Minnesota United returned home Thursday from nearly two weeks of training in Arizona and three friendly games, two of them ending as scoreless draws.
After the Loons' 9-2 victory over FC Tucson, not a single goal was scored in 90 minutes against USL Championship’s Phoenix Rising nor in 120 minutes against MLS’ Houston Dynamo. But not a goal allowed, either.
Is that progress for a team that surrendered 71 goals last season?
“It is,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “You always have a chance at the clean sheet.”
United has remade its roster, hoping to defend better and deliver more in a third MLS season that coincides with the opening of its new $250 million Allianz Field in April. Since the end of the 2018 season, the Loons acquired five new starters, most recently Italian goalkeeper Vito Mannone.
Neither Mannone, who was still in England, nor newly acquired defender Romain Metanire from France’s top league had joined their new teammates when the team gathered in Tucson and started to take on a new shape, truly.
Heath said he liked how his forwards and midfielders positioned themselves, particularly after lost possessions.
“The transition when the ball turns over, getting in a good shape is so important,” Heath said. “A lot of problems can arise if you don’t get into shape early. That’s something we’ve been working on, and we were further along by the last game.”
His team’s offseason moves were made to improve its defense and a shape that should be better formed with newcomers Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus in the midfield, and Metanire and 2017 MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara on the back line.
“We train at our shape every day,” Gregus said. “We have a few options. We work every day to try to improve that. I think there are some things tactically that we can do much better.”
Heath is hopeful the arrivals of Alonso and Gregus will improve his team both defensively, by providing some of that shape from the middle, and offensively by moving the ball quickly ahead to star forward Darwin Quintero so he has more space and time.
“I liked the chemistry between those two,” Heath said of Gregus and Alonso. “It’s obviously early yet, but they understand what Darwin’s about and they start looking into those pockets where Darwin is most effective. I thought that was the biggest improvement [in Wednesday’s final friendly].”
Heath used Gregus as his designated free-kick specialist against the Dynamo and at times Gregus commanded possession of the ball in the midfield. He also showed he can be a threat from range when his long, low shot from well beyond the penalty box was turned away.
“He’s very, very good delivering the ball from corners and free kicks,” Heath said. “That’s something we haven’t done well enough over time. We think he’ll be able to consistently deliver the ball in the right spots. Now we’ve got to make sure we get people in the right spots.”
If all else fails, Minnesota United now has Opara on the back line with size (6-2) and strength that Heath saw on display Wednesday.
“Houston probably has three of the quickest forwards in the league,” Heath said. “A couple of times, they broke quickly on us and Ike was quick enough and strong enough to get back covering. That’s going to give us a little bit of strength back there.”