Minnesota United homegrown player Patrick Weah had a learning-on-the job moment during a scrimmage at Allianz Field on Tuesday.
“He maybe takes one too many touches, and he probably gets fouled, but he’s on the ground and we kind of played on because of it,” Loons teammate Ethan Finlay relayed. Their side of the split-squad had been dispossessed in their defensive third and took the miscue as an opportunity to play out of the jam.
The Loons believe the sort of apprenticeship Weah and fellow homegrown signee, goalkeeper Fred Emmings, are receiving in first-team training sessions are helping prepare the 17-year-olds on how to be MLS players one day.
While the teenagers get an up-close opportunity to learn from and practice against veteran such as Finlay and ’keepers Dayne St. Clair and Tyler Miller, the most important element for youth development is playing actual games. This is where the Loons have missed the mark at times during their first four years in MLS.
The most glaring example is midfielder Thomas Chacon. Minnesota spent roughly $2 million in a transfer fee to bring the then-18-year-old Desigated Player in from Danubio in Uruguay’s Primera Division in August 2019. But the 5-foot-5 attacker struggled to adjust to the league, playing only 85 MLS minutes in his first season and then 172 minutes in 2020.
Loons leaders talked for months last year about getting Chacon out on a loan with another club so he could play in games and repair his confidence, but that didn’t materialize until early April when they sent Chacon to Uruguayan club Liverpool. It was finalized just as their Primera Division season wrapped up, but the belief is Uruguay’s top flight will start a new season relatively soon.
Chacon, who is under contract with Minnesota for three more seasons, will be in his native country for the rest of 2021, and Liverpool has an option to buy Chacon’s rights at the end of the year.
Given Chacon’s underwhelming performance and how the club stunted his development in the process, the Loons need to execute a better plan for St. Paul native Emmings and Weah, of Maple Grove and Wayzata High School. Emmings was the club’s first homegrown signing in preseason 2020, and Weah, a United academy product who had brief stint at St. Louis University, followed Emmings when he signed with the Loons in preseason.
United manager Adrian Heath said late last month the goal was to keep Weah with the first team through preseason and go from there. The Loons opened the season last Friday with a 4-0 loss to Seattle and play host to Real Salt Lake for their home opener in St. Paul on Saturday night.
“The chances are almost certain that he will go out (on loan) at some stage because what we don’t want to do is stifle his development and his progression by not playing any football,” Heath said March 27.
On Tuesday, United’s Chief Soccer Officer Manny Lagos said the club is trying to strike a balance for its teenage players. The club wants them training in their tailored professional environment where players go through routines set by its sporting staff versus the young players going out on a loan with a lower-level club where United doesn’t control the standards or the setup.
“For Patrick, I think the balance of getting with this group for still another month of what it means to be a professional, then getting him out on loan whether it be a month here or month there,” Lagos said. “We don’t want him to be gone too long.”
Going into their fifth MLS season, the Loons still don’t have their own reserve team. If they did, the club could work to mirror the daily environment for player development at another site and have an easy two-way street for young players to travel to and from the MLS side.
The club’s previous goal was to have a reserve team up and running this year, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed those plans.
“The financial considerations that we had to make and some of the things that we went through last year, we just could not put that in place for 2021,” club CEO Chris Wright said Tuesday. “But by 2022 we will have a reserve team in place.”
When United had an affiliation with USL side Forward Madison in 2019, players such as St. Clair, Mason Toye, Wyatt Omsberg and Carter Manley made regular trips to Wisconsin and back to train with the MLS side at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
Without that relationship last season, the Loons sent rookie Noah Billingsley on loan to Las Vegas Lights, veteran Brent Kallman to El Paso Locomotive and St. Clair to San Antonio FC.
So far this year, the Loons have loaned Billingsley to the Phoenix Rising and could look for a loan destination for current rookie center back Nabi Kibungunchy. Fellow rookie Justin McMaster debuted in the Loons’ opener last week, but the winger could see more seasoning at the lower level as well.
St. Clair’s stint in Texas a year ago was very beneficial. With three shutouts in five games in the USL Championship in July and August, St. Clair build up his confidence and was ready to return to the Loons when they recalled him to help replace Miller in goal when he went down with season-ending hip injuries.
“To get game experience is the toughest thing for a young player,” St. Clair said after earning a clean sheet in his MLS debut last September. “So to be able to go out on loan and play a few games, (I’m able to) use that to kick on here.”
Meanwhile, Emmings wasn’t able to get in any games over the last year-plus, but Lagos said Emmings has “grown immensely in just the rep training that he’s gotten.”
Besides loan options, Emmings and Weah could be incorporated in the Loons’ youth academy Under-19 team once it starts the MLS NEXT season later this summer. That isn’t expected to start until August, with three months of playing time available in between.
Weah’s path will be watched even more given his family’s background in the game. His uncle, George Weah, was named world player of the year in 1995 and played for top European clubs in AS Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan. His 22-year-old cousin, Tim Weah, plays for top-flight French club Lille and for the U.S. men’s national team.
Heath said Weah “has a lot of really good natural tools. Biggest issue for him now is to learn the finer points of the game, positioning with the ball, without the ball. … When to come in field, when to stay out wide, when to open the space and let the fullback come on the overlap. These are all little things that he’s not really sure of yet, but one-on-one he’s very dangerous. He’s strong. He’s quick. He has a lot of tools to work with.”
When Finlay broke into MLS in 2012, he made 15 appearances for the Columbus Crew, but had only three starts and totaled 426 minutes. In his second year, he had 19 games, but again only three starts and 391 minutes played.
“I don’t look too much into how much you play in that first year, the first months,” Finlay said. “I always look to: Are guys progressing?”
Finlay said he has to remind himself often that Weah is just 17. “What Patrick will have to work on is learning the game, and what I mean by that is understanding when to be taking one-two touch and when to be taking defenders on. I think it’s something that he needs to make an adjustment at. He will learn over time.”
Finlay believes Weah will receive some MLS minutes in 2021, but in the big picture, Weah’s development must be predicated on more than that.