They had chances. Lots of them. Good ones, too. That’s what will sting for the foreseeable future.
Minnesota United’s debut appearance in the Major League Soccer playoffs should be viewed in that light, as an opportunity lost. The Loons dominated long stretches of play and did many things well, but they came up short in the most important aspect of the game.
But they didn’t finish their chances, and LA Galaxy did.
That was the difference that brought United’s historic season to a sudden end with a 2-1 loss in the first round Sunday night at Allianz Field.
Two goals allowed in a 4½-minute span late in the second half pushed the Loons into desperation mode after smothering the Galaxy the first 70 minutes. United’s Jan Gregus scored in the final minutes, but the outcome provided a blunt reminder of what's needed after getting a small taste of the playoffs in Year 3.
“Have to get better,” Coach Adrian Heath said. “We have to bring quality [talent] in. We did last year, and we have to do the same again. We can’t stand still. Not in this league. Not in the West. If we stand still, we move backwards.”
That should become their organizational slogan. Move forward, not backward. A new standard now guides every decision. The Loons are a playoff team. They must act accordingly this offseason.
The front office needs to continue to tweak the roster with better talent. That requires savvy scouting and strong financial commitment in pursuing top-level players.
Heath gave a perfect answer when asked if he viewed this season as a success. “From where we were,” he said.
From non-playoff team to playoff team. From defensive laughingstock to one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league. That’s meaningful progress.
But Heath wants no misconceptions about being satisfied. This season represented a step, an important one, but only one step toward a larger goal.
“I don’t take a lot of satisfaction from playing in one playoff game,” he said. “And I know that tomorrow that won’t be any different for me.”
In that vein, the work is just beginning. United must formulate the right plan that takes a playoff team and makes it stronger.
The Loons made quantum improvement defensively because they were aggressive in overhauling the roster with better players. Team CEO Chris Wright likened it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“Everybody is talking about that [defensive improvement] around the league [saying], ‘How did they do it?’ ” Wright said. “It’s not rocket science. But it is finding the right blend of players.”
Wright stood on a balcony overlooking Allianz Field 90 minutes before kickoff, savoring the momentum gained in one calendar year.
The organization opened a jewel of a stadium. Fan support is loyal and passionate. The product on the field improved. That’s substantive momentum.
“We realized that you can’t open a beautiful stadium like this without a really competitive team,” Wright said. “I thought we developed an incredible strategic plan and we executed it beautifully. It was an opportunity for us to take our place in the market, to become part of the conversation with all the other professional sports franchises here. And we had to do it right.”
This season felt like a new beginning after a semi-soft launch at their temporary home, TCF Bank Stadium. Expectations shifted. The task now is to keep ascending, not slide backward.
There will be more pressure, not less. Anything less than a return to the playoffs will be considered a step back.
Their inaugural postseason appearance offered a fantastic environment befitting the moment. The crowd was revved up. The Loons kept their fans engaged with some solid play. They just didn’t capitalize on their chances. That will probably bug them for a while.
The outcome also should serve as motivation for the entire organization as it approaches this next phase. How do they take a good team and make it stronger?