Minnesota United’s inaugural year was a lot like an optical illusion.
See, since the modern era of Major League Soccer expansion began in 2005, the 11 added teams before this season averaged 1.04 points per game. United (10-17-6) is averaging 1.09 with the final match Sunday at San Jose.
So despite being outscored 11-2 in their first two matches in a historically bad start, they aren’t the worst expansion team of all time. In fact, they are solidly unremarkable.
“It’s strange because I was looking the other day, and even if we don’t win another game, we’ve had a better expansion season than probably 60 to 70 percent of expansion teams,” coach Adrian Heath said. “So considering the start we’ve had, there’s a lot to be pleased with.”
It’s easy to lose sight of how United has at least met, if not maybe a little bit exceeded, the base expectations for a first-year club when compared to such teams as Seattle, which made the playoffs in 2009, or Chicago, which won the MLS Cup in its first year in 1998. The difference is especially stark when looking at fellow 2017 expansion side Atlanta, which is 15-9-9 and on its way to the playoffs with MLS attendance records in hand.
It was a wild season for United. A decent preseason gave way to an abysmal start that the Loons painstakingly crawled out of to end with markedly better performances. But this first campaign has been, at the end of the day, “positive,” according to team owner Bill McGuire.
Not bad for the team that winger Miguel Ibarra said “everybody thought” was going to be “the worst.”
“It’s been a roller coaster,” leading scorer Christian Ramirez said. “We started off pretty bad, and we knew that things weren’t going to be perfect right off the bat.’’
It was MLS-record-setting bad, as the Loons started the regular season with a 5-1 loss at Portland before coming home to 35,000 fans in the snow at TCF Bank Stadium and enduring a 6-1 setback to Atlanta.
“Having the great preseason that we had some results in, where we felt we were playing some good soccer, and then coming in and getting our butts kicked two times in a row, that sort of let us down,” Ramirez said.
“But the coaching staff and the front office did well to bring in pieces and continue to add to what they think is the core. And I think as the season went on, we’ve understood more and more of what the system requires, how hard it is to win games in this league.”
From United’s first match to its most recent, only two players are still starters: midfielder Kevin Molino and center back Francisco Calvo. Throughout the season, United gained eight players and lost six plus one coach.
Yet even with that turnover, Heath said his players have become a much more cohesive unit.
“I just sense that they hold each other a lot more accountable now than they’ve ever done at any stage during the season,” Heath said. “Their expectations of what they perceive to be good enough in terms of performance … they’re holding each other to account on that score and that gives us something. It’s promising, and it gives us something to work from.”
Heath said the next three to four months are “crucial” in setting up the Loons for quicker success in 2018. While the team has established a solid core of players, an aim of this offseason will be improving depth, McGuire said. The Loons struggled when injuries and national team duty depleted the roster many times.
McGuire also wants to continue to grow and build the fan base and foothold in the community while also working on the team’s new stadium, Allianz Field, set to open in 2019.
United ended its home slate with four consecutive lower-bowl sellouts and six consecutive crowds of more than 20,000. Its average attendance of 20,538 per match ranks it 10th of 22 MLS teams.
“Our people did a pretty good job in terms of working with the fans and the community and starting to build this for what it’s ultimately going to be,” McGuire said. “I don’t think there was ever an expectation that we could do everything the way we ultimately want to see it in year one. But I think we did accomplish a lot.”
While United has work to do, 2018 shouldn’t be quite as deceiving.
“Knowing how our first year went going on to our second year, I think there’s going to be a higher expectation for us knowing that we ended the season well,” Ibarra said. “So now we want to continue and start it off well.”