfield and left back. Minnesota received the Toronto native from Chicago Fire on Feb. 11, and will benefit from his experience and ability to attack and defend successfully.
Considering the amount of defensive quality and depth the Loons have, and the value Dotson has as a flex midfielder option off the bench, I don’t expect him to see much, if any, time in the front third for Minnesota this season (outside of “pack-it-in” scenarios). However, being primarily a defensive-minded midfielder, he is capable of filling in the backline if the need arises.