VANCOUVER, B.C. – A winner just once away from home last year, Minnesota United begins its 2019 season by playing five consecutive road games while it waits for March Madness and the approaching Final Four to pass through the Twin Cities.
Could anything be more daunting for a team whose only victory away from TCF Bank Stadium came at Orlando in the season’s second week, nearly a year ago?
After the season opener Saturday at Vancouver, United goes back west for games at San Jose and LA Galaxy, and then east to New England and New York Red Bulls. They finally come home to open shiny, new Allianz Field with an April 13 game against New York City FC.
United coach Adrian Heath acknowledges that “it’d be nice to have a couple at home in there,” but he makes this point:
“This is a different team,” he said. “This is a different group, different mentality, different mindset. I’ve already seen that. It’s never easy going five on the road, but we’ve got 34 games. I don’t think it’s going to be as big an issue as it has been in the past.”
United has added five new veteran starters – including proven MLS veterans Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara – and remain in search of adding another player or two for depth. It has done so both to improve its road record and its chances to finally reach the playoffs in a league where teams often struggle away from home.
D.C. United, too, won just one road game, even after it added superstar Wayne Rooney in July. It finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs despite going 1-9-7 for 10 points compared to the Loons’ 1-14-2 road record (for 5 points).
Seven other teams won just two road games. Another three won only three.
“It’s going to be a different story,” United veteran defender Francisco Calvo said. “Preseason is preseason, but we proved it in preseason against good teams: New York City, New England, Houston, Orlando, we beat them, we tie Houston. We didn’t play well against New York City, but we won. Sometimes if you didn’t play well, but if you get the three points, you take them and you go back home.”
A United team that surrendered a league-record 70 goals in 2017 and 71 last season held opponents scoreless in the three full preseason games it played against MLS competition. It remade its roster after last season to address its many defensive concerns after it added three offensive-minded players during the season a year ago.
“Our goals-against column has been there for everybody to talk about and I understand that,” Heath said. “We have to do something about that and I think we’ve upgraded to do that.”
Former Premier League goalkeeper Vito Mannone is one of those veterans acquired to improve the team’s defensive spine, starting in goal and moving out to Opara and Michael Boxall at center defender, Alonso and Jan Gregus at midfield, up to Angelo Rodriguez or Romario Ibarra out front.
“We have to focus on the first five games because it’s going to be important to get points away from home,” Mannone said. “We need to make it our home everywhere we go, really. Impose our way of playing. If we do that and if defensively we improve, I think it will be a good season.”
Heath toured the new $250 million stadium in St. Paul the other day and called it magnificent.
“But we want to make sure we have a few points on the board we get into that new stadium,” Heath said. “I can’t wait to get in it, but we have five big games before that.”