Minnesota United acquired five new starters over the winter, each one chosen specifically to improve a defense that allowed 71 goals last season.
The Loons are 2-2 in their first four games, all played on the road. They have recorded the first road shutout in their MLS history and already have won more road games than last season, when they won one.
They’ve also allowed three goals once and two goals twice after they started the season with victories at Vancouver 3-2 and San Jose 3-0.
Are they a better defensive team?
“We are,” United coach Adrian Heath said.
In the next breath, Heath considered both goals allowed in a 2-1 loss last Saturday at New England “poor” ones and said his team needs to make opponents work harder.
The Loons will attempt to do so Saturday possibly without star Darwin Quintero (groin injury) and midfielder Rasmus Schuller (thigh). Both are considered “questionable” for their game at New York Red Bulls.
“We need to improve, there’s always room,” said United goalkeeper Vito Mannone, one of those new starters. “We’re at the beginning of the season, four games in. It’s very, very early. We need to judge after a period of time what we did on the pitch and how cohesive of a unit we are at the back. We’re improving every day and we’re getting to know each other.”
Last week New England responded to its 0-3-1 start to the season by switching strategies. It played two strikers up top instead of one and pushed players forward, sometimes filling the box with as many as eight attackers. It also targeted passes at the far post, where the Revolution scored both its goals.
“We had too many lapses the last couple games, and on the road you’re going to get punished,” said veteran defender Ike Opara, also an offseason addition. “You can only defend so many counters, you can only defend against so much pressure. I think we’ve got to be smarter in a lot of areas. I think we’re playing a little naive and some of that is we’re a new group.
“A lot of these guys, myself included, are very demanding. We want immediate gratification and immediate results. I want it to be this weekend. Is that realistic? In my mind it is, to start to take steps forward.”
Veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay calls United an improved defensive team, but he reminds it takes all 11 players to become one.
“It starts front to back,” said Finlay, who last week started for the first time since he tore an ACL early last season. “When we get Darwin defending, he really wants to defend. He’s a little guy, but he can get his foot in there and poke things away from guys. If we can get all 11 guys defending front to back, we’re a tough team to play because of our offensive threats going forward.”
United’s 2-2 record and six points earned places it seventh — the last playoff spot.
“We have to put everything in perspective,” Heath said. “… If we had taken seven points so far, we would have been absolutely delighted. But as it happens, we’ve taken six. If we take a point or even three at the weekend, that’s a great return for five tough games on the road to start the season.
“Some of the teams sitting below us have had two home games in that time, so I’m not overly concerned.”