This time last year, veteran defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso arrived in Minnesota from the successful Seattle Sounders and promised coach Adrian Heath his new team would win.
United’s winning 2019 season sent them to the playoffs for the first time before the Loons lost a first-round home game to the L.A. Galaxy that still stings.
A season later, as the team settles in to train in Florida this week, just winning is not enough for a team trying to keep pace in MLS’s escalating payroll arms race.
“We have to make the next step and win a championship,” Alonso said. “I don’t think to make the playoff, I don’t think about the Open Cup final. I’m thinking to win the MLS Cup is my goal this year. We want more because I know we’re capable to do more.”
Star midfielder Darwin Quintero and 2019 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone are among those gone in another offseason of change when United has searched both MLS and South America seeking youth, depth, athleticism and scoring.
The Loons traded for LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller’s length and youth (26) after veteran Vito Mannone turned down two offers to return. They went way south to add Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla and possibly Argentine attacking midfielder Emanuel Reynoso after acquiring Uruguayan teenager Thomas Chacon last summer.
“To win a championship you have to have everything: young, talent, experience,” Alonso said. “I think we have that.”
He and his teammates also have memories they won’t forget. They lost a chance last season to finish second in the Western Conference with a 1-0 loss at Seattle in the regular-season finale. The Loons then lost 2-1 at home in their first playoff game, to a Galaxy team they believe they should have beaten.
“It’s going to be difficult,” coach Adrian Heath said about repeating or surpassing such a season. “We’d probably take that now if somebody offered it. If I have one lingering disappointment from last year, it’s that we lost to the Galaxy because I thought we were better.”
After last season ended abruptly, about 10 players gathered over what veteran defender Michael Boxall called “a few beers.”
Topics discussed included “what we could have done better, what are we happy about,” Boxall said. “It takes a while to digest.”
They remembered shots missed or made, some more than others. Veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay hasn’t forgotten his open shot from the penalty-shot spot in Seattle that would have tied the score in the 40th minute had it not hit the left post.
“It’s something I thought about most of the offseason, about the difference my opportunity could have had,” he said. “A lot can happen in the game still, but we could have been in second place.”
Two weeks later against the Galaxy, Robin Lod’s shot from just outside the 6-yard box sailed high over Allianz Field’s open goal in the 22nd minute of a scoreless game.
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me,” Lod said. “Of course, for a few days after the game you feel disappointed in yourself, letting the team down. It’s hard to sleep. I just have to go through it and take it as a motivator to get better.”
In the 70th minute with the game still scoreless, Boxall blocked Galaxy superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s shot, but the ball went right through to Sebastian Lletget, who scored on the short side over sprawled defender Ike Opara and past Mannone’s outstretched hand.
United never got even again.
“That game, it’s a bit of motivation every day,’’ Boxall said. “I still feel like we did enough in the first 60 minutes to win that game. We just weren’t putting away chances. It’s all lessons and we need to make sure we do what we can to take a step forward.”
In August, the Loons came one goal short of the U.S. Open Cup. They came one goal from second place and potentially two home playoff games in October.
All of that is long gone now.
“It’s not good for you personally and for the team to carry it with yourself too much,” United midfielder Jan Gregus said. “But on the other hand, you can use it in other battles to give you more energy and powers.”