Last week, I was updating my notes based on Minnesota United FC’s off-season roster changes, including listing out the team by position to make sure I hadn’t missed anyone. And it was only then that I realized - and it was a genuine shock - something that hasn’t been true for years:

You know, the Loons might not play a 4-2-3-1 this year.

Former manager Adrian Heath liked to keep things pretty much steady, formation-wise, from year to year; he’d occasionally try other things, especially on the road, but I can only find a few examples from the past few years. We knew what we were going to see from his teams, to the point that if they even changed up something minor like their build-out, or their pressing shape, it felt unsettling to watch.

Now, of course, we’re into the - well, not the new era, but the in-between limbo between the eras, as interim manager Cameron Knowles takes charge, and we wait for Khaled El-Ahmad to figure out the team’s new direction. We don’t actually know for sure what the team is going to change on the field; on opening day, they may well line up in the exact same formation as they always have. But I do think it’s worth speculating on what else might change about MNUFC, beyond the lineup on the field.

MNUFC has not been particularly active this off-season, at least not in terms of big-name signings. Bringing back Wil Trapp to shore up the midfield was probably the highest-profile move, perhaps next to a loan for Costa Rican midfielder Alejandro Bran, and the free-agent signing of Swedish center back Viktor Viking Viktor Erikkson.

The other four signings the Loons made were all young players with significant USL Championship or MLS Next Pro experience: Derek Dodson, Carlos Harvey, Jordan Adebayo-Smith, and Moses Nyeman.

The American lower levels are not a traditional place for the Loons to aquire players. Of the 50 players that have played 1,000 or more MLS minutes for MNUFC (per, only one - fullback DJ Taylor - was signed via that route, unless you count players that were with the Loons in the NASL.

It’s also true that the Loons don’t have much for current success stories, in terms of promoting players from their academy or from their own MLS Next Pro side, MNUFC2 (which is only two years old, to be fair). Homegrown player Devin Padelford played 154 minutes last year, the first minutes for a true Homegrown since Patrick Weah got 22 minutes, three years ago. Emmanuel Iwe and Zaydan Bello, a pair of MNUFC2 players, also got a handful of minutes apiece a year ago.

It always seemed to be true that the Loons didn’t play many players that came through these channels, because they felt like they lacked the time to develop them at the top level. I don’t know Heath’s deepest beliefs about the game, of course, but here is what he seemed to believe, based on the things he said regularly, and the way he set up his team:

  1. The best way to build a winning team is to try to win every game. There isn’t time for half-measures; you pick the best players you have and set them up in the way that you think gives them the best chance to win, that day, and then do it again three or seven or fourteen days later, until the season is over.
  2. Coaches’ job is not to “develop” players; their job is to pick the best players. Players get into the team based on performance, not potential.

Some of the things that Heath was criticized by fans for, like rarely using all of his substitutes, came straight out of these principles. He regularly said that the reason he didn’t always use all his substitutes was that he’d look down the bench, and the players on the bench would be zero improvement over the players on the field (no matter how tired), and so the best decision - in terms of winning that game - would be to go sub-free.

I don’t think it would be completely accurate to say that Heath was against playing young players, or players out of college. Joseph Rosales and Bongokuhle Hlongwane both got plenty of minutes before age 22; Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper got big minutes as college draftees, as did players like Mason Toye and Abu Danladi.

But the team’s signings, and reporting from the esteemed Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press that indicates that the Loons are giving academy players big chances in preseason, make me wonder if the winds of change are starting to blow, in terms of the team’s attitude towards player development, versus playing the best eleven, every day.

It gets at one of the key questions that El-Ahmad will have to answer, as he sets the new direction for MNUFC: what’s the best way for the Loons to get top-class players?

The most convenient (and expensive) way, of course, is to look around at all the top-class players, pick the ones you want, and then start throwing money around.

The most difficult way is to identify players that have the potential to become top-class players, then do what you need to do to help them succeed, even if - and here’s the key - it includes playing them at the top level, before they’re already finished products.

MNUFC has mostly gone the first direction - though it would be closer to the truth to say that they’ve been doing the best they can with limited funds, rather than throwing money around. They have occasionally spent - picking up Emanuel Reynoso, or signing Teemu Pukki to a big contract - but many of their acquisitions have been more along the lines of value plays, to pick up international players with the potential to translate their skills to MLS.

Sometimes this has worked; Michael Boxall, for example, has nearly double the MLS minutes of any other MNUFC player. Sometimes it hasn’t; we could all list out plenty of players the Loons have brought in who have failed to be anywhere near the grade.

For example, the Loons easily could have plugged Padelford in at left back, halfway through last season. Instead, Heath signed Ethan Bristow, who wasn’t much older than Padelford, but had played a lot of games in the English fourth division, instead of leading MNUFC2 in minutes like Padelford had.

Bristow’s arrival could hardly have worked out more poorly. The youngster was noticeably out of his depth, but retained his newfound starting spot all the same - even after getting himself sent off in 38 minutes against the LA Galaxy. Things ended for both Bristow and Heath at the same time, after Denis Bouanga and LAFC nearly set the fullback on fire; Bristow was removed at halftime, purely out of mercy, and Heath was relieved of his job the next day, and for much the same reason.

A different setup might not have signed Bristow at all, preferring to continue to develop the young fullback they already had in-house. Even if you look back on the college or other young players that Minnesota has given minutes to, it’s almost never been a case of “we think this player is one for the future, and we want to continue his development.” It’s usually been more along the lines of “we’re out of players, and this guy is the best we have left.”

MNUFC might be on the cusp of getting its top-level players a bit differently - by trying to grow them in-house, rather than pick them off the shelves.

Does this mean that the Loons are about to play a starting eleven with an average age of 21? Well, no; this is still very much a veteran team, and they’re not about to push those veterans to one side all at once.

But it seems likely that we’ve seen the end of the era of every game being treated as a must-win. For a long time, learning the names of the Loons’ young players was like naming the cows on the farm; it was destined to end in disappointment and heartbreak. For the first time, we might be able to think of MNUFC’s prospects as just that - prospects, for the future.