Distilling Minnesota United FC's defensive problems isn't easy when the team has allowed 18 goals in four matches and is more than a quarter of the way to matching the Major League Soccer regular-season record for goals allowed.
But the two main issues appear to be time and space.
Those sound like vast physics or existential concepts, but in United's 5-2 road loss to the New England Revolution on Saturday and its previous outings, they really came down to quick opposition strikes and players' positioning.
"There were huge spaces between the whole team, more or less, from the start," defender Vadim Demidov said. "They got the first goal once more. ... It's difficult when you get those setbacks all the time."
United has allowed the first goal in every match, from three minutes to 17 minutes in. New England scored in the fourth minute. The Loons tied it in the 15th minute but gave up a goal six minutes later on a penalty kick. United scored first in the second half to make it 4-2, and New England scored again on a penalty kick four minutes later.
Last week in Colorado, United took its sole lead in MLS play so far, only to have the Rapids score a minute later. In the season opener at Portland, a 79th-minute goal made it 2-1, before Portland tied it on a penalty kick three minutes later.
"We look like we got a foothold in the game, and then we go and do it again. We give a goal away straightaway," United coach Adrian Heath said Saturday. "It's disappointing."
Shrinking the space, however, could help to solve that issue.
Midfielder Rasmus Schuller, who missed the New England match along with three other starters on national team duty, said before the Colorado match how the team had been working on "defense and shape," getting the right distances between players and closing the spaces.
Heath also said after New England how the team had spent most of the week emphasizing that.
United made strides in these areas in the second half at New England. Heath had Jermaine Taylor, Demidov and center back Brent Kallman act as three defenders against New England's two forwards. In the 3-5-2, the outside backs added more bodies to the midfield or back line, depending on need.
"We can get more pressure on the ball higher up the field," Kallman said. "We were able to put them under a little more pressure and limit their chances, definitely more than the first half. So that was a good change."
Whether that tighter defensive formation is the solution will become clear when United (0-3-1) plays Real Salt Lake (0-2-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
"It's not like we lose and go on to the next, don't care about it. It hurts us the whole week," Demidov said. "But we have to still keep our head up and look at the next game because I strongly feel we can take three points against Salt Lake."