Former St Paul’s GAC member  appointed head of the youth  academy at MLS club Minnesota United 

THEY may be one of the new boys in Major League Soccer, but Minnesota United have big plans to emerge as major force and Belfast native Noel Quinn is the man tasked with unearthing its stars of the future having been appointed head of the club’s Youth Development Programme.
Quinn, from Ladybrook, is a former Rathmore pupil who went onto study accountancy in Ulster University where he played for the Collingwood Cup team.
Before his final year, he availed of the chance to spend a year studying in the United States and found himself at St John’s University in Minnesota where he met his future wife.
Upon completing his studies in Jordanstown, he returned to the United States and juggled part-time youth soccer coaching with his full-time accounting gig, but soon opted to go full-time into coaching with two spells at his adopted university and 13 years with various high school teams, winning a State Championship in 2016 for St Thomas’ Academy, competing in the state tournament seven times and coaching in the state championship game four years in a row from 2014 to 2017 - a record for an overseas coach.
Currently finalising his UEFA A License from the Irish Football Association, Quinn has also been employed as a director at Edina Soccer Club, EPSC and Blaine SC.
“My first job here in the youth game was probably with the worst team in the state,” he recalls.
“I just wanted to be the coach, so I said I’d take any job, but worked my way up through different teams and for a while coached the number one girls’ team in the US.
“I also had four years in Eden Prairie, four years at Edina where I wasn’t just coaching, but also helping to run the club. I was number three person, then two and at Blaine - my last job - number one.
“Blaine had 4000 players and 20 full-time staff, so I was doing more admin than actual football. I got a bit fed-up with that, so I just wanted to get back on the pitch.
“Last year I was coaching an U15 team who travelled around the country playing in the Elite Club National League, coaching St John’s, but as Covid arrived I had been speaking with United about doing something with the first team but ended up talking about youth football.
“I’d known most of them as we shared the training facility at Blaine and they wanted to do a different thing with their Academy, something I’d been stewing over for years because the players are here, it’s just the system hasn’t worked for them.
“If you want to produce players, you need to address the fundamental principles: climate, affordability, accessibility and geographical isolation. These aren’t things you can pretend to fix you just have to do it.”
Minnesota United been in MLS for four seasons having previously been in the NASL, now playing in the impressive, purpose-built Allianz Field that has been their home for the past two seasons.
After a modest start, the club has made steady progress under manager Adrian Heath - who played for a host of clubs in England as well as Espanyol in Spain during the 1980s and 1990s - and reached its first US Cup final last year, going down 2-1 to Atlanta United.
Major League Soccer has evolved since its first season in 1996 with foreign talents such as Robbie Keane, David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovicć just some of the household names to have plied their trade in the league.
Those foreign stars will, of course, continue to sign for teams, but the clubs also see the value in harnessing homegrown talent to not only bolster the national team, but help fans of teams identify with the players who have come through their own system.
In the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul) there are an estimated 50,000 youth players and United have identified this stat as an opportunity to hone their own talent.
Given its isolation from other MLS clubs, it just isn’t feasible to exclusively send its young players on long journeys for games against rivals, so a change in approach was needed.

Quinn has been tasked with honing the skills of talented youngsters who he hopes to provide a pathway into the first team

Quinn has been tasked with honing the skills of talented youngsters who he hopes to provide a pathway into the first team

“Youth football was run by the US Soccer Federation that was called the Development Academy and was a league for professional clubs’ youth academies and the top youth academies in the country,” explained Quinn.
“The problem is that the United States is so big, but if you are on the east coast, in California, Texas or Florida where there are a lot of good teams, the travel is manageable within your own area to play good teams.
“The problem for Minnesota is that we’re so far isolated from every other MLS team and have no other club in either our state or in a bordering one, so our closest match is seven hours away in Chicago or Kansas City.
“That means cost of travel is huge, but bigger than that is does that format make them better players? Would they not be better playing football than sitting on a bus for 14 hours?”
The new approach across the board means that MLS clubs now have a bigger say in how their own development programmes work, meaning they can tailor their approach to fit their own needs.
Given Minnesota’s climate leading to the harshest of winters, it just isn’t possible to play outdoors for 12 months of the year.
“I read an article about the launch saying that what Minnesota United is doing makes us the ‘Iceland of the MLS’,” Quinn continued.
“What Iceland did was build football to suit their own climate, culture and environment and that’s what we have to do.
“Six months every year you are indoors because you can’t guarantee the weather in November or even April because it is cold and the amount of snow.
“The cost to hire an indoor dome is around $700 an hour but you can’t be paying that to play one match, so we need to take a completely different approach that works for here.”
Soccer does garner a significant interest in the Twin Cities, as evidenced by the numbers who file through the gates to support ‘The Loons’ in each game.
However, given its extremely cold climate for at least four months per year, ice hockey is king in the state as it is a game that can be played all year round, with the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’ that can freeze over being conducive to pick-up games, with a clear pathway to college and the NHL.
“We have to manufacture the competition and motivation to help lads try get to the top,” he stressed.
“The players can play with their home clubs, their schools sometimes, or in non-traditional leagues, their minority or ethnic leagues. That wasn’t the case and some of the coaches from the ethnic minority clubs have been reluctant to send their kids to these development academies as they don’t see them.
“We have to do what’s best for here. You can take an idea from Paris or Brazil and use it, but you just can’t take a complete formula from those places, stick it in Minnesota and expect it to work - that’s just not realistic.
“It’s just not possible to have Minnesota United coach 50,000 youth players. You can do 30 or 40 in each age group and use that to try help everyone push on.
“Players will learn to communicate better, demand more from their team-mates and those who aren’t at their level will then know what it takes to get to that standard, if they want to do it.”
The mainstream leagues in Minnesota have huge numbers, but so too do ‘non-sanctioned’ leagues run by ethnic groups including Hispanics and Africans.
Indeed, Quinn’s son plays his soccer in such a league that boast upwards of 15,000 young players whose talents may have slipped under the radar in the past and he is keen to change that, making it accessible for families who may not have the fees to send a talented child to one of the major academies.
In the past, teams from the ethnic leagues felt they lost their players to the mainstream system, never to return, so it is his job to strike the right balance to encourage buy-in across the board.
“My son, Henrik, plays in the Revolution League with mostly Central and South Americans. I look at those kids and think: ‘why don’t they have a proper pathway to college or professional football?’ The talent is there in those communities, but accessibility is the problem for them.
“You have to pay to play in these big academies here and people simply can’t afford that, so we are doing a big drive to not only work with the traditional clubs, but also the ethnic minority clubs. If the players are there, we have to go find them and need to work with the clubs across the board.
“Kids will still play with their clubs but will train an extra couple of days per week with United and from that, you will select a pool of players who will go to play LA Galaxy, a tournament or whatever.
“There are loads of challenges, but the biggest is getting the best 30 players out on the pitch to pick from. Once you get them, you have to then get into your training and development.”

Minnesota United have called the impressive Allianz Field their home for the past two seasons having just joined the MLS four years ago

Minnesota United have called the impressive Allianz Field their home for the past two seasons having just joined the MLS four years ago

The major sports in the United States do, of course, have a different system to what is the norm outside with the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB operating through the draft system and while that is also a feature in the MLS, it isn’t quite so pronounced.
There is still a pathway to the top through the college system and whilst Minnesota United know that every young player they bring into their new youth structure won’t make it to the top, there is that fall-back of earning a college scholarship.
However, they and the MLS are now focusing on developing players in the mould of European clubs who bring through youth players with those who are good enough progressing to the reserves/U23 team and then, hopefully, the first team.
The modern version of professional soccer is still a fairly new concept so the path to the top hasn’t been perfectly defined, but the hope is that it will now begin to change.
With the World Cup set to return to the United States in 2026, the need for top-class home players ready to star for the national team is now and perhaps some of those 16 and 17 year-olds Quinn and his team will bring through their system can help the hosts enjoy a successful tournament on the field.
“There are good things that go on here already, but there is no real pathway to become a professional footballer.”
“MLS are trying to help create that pathway so a player might be with your U17s and can then go all the way to your U23 or reserve team, and then hopefully get into the first team.
“There is a bit of a safety net, which is different to Europe, in that those who maybe don’t make it into the seconds, can get a college scholarship and go and play there, so they aren’t on the scrapheap.
“The big thing with this is integrating the youth football along with the first team as that wasn’t the case before.
“Kids need to see a pathway and we’re doing a ‘bridge team’ that will be U23/reserve and obviously, the first team will have a lot of influence over that.”
Quinn hasn’t solely been involved in soccer throughout his sporting life. He played football and hurling for St Paul’s GAC from juvenile through to senior, so this knowledge of GAA structures has actually helped shape his thoughts on how his programme will work.

“I was reading and watching YouTube presentations from ‘Gaelfast’ and can see that they are looking to build something for Belfast as what works in Tipperary won’t necessarily work in Antrim and that’s the same here.

“It’s nearly a GAA model in that Minnesota United will be like the county team. It’s the first thing I thought of when I was thinking what I would do if I got this role.
“I was reading and watching YouTube presentations from ‘Gaelfast’ and can see that they are looking to build something for Belfast as what works in Tipperary won’t necessarily work in Antrim and that’s the same here.
“We have to try to raise the level of each club so there are more players who have a pathway to the pros. In a GAA club, there are always three or four lads who are very good and they may go to the county level, come back to their club and then that helps make the others a bit better as they have come back with the knowledge how to raise the standards.”
Raising the standards and implementing a new, winning structure is always high on the agenda of teams with aspirations of greatness. Minnesota United is now embarking upon that path and any future success will have its roots in Belfast.