Minnesota United FC’s home opener Saturday was played under clear skies and an abundance of sunshine. The soccer ball was white, the play was competitive, and the final score mattered.
In other words, a 180-degree change from the team’s inaugural home opener last season.
The product means as much as the party now. And the Loons look markedly improved and better equipped to compete in Major League Soccer in Act II.
A 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire gave United its second win in three games. The Loons didn’t win their second game in their inaugural MLS season until April 23 in what often looked like a soft launch.
In their debut at TCF Bank Stadium last season, wintry conditions created a snow globe effect that required an orange ball to be used so that players could see what to kick.
United lost 6-1 to Atlanta United that day with a defense that was leakier than a 40-year-old faucet. Nobody in the stands seemed to care, or even notice. The festive vibe surrounding the return of big-league soccer to the Twin Cities rendered the final score largely irrelevant.
Honeymoons don’t last forever, though, and United officials aren’t treating this season as a free pass while their permanent home, Allianz Field, continues to rise from the ground along I-94 in St. Paul.
“Expectations are completely different from this time last year,” coach Adrian Heath said.
Heath made that observation even after losing his best player, Kevin Molino, to a season-ending knee injury last week. United didn’t skip a beat in his absence against Chicago. The Loons were the superior team, start to finish.
“It was a good day,” Heath said.
He endured some difficult days this time last year. Everything felt so rushed in the organization’s first season of MLS, particularly in constructing a roster, that expectations were minimal. Their talent represented a starting point, not a finished product.
The team tweaked the roster in the offseason, and that process remains ongoing. Heath said the club intends to keep looking outside for better players, and he hopes to sign two or three additions in the next few weeks who will create competition and keep “everybody on their toes.”
“We know that we’re nowhere near the finished article,” he said. “We’ve got to bring people in that are going to challenge to be in the starting 11.”
The organization made a strategic hire last fall in naming former Timberwolves President Chris Wright as its CEO. Wright not only has deep knowledge of the business community, but he also played and coached semipro soccer in England.
Wright said United executives are formulating a plan for how to supplement the roster with better talent as the organization matures.
“A lot of teams go out and spend a tremendous amount of their resources on bringing over what is arguably a big-name player that they hope will [excite] the fan base,” Wright said. “We don’t need that here. We have an incredible base here. We’re not going to have any problem selling out every single game next year.”
Wright said his preference is to sign young players who fit a “very distinctive style that’s inside the MLS. We have to decide what we want to be from a style standpoint.”
An exciting style that puts a premium on attacking always is attractive to fans, but winning ultimately is what matters. Based on their start to this season, the Loons are moving in the right direction.
Heath asked his players for their input in establishing goals before the season. He appreciated what he heard.
“They are really confident that they can make an impression in this league this year,” he said.
So far, so good.
Heath seems optimistic his team will sign a few more players soon to improve his roster. And he sounded downright giddy in describing his team’s performance Saturday as “magnificent.” Both things are encouraging.
Unlike last home opener, Heath wasn’t forced to reflect on blizzard-like conditions, an orange soccer ball and his team’s woeful defense. It was nothing but blue skies and smiles after this one.