Amid youth movement, Loons seek stability from a trio of veterans

In the same winter when Minnesota United searched the globe for youth, speed and scoring, the Loons also signed three veterans who have played worldwide and in MLS Cup finals this past decade but played little or not at all in 2022.

Right back Zarek Valentin, center back Doneil Henry and goalkeeper Clint Irwin were acquired to provide defensive depth, locker room presence and personality, all on salary-cap-friendly new contracts.

"These are all players we've known about for a long time," Loons technical director Mark Watson said. "They're all good players. The common denominator is experience and good character. They fill a need at certain positions and just fit in other areas."

Here's a look at all three players:

Zarek Valentin

Right back • 6-0 • 170 pounds

Age: 31 (born Aug. 6, 1991, in Lancaster, Pa.)

Signed: Dec. 8 to a one-year contract with a club option.

The skinny: Valentin led the University of Akron to a 23-1-0 record and the 2009 NCAA final before the Zips lost on penalty kicks. He was drafted fourth in 2011 and has played 185 league games with Chivas USA, CF Montreal, Portland and Houston. A member of the Puerto Rican national team, Valentin started 30 of his 32 games for the Timbers in their run to a 2-0 loss at Atlanta in the 2018 MLS Cup final.

Did you know? Maybe only half joking, Valentin said he signed in Minnesota because it's the MLS market nearest his in-laws in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

It's also a team to which he said he can add a "little bit of savviness."

"MLS is a very different league, a very particular style compared to other leagues around the world with the travel and the players who come here," he said. "You need a little bit of experience to know what to expect and what not to expect, an arm to cry on and an arm to yell at and someone who can be a friend as well."

This is his 11th MLS season. He played three others just north of the Arctic Circle in Norway.

"You just met him, right?" teammate Wil Trapp said. "He's magnetic, really brings the culture aspect in the locker room. He's got a ton of personality and courage to hold guys accountable and step into the gaps when we need it."

Clint Irwin

Goalkeeper • 6-3 • 194 pounds

Age: 33 (born April 1, 1989, in Charlotte, N.C.)

Signed: Dec. 6 to a two-year contract with a club option.

The skinny: Irwin has played 160 games in nine MLS seasons — six with Colorado and three with Toronto FC. He started 19 regular-season games and all six playoff games his first season in Toronto. Included was a heartbreaking scoreless 2016 MLS Cup final loss to Seattle at home in which the Sounders didn't get a shot on goal until they won 5-4 on penalty kicks.

Did you know? Signed to back up Loons starter and Canadian World Cup team member Dayne St. Clair when free agent Tyler Miller went elsewhere, Irwin has known St. Clair since they trained together with other pro players during summers at home in Toronto.

"He was still in college at the time, but you could see he had a lot of potential," Irwin said. "Super athletic and a great shot stopper."

Loons star Darwin Quintero scored a spectacular hat trick against him in a July 4, 2018, game at TCF Bank Stadium in which Quintero shaped two shots around Irwin and chipped another over him in a 4-3 victory over the defending MLS Cup champs.

"Yeah, a few people on Twitter have reminded me of that," Irwin said. "Look, he's a very good player. He had a very good game. I had a very bad game. It happens, but I think the next game I played here, I don't know if you remember, but I saved his penalty and had a good game. You play this long and you're going to have moments like that."

Doneil Henry

Center back • 6-2 • 181 pounds

Age: 29 (born April 20, 1993 in Brampton, Ontario)

Acquired: Dec. 12 off waivers.

The skinny: The son of Jamaican immigrant parents, he's a Canadian international player and Canadian national team member since 2012. He has played 123 MLS games with Toronto, Vancouver and LAFC as well as in the English Championship, Danish Superliga and South Korean K League-1.

Did you know? If it weren't for COVID-19 making travel to and from there complicated, Henry might still be in South Korea, where he played two seasons starting in 2020. While the Loons pursue South Korean strikers Hwang Ui-Jo and Cho Gue-Sung, Henry is back in the U.S. and MLS, saying he signed in Minnesota to play for coach Adrian Heath.

"I loved it there," Henry said. "It's a very respectful culture. How can I explain it? Younger players have to be very respectful of older players. They're very, very hard-working players, I can say that. They'll give everything."

When asked about his new young teammates, Henry said, "They're very respectful. I'll teach them a lesson if they're not."

His signing gives the Loons another option if starting center back Bakaye Dibassy's recovery from a season-ending quadricep tendon rupture drags out. Henry admits his fitness must improve after a torn calf muscle just days before the World Cup sidelined him.

"I was happy to sign here," he said. "It's my style of defending, my style of football. First things first, I just really wanted to come in and get fit and healthy."