Minnesota United won its season opener last Saturday, 3-2 in Vancouver. Coach Adrian Heath knows what would have happened if it hadn’t.
“It silenced a little bit of what would have come if we had lost, on the back of two seasons being very poor on the road,” Heath said.
United won just once in 17 games away from home last season — and not again after the season’s second week. But it’s not alone. D.C. United, with superstar Wayne Rooney on board for the season’s final three months, won just once, too, but still made the playoffs. Seven other teams won just twice and another three won three times.
The home-field advantage exists in every sport, but why is it so difficult to win on the road in MLS?
Atmosphere, conditions, travel, time changes, home cooking, even officiating possibly all probably play a role. But ultimately, United Sporting Director Manny Lagos attributes it to a simple fact: It’s a demanding endeavor and requires a mentality that challenges visiting teams facing all those factors.
“When you play 90 minutes of soccer, it’s an insanely hard mental and physical event,” Lagos said. “Teams are really aggressive at home and the fans and their energy push teams on and create an expectation … For us to become a good team, we have to have a balanced way of competing.”
Whether player or coach, each has his own opinion. Veteran midfielder Rasmus Schuller, who came to MLS and Minnesota from leagues in Sweden and Finland, reminds the U.S. is a BIG country.
“It’s the travel, the time differences,” Schuller said. “You compare it to European leagues and going on the road here every time is like playing a (FIFA international) qualifier. The distances are so big. It makes a difference.”
Defender Francisco Calvo disagrees, saying, ``We stay in the best hotels in cities, the best food, everything. I don’t think the travel is an excuse to drop three points. My personal opinion, the stadium, the atmosphere doesn’t mean anything. Maybe at home you feel more confidence, more energy, but trust me if we keep playing like we played in Vancouver, we’re going to get some road wins.”
What United lacked last season and in 2017, when it won three road games, is a mental resolve its players purportedly possess this season after it added five newcomers, including proven MLS winners Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara.
“At the end of the day, you need to play the same way away you do at home,’’ Opara said. “Don’t be scared because you’re on the road. If anything, it should be the opposite. You know road games are tough; what’s there to be scared about? Go out there and play.
“No one goes undefeated, but go into every single game believing you’re going to win. That’s the mentality I hope everyone in this locker room accepts.”
That takes experience and maturity, the kind Alonso developed from playing 10 seasons for successful Seattle. The Sounders won 14 of their final 16 regular-season games, including five of six road games in those 16, in 2018. They finished second in the Western Conference only to Opara’s Sporting Kansas City team.
“You have to play every game like a home game,” Alonso said. “You have to win. Everything of our mind has to change. Wherever you play, you play the same way.”
United earned three points in the first of five consecutive road games — the next is Saturday at San Jose — to start its season.
“The fact we got a win first game, it’s a good start,” Heath said. “That’s what it was, a start. Now can we go and get another result this week?”
Jerry Zgoda cover the Minnesota United for the Star Tribune.