PORTLAND, ORE. – The weather was miserable. Rainy and bone-chilling cold, not exactly ideal conditions for a celebration.
The occasion was historic but the outcome of Minnesota United FC’s debut in Major League Soccer on Friday night agreed with Mother Nature. Just kind of dreary.
In the big picture, the Twin Cities returned to the business of big-league soccer. On a micro level, the discrepancy between United and Portland Timbers in a 5-1 loss demonstrated how much ground the expansion Loons have to make up in overall talent.
The Timbers are faster and more skilled up front. And their supporters in rambunctious Timbers Army make Providence Park the best home-field advantage in MLS.
The Loons had some nice stretches in the second half but a late meltdown resulted in a flurry of goals.
“I’m sure the narrative will be that it’s the harsh realities of the league and it is to an extent,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “But I think 5-1 doesn’t really reflect how the game went.”
One loss shouldn’t overshadow the joy United officials and their followers felt all day. There was no more dreaming or wondering if a vision shared by many would materialize. Reality hit once the Loons stepped on the pitch.
“This is a start of a cool journey and it’s important that we embrace the moment,” United Sporting Director Manny Lagos said. “It’s a great story to get to where we are. I feel a nice calmness.”
Expansion seasons provide a steady drip of milestone moments destined to become trivia questions. First game, first goal scored, first win, first loss, first yellow card.
United began checking off those boxes. First goal: Christian Ramirez.
Preseason prognostications weren’t overly optimistic for the Loons, which isn’t all that surprising. Expansion teams don’t have track records so predictions tend to be guesswork. Individual players have résumés, which sheds some light on a team’s acquired talent. But until the Loons play more matches, we won’t know how all their pieces fit together.
“If [people] have low expectations, that’s perfect us,” captain Vadim Demidov said. “Then we can surprise this year.”
Team President Nick Rogers noted recently that his organization has an obligation to put “a credible product on the field.”
Rogers likely prefers not to place unrealistic expectations on a team that was assembled at warp speed. The organization crammed a lot of important roster decisions into a small window.
Continuity and stability usually are hallmarks of successful franchises. United has had to operate on the fly in getting ready for its inaugural season.
“It’s been a hectic five or six weeks,” Heath said. “We still know we’re a work on progress because you don’t put 27, 28 players together in five or six weeks. But I’m really pleased with where we are.”
United management didn’t seek star power in constructing its roster. Instead they tried to identify players who fit certain roles. Time will tell if their blueprint is proven right or wrong.
First impression of Heath is that his personality works well for an expansion franchise. He’s experienced and fiery and almost seems to take delight in people saying his team stinks. He joked last week that he uses slights against his team as motivational material “every single day.”
“I’m going into every game we play fully confident,” he said. “My glass is always half full.”
His mind-set is probably an appropriate way to judge an inaugural season. The Loons might not win a lot of games. The eye test will matter.
Are they competitive? Do they play an aggressive, attacking style? Does their on-field chemistry improve? Did management give the roster enough depth?
“We are an expansion team, we haven’t been together [long],” Heath said. “We’ve got a lot of excuses if you want it. We won’t be using them.”
Nobody said this new pursuit would be easy.