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Loons pursued Hwang Ui-Jo, other players in summer transfer window

Minnesota United did bring in attacker Mender Garcia and fullback Alan Benitez

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake forward Justin Meram (left) and Minnesota United defender Alan Benitez battle in the first half at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 31, 2022.
Jeffrey Swinger / USA Today Sports
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In the summer transfer window, Minnesota United brought in a new attacker (Mender Garcia) and fullback (Alan Benitez), but several other players were pursued at those positions. All but one remain anonymous.

The targeted player who did come to light was 30-year-old South Korean forward Hwang Ui-Jo.

“We did go quite a ways down the line with him,” Loons technical director Mark Watson shared with the Pioneer Press recently. “His situation was really complicated.”

Ui-Jo’s club, Bordeaux, had been relegated from France’s Ligue 1 to Ligue 2, but financial issues were pushing them to the third division. They ended up staying in Ligue 2, but that sideshow was happening when MNUFC was making decisions on a new forward.

“That factored into it,” Watson said. “It was a really big spend. But saying that, we thought he would be a really big addition to the group.”

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English Premier League club Nottingham Forest ended up paying a transfer fee of $3.6 million for Ui-Jo and then loaned him out to Greek club Olympiakos for this season. MNUFC’s bid is not known, but manager Adrian Heath said in early July it became too expensive for the club. MLS reporter Tom Bogert said in mid-July MNUFC’s $5 million bid for Ui-Jo was declined.

“We have a lot of discussions,” Watson said “The one thing is we got a ton of names on our list. You don’t really know what the deal is until you get down the line a little bit.”

In addition to Ui-Jo and Garcia, the Loons looked at a “bunch” of players with varying profiles and price points.

The Loons ended up paying a $1.4 million transfer fee to Colombian side Once Caldas for Garcia. The 23-year-old has a contract through the 2023 season, with two club options through 2025.

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“In the end, we thought Mender was the right one,” Watson said. “He’s got flexibility to play up front or wide. He did that in Colombia. We spent a lot of time on the type of kid he was and met him personally. He just came across right away as someone that would be great for the group.”

The Loons weren’t scoring many goals when they sent Adrien Hunou to Angers in Ligue 1 and opened up a Designated Player spot for Garcia.

“The attraction to him is a young kid, a lot of pace, can play multiple positions and also allowed this group to have more time to gel,” Watson said. “I think the decision was correct because we started scoring goals and the group was clicking as we expected them to do.”

The Loons’ goal-scoring has gone missing recently, with zero scored in two consecutive losses going into Saturday night’s game at Portland Timbers. Garcia is scoreless in his opening 131 minutes.

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“If we would have brought in a big name, that would have changed the dynamics,” Watson said.

With Garcia and not a player such as Ui-Jo, MNUFC can buy down Garcia’s contract and open up a DP spot for next season. They can do the same thing with forward Luis Amarilla.

“It’s possible. We’ll wait and see,” Watson said about buying down those two DPs. “We feel good about this group. We could get to the end of the season and think we are in great shape. It’s nice to have that flexibility that if something changes, whether it’s injuries, (we can adapt). You can only plan for certain things, and this year is a great example of some injuries and challenges that we’ve had to adjust to.”

One modification came after right back Romain Metanire suffered a second setback with hamstring injuries in his only MLS minutes in April. Metanire then suffered a third pull during a friendly match in June. That’s about when Loons went after right-footed fullbacks.

MNUFC looked at young players who could fit in the Under-22 initiative, of which the club can have a total of three but only have one now (attacker Bongi Hlongwane).

“We looked at a lot of profiles,” Watson said. “ We looked at a U22 spot for that position and some really good players. In the end, I think it was (Benitez’s) experience. He has played a lot of games and was in the Paraguayan national team set-up, and he gave us an elite attacking player at fullback. I think that was one of the attractions.”

Benitez, who was available without the need of a transfer fee, has a goal and two assists in 456 minutes this season. He provided the winning goal against Nashville on Aug. 14.

But the 28-year-old has struggled defensively and was subbed out at halftime of the 3-0 loss to Salt Lake on Aug. 31, then came off the bench after all goals were scored in the second half of the 3-0 defeat to FC Dallas last weekend.

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Briefly

Emanuel Reynoso, who tweaked his ankle against Dallas, and Hlongwane (knee) were listed as “questionable” on the club’s availability report Friday. … Saturday’s game has Western Conference playoff positioning on the line: The seventh-place Timbers (42 points) can move ahead of the fifth-place Loons (44) with a win. … Portland is on a season-best, three-game winning streak, with two goals scored in each victory. … Reynoso and Kervin Arriaga are one yellow card away from being suspended for Tuesday’s home game against Los Angeles FC. … Franco Fragapane will be suspended for the Saturday (red card vs. Dallas) and Tuesday (yellow-card accumulation) games.

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Related Topics: MINNESOTA UNITED FC
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