New Loons leader Khaled El-Ahmad shares vision for club, details on hire of coach Eric Ramsay


Minnesota United’s sporting staff had to work around a small construction zone within its offices inside the National Sports Center in Blaine on Thursday.

That’s because new Chief Soccer Officer Khaled El-Ahmad is literally having walls torn down, having a contractor remove the drywall between the Loons’ first-team and academy operations.

Given that four of the five substitutions MNUFC used in the season-opening win at Austin FC on Saturday were under 24 years old, El-Ahmad’s influence is starting to be seen on the field as well.

El-Ahmad spoke on-the-record with reporters for the first time on Thursday. The key points centered on last week’s hiring of permanent head coach Eric Ramsay, El-Ahmad’s vision for the club and how they will approach building the roster.

Huge net cast for head coach

MNUFC had more than 100 candidates for the head-coaching position, from assistants to high-level coaches, both foreign and domestic, El-Ahmad shared. Through an extensive and difficult process, the wide-ranging field was narrowed down to a handful of candidates in the last few weeks.

El-Ahmad said the club used different key performance indicators (KPIs) to rank candidates. Interviews extended to CEO Shari Ballard and others.

“Some of (the candidates) weren’t available, some couldn’t come, some are too expensive,” EL-Ahmad said. “It just the combination of things that ultimately then just narrows it all down.”

In his previous role at Barnsley in England, El-Ahmad was familiar with Ramsay during his time as Manchester United assistant coach.

“We thought that Eric was best suited in terms of intelligence,” El-Ahmad told reporters. “His approach to football aligns with the way I look at it, and where we want Minnesota to go. His experience for managing and being in the highest level possible in football (the English Premier League). Both to learn from some of the coaches that he’s been around, but also connecting and managing players from Cristiano Ronaldo to Casimiro.”

El-Ahmad commented how he and Ramsay’s values align and how Ramsay’s ability to speak multiple languages, including Spanish and French, added to his attributes.

El-Ahmad has routinely mentioned four tenants for how he and MNUFC will operate: “Be a good person, be positive, be professional and be transparent at all times.”

El-Ahmad shared dinners with Ramsay in England last week. “He’s really excited,” El-Ahmad shared.

Challenge with Ramsey

At age 32, Ramsay will be the youngest head coach in MLS and will take over a first team for the first time in a new-to-him league.

El-Ahmad, however, doesn’t see that as a “challenge.”

“I think it’s all potential; I don’t see it as a challenge,” El-Ahmad said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for him to put in place all the things that he’s experienced and learned. And it’s also not just Eric. He’s got a great supportive staff, whether it’s me, (interim head coach Cameron Knowles), all the people around. Again, I’ve said it from our first meeting, this is a collaborative effort. And Eric is just a good addition to this.”

A youthful coach was not a prerequisite for the job, El-Ahmad said. He said the primary factor was “quality.”

“I don’t see him being too young (as) an issue,” El-Ahmad said. “I actually didn’t really think about: ‘I want a coach that’s 30 or 40 or 50.’ I just want the best person possible.”

Knowles is a candidate to remain on Ramsay’s coaching staff as an assistant, while Ramsay will bring in one assistant from outside the club.

“It’s a collaborative decision,” Knowles said. “In the past, the way I do it is the head coach has the ability to bring one staff member, which will be the case this time as well.”

Knowles would bring an understanding of MLS and his existing relationship with players, while the other to-be-named assistant will be expected to bring his own complimentary attributes.

What is El-Ahmad’s vision MNUFC?

“I want us to be brave,” El-Ahmad said. “I want us to show a bit of belief in what we’re doing. And yes, we will adapt pending who we play, where we play, but people should know that this is Minnesota United.

“… I think alignment from top to bottom, from owners all the way to academy,” El-Ahmad added. “I think if you would walk in (to the offices), I just tore down a wall that was in separating academy to the first team. That was gone.”

The Austin match showed the high-pressing style El-Ahmad has brought to the club, a style that Knowles implemented and Ramsay will continue to use.

El-Ahmad said that an energetic, high-pressing tactic was picked based on his assessment of the Loons and Minnesota.

“It’s not necessarily my preferred (style) generally,” El-Ahmad clarified. “It’s when I go into clubs, I look at it each club has a kind of its own organism. I look at the geographic location, I look at the fact that we’re four seasons, I look at our fans … the history of Minnesota, you have an (iron ore) state. And I also analyze the players that we had.

“There’s also quite a lot of data when you look of sustainable success. There’s certain metrics. It’s also the opportunity or type of players that we can attract where we are. So it kind of tends to be more of a Liverpool/(Tottenham) way of playing versus a (Manchester) City.”

Peek into transfer windows

In the winter, the Loons have brought in a handful of younger, reserve players on bargain deals. Come summer, MNUFC is expected to go bigger with roster flexibility, including one vacant Designated Player and Under-22 Initiative spots.

“First and foremost, we need to look at how we scout and recruit and align it, not just kind of potentially go for ad hoc signings,” El-Ahmad said. “But I think we’re all really focused on the players that we have.

“I think once Eric comes and everything kind of settles a little bit more around the first team, we’ll assess and then tackle the summer when it comes.”

United’s identity will factor into which players the club pursues going forward.

“Who are we as a club? What do we want to represent? The style of play?” El-Ahmad asked. “As we’re putting those pieces in place, we will have specific KPIs of how we recruit, certain type of players, whether it’s more technical analogies, what we call a squad balance: X amount of youth or X amount of older players, as those are things fall in place. I think we will be a competitive team.”

Briefly

El-Ahmad said MNUFC is planning to add staff to fill video, analysis and data needs. … Hank Stebbins was the interim technical director before El-Ahmad’s arrival. Stebbins remains on staff. … El-Ahmad did not definitively address whether MNUFC will have its first team play in the U.S. Open Cup this spring. … As El-Ahmad gotten to know players and staff, he asked them for restaurant recommendations. He now has a list of 55 spots and has already gone to Colita and Smack Shack. Some players mentioned Olive Garden. El-Ahmad will pass on that suggestion.

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