When Minnesota United began their rebuild in preparation for a move to Major League Soccer, having previously played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) with the likes of the New York Cosmos and Miami FC, it was clear they needed to tie down a strong selection of defenders.
Expansion teams in MLS, where promotion is earned through paying a fee and franchising rather than a table result, have almost always struggled in their first season. A brand-new team means virtually no immediate chemistry and a manager leading a group he doesn’t really know the strengths or weaknesses of until months into the season.
To lead that defence, Minnesota United signed Norway international Vadim Demidov. With minutes at Rosenborg, Frankfurt, Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo under his belt, the experienced centre-back seemed to be the spine the franchise needed. That, along with several other educated guesses, would prove horribly wrong at a level rarely seen in the world game.
Demidov started his career by spending over three years playing amongst some of Norway’s smaller clubs within the upper tier of the game, including Sandefjord, Manglerud and Hønefoss. He would make over 50 appearances between the three, debuting with the first at just 18. Strong showings would earn him a move to one of Norway’s biggest clubs, Rosenborg. With 26 league titles and 12 domestic cups to their name, the club are a common sight in European football.
Demidov’s time with the club would bring him his only competitive trophies in the form of two league titles in 2009 and 2010. With over 100 appearances registered with his homeland’s giants, he would then depart on the most notable run of his career with a move to LaLiga’s Real Sociedad.
Demidov slotted in immediately for the Basque club, helping them to a 12th-place finish, picking up impressive results along the way, including a 1-1 draw with Atlético Madrid, a 2-2 draw with Barcelona and a 2-0 win over Sevilla. The Norwegian would make 40 appearances over his single season with the club, helping them to the round of 16 in the Copa del Rey along the way. His season was a strong show for the centre-back, who would immediately earn another interesting move, this time to the Bundesliga.
It would be in Frankfurt, however, that the downturn would begin. He would appear only six times for the club before being loaned out in the winter window, returning to LaLiga to shore up Celta Vigo’s defence. He would make 13 appearances, winning only once in a 2-1 triumph over Granada. Demidov would then miss the club’s last eight matches, not making the 18 for six of them. Celta would end the year a point out of the relegation zone.
With his stock dropping fast in two of Europe’s top leagues, Demidov managed to earn a transfer to Anzhi Makhachkala, the Dagestani club that, despite recently struggling, has long been a piece of the Russian Premier League. He would appear once, in an Europa League qualifier against Tromsø. Anzhi won, but it proved the Norwegian’s only chance. He would appear on the bench early on in several more matches, never making it on to the pitch. He would then be loaned again, this time to Norway with Brann.
Smaller than Rosenborg, with only nine domestic trophies to their name, Brann had developed into an challenger by the time Demidov arrived. There he would finally find a stable home, making 58 appearances and becoming the club’s captain. In total, the his time with Brann was a return to form.
It is here that we return to where we began: Minnesota. Now 30, Demidov had a new home. Minnesota United announced the signing of Demidov in January 2017, stating: “The Norwegian international has had a successful career playing in Europe’s top leagues, as well as on the international stage.”
Demidov discussed his new team in the same announcement. “I never quit, I give a hundred percent and I have a winning mentality, I hate losing … I’ll do everything to win for the team. I like to take charge and take responsibility and be a part of a team that grows together.”
United head coach Adrian Heath added his thoughts in the same post: “Vadim will provide us that winning mentality and work ethic that’s so important for a club in growth, he fits the mold of the players we desire for in this club. We are thrilled to get a defensive leader of his calibre.”
Popular Minnesotan Soccer site Fiftyfive.one reported on the signing: “The 30-year-old Demidov has a reputation as a smart and aggressive player. In 2016, he played as a centre-back with Bergen side SK Brann and could figure into Adrian Heath’s rotation there. However, he also has extensive experience as a defensive midfielder, including in some of the best leagues in Europe. Not the quickest or the strongest, Demidov is a smart tackler and a good mark. He’s good in the air.”
Another widely-read news source, the Pioneer Press, reported: “[Demidov] has been a member of the national team as a nationalized citizen born in modern-day Latvia. He has been with Brann since 2014, with previous experience with clubs in top leagues in Germany, Spain and Russia. Demidov was one of the players United sporting director Manny Lagos scouted during his trip to Scandinavia in late September through early October.”
With a squad of NASL vets mixing with higher and lower profile signings from pre-existing MLS franchises and foreign leagues, Minnesotans looked forward to seeing their Norwegian captain join forces with Swedes John Alvbåge and Mohammed Saeid and Danish Bashkim Kadrii to head a Scandinavian force in a state often associated with the north European region. Demidov was handed the captain’s armband and quickly became the assumed starter as one of Minnesota’s two centre-backs in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Demidov would be Minnesota’s highest-paid player, too, carrying one of the squad’s best resumes along the way.
Then the moment all new MLS franchises wait for arrived – the first games. Despite some interesting signings and United’s ability to bring in some of their best NASL players, things didn’t go as planned. Minnesota’s first match pitted them against the Portland Timbers, one of the league’s most popular teams. The match in Portland ended 5-1 to the home side. Demidov played the full 90 minutes. New franchises start off rough sometimes. It happens.
The next match was a home opener against fellow new team, Atlanta United. Minnesota lost 6-1, with now-Newcastle forward Miguel Almirón earning a brace and Venezuela’s Josef Martínez grabbing a hat trick. Demidov played the full 90 minutes. Next the team traveled to Colorado to play the Rapids. Demidov was put on the bench, with the squad in general seeing some rotation to see what would happen. Minnesota grabbed their first point in an eventful 2-2 draw against a Tim Howard-led home side.
In the next game, Minnesota traveled to Foxborough, outside of Boston, to face the New England Revolution. Demidov was rotated back in as the coaching staff sought out their best XI, earning another 90 minutes. Minnesota lost 5-2. The franchise returned home to face Real Salt Lake and Demidov didn’t feature, placed on the bench again. If you’ve been following, you may see where this is going. Minnesota won 4-2, earning their first win in MLS.
By the time the final whistle had blown against Salt Lake, Demidov had played 270 of a potential 450 minutes. He had personally been on the pitch to concede 16 goals, taking no direct part in the four goals Minnesota scored in the same three matches. To put things simply; his defensive record at Minnesota United was awful and had helped down a path that would have them set a new-worst defensive record for the league by the end of 2017. That night – on the bench and five games into the season – was the last time Demidov would make the 18 for Minnesota United.
With their captain proving problematic on the pitch, the question of what United should about Demidov occupied the minds of supporters as much as it likely did the club and coaching staff. It would be Brent Kallman, a beloved member of the club’s NASL squad from years prior, who would take Demidov’s spot and partner with Francisco Calvo as the centre-back pairing. Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor would serve as a third option until the summer window allowed United to bring in New Zealand international Michael Boxall, who quickly became the partner for Calvo, now Minnesota’s captain.
Amid these moves and adjustments, Demidov wouldn’t make any headway in rejoining the squad. Despite the 29 matches that awaited the side, the Norwegian would never get another sniff at the 18. Some reports stated that the player had ceased traveling with the club in any form for away games by mid-season, with his involvement at home barely more tangible.
The rumour, and eventual reality, was that the club and the player entirely split ways, with Demidov based in the Twin Cities on a form of paid leave while the club worked on finding a way to move him out of the roster while working on fixing their season. No progress would be made in the summer window of 2017, leaving Demidov floating around, but not on, the roster for the remainder of United’s first MLS season.
By the end of February 2018, not long before Minnesota’s second MLS season would begin, it was made official that Demidov would part ways with the club via the buyout of his contract by Minnesota United. On 1 March that year, he posted on Instagram about the end of his time with Minnesota, saying he had “nothing but love for the Twin Cities. It was truly a great place to live and I’m glad I got to experience it!” It would be the end of the Demidov saga.
It should be noted that Minnesota’s record didn’t necessarily skyrocket upon Demidov’s removal. The club still finished ninth of 11 sides in the Western Conference, ten points off the playoffs. They also suffered heavy defeats after the Norwegian’s exile, including a 4-0 loss to Seattle at home and 3-0 losses to the New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas, Vancouver Whitecaps and LA Galaxy.
This begs an unanswerable question: was it really Demidov’s fault? Over the next two years, fans would grow increasingly uneasy with Calvo, who frequently made defensive errors that cost points. The Costa Rican would be traded to the Chicago Fire in 2019 amid mixed feelings for the veteran captain.
Minnesota’s defence now includes zero players that started the 2017 season, with only Kallman, a common face on the bench, still remaining. The franchise’s two centre-backs are now, usually, Michael Boxall and Ike Opara. The club’s 2018 season, one utterly untouched by Demidov and featuring a wave of new players removed from any mistakes made in 2017, ended with Minnesota finishing in tenth, with the Western Conference expanding to 12 spots that season due to the creation of LAFC.
It may well be that Demidov was simply the easiest sacrificed player for a front office and coaching staff that needed to exercise some demons and try something new. He eventually made his way to Stabæk in the Norwegian First Division, where he’s played consistently for the club, doing enough to keep them safe from relegation since 2018.
Demidov was the captain Minnesota thought they needed. Instead he was cast out, destined to have his MLS legacy be little more than a strange asterisk when it might have been a legendary chapter in his otherwise solid career.
By Dominic Jose Bisogno @djbisogno