Either Minnesota United’s historically severe goal differential to start the season lowered expectations or the Loons are, actually, better.

While the team lamented missed opportunities in a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas on Saturday, players and coach Adrian Heath could take encouragement from United giving up only two goals — half of the team’s average heading into the match — on the road against arguably the best team in the league.

Yes, defensive mistakes cost the Loons those goals. And the usually fruitful attack came up against a strong performance from Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. But overall, if this had been the United team from five matches ago, the result probably would have been much more glaring.

Now that the lineup and formation look much more solid and require tweaks instead of overhauls, what the Loons have to work on before traveling to the Houston Dynamo for a Saturday game is much more intangible.

“We spoke at halftime about getting a little bit more belief in the group and believing you can actually get something from the game and have some confidence on the ball,” Heath said Saturday. “They can play. They’ve showed that this evening. But they have to believe it. They have to believe they can come to places like this and actually dictate the pace of the game through our ball possession. … We were waiting for [Dallas] to really score a goal before we started to play again.”

While United wasn’t productive on offense in the first half — with one shot compared to 12 in the second half — defensively, the team went the longest it has without allowing the first goal of a game. Forward Christian Ramirez said that was “progress” on one of the small battles the team tries to win each match and was a building block for the Loons en route to putting together a complete 90 minutes.

“We just have to continue to believe in what we’re doing,” Ramirez said. “We have to start to believe from the beginning. I think too many times we’re starting, and we’re like, OK, getting a feel for it instead of understanding we can impose ourselves on these teams.”

Ramirez said that part of this lack of belief stems from the players’ inexperience with each other and that the assurance will grow the longer they play together.

Even so, this loss at Dallas showed “a lot of improvement,” according to midfielder Kevin Molino. And now United just has to trust it can put all the pieces in place.

“When you look at our last three games, how many goals we have conceded, the attackers have done well in defense. From the defenders, getting the ball, putting them under a lot of pressure,” Molino said. “So there’s a lot of positives to take from the game. We possessed the ball well. But unfortunately we never got on the score sheet.”