The pressure is there, almost palpable. But that’s OK, Aaron Pitchkolan said.
“That’s why you play the game,” the Minnesota United FC captain said.
Rarely have the Loons played among so much buzz. Much of it is off the field, of course. The MLS announcement and the attendant stadium-related story, which is still evolving. The excitement of what may lie ahead for the organization has pushed its way onto the field; all five home games during FC United’s spring season were sold out. The team has added 500 new seats at its stadium in Blaine to accommodate the growing interest.
Now all the Loons have to do is play up to that buzz.
After a disappointing spring season sprint, the Loons will start their home fall season with games against Ottawa on Saturday and Jacksonville on Wednesday.
The homestand will conclude with a friendly against Club Leon, a Mexican League team, next Saturday.
It is time to make a move.
“It’s a big week for the club,” United coach Manny Lagos said. “We haven’t quite been as sharp the last couple games. I think we’re growing into what kind of team we can become, acknowledging we have to improve in some areas. That’s why this week is so important.’’
A team used to success, United’s 10-game spring schedule was a study in frustration. The Loons won three, had five draws and two losses. In three of those draws, United gave up the tying goal late in the game.
The Loons lost the spring finale to Fort Lauderdale 3-2 after leading 2-1, then opened the fall season on the road with a 3-1 loss at Carolina. It was the first time since October 2013 the team lost back-to-back, regular-season games.
Which only brings home the point that the Loons need to use these home games to get back on track.
“When you look at the schedule, as a whole, we’ve only really played barely over a third of our games,” Pitchkolan said. “There is plenty of time to get back to where we want to be.
“And we kind of learned last year that you want to finish with a flurry. … We know this fall season is going to be huge, especially coming off the tough result over the weekend.”
The way Ottawa is playing, it won’t be easy. After a difficult spring of its own, Ottawa — which won its fall season opener — has not allowed a goal in 616 minutes. Its six consecutive shutouts (and counting) is a league record.
Lagos, meanwhile, is trying to mold a team that can become more consistent, and do it without star Miguel Ibarra, who has transferred to Club Leon. Ibarra will play one half for each team in next Saturday’s friendly match.
“We’ve created a [situation] where we expect to win championships,” Lagos said. “We felt good about competing for the spring championship and we fell short. I don’t want to say the world ends when you do that. Because, ultimately, it’s where you finish up the end of the season.’’
To Pitchkolan, the team is not far off. The Loons had a three-game winning streak during the spring. And, even in some difficult draws and losses, the team was competitive.
“We just need to put together maybe one good game where everything clicks,” he said. “That would give us some confidence and we could roll from there.
“… If we can put a good string of wins together, I think things will snowball and good things will happen.”