After 2017, the Loons pretty much have nowhere to go but up. Here are three keys to climbing in the standings in 2018:

1. Stiffer backline: United ended last season with a fairly forgettable 10-18-6 record and set an MLS record for most goals allowed in a season at 70. Yeah, yeah, Colorado conceded 69 in two fewer games in 1998, but still. To reach their goal of a playoff berth, the Loons have to tighten up their defense. In preseason games, the backline of Tyrone Mears, Michael Boxall, Francisco Calvo and Jerome Thiesson amassed a lot of playing time together. Mix in last year’s starting goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, as well as Ibson and newly returned Rasmus Schuller in the midfield, and the experience alone should improve the defense.

2. Stars take the lead: Of the 22 MLS teams last season, United finished 16th in goals with 47. Finishing was a bit of a problem, as numerous scoring chances went everywhere but the back of the net. So goal scorers will need to up their production. Kevin Molino said he’s aiming for double digits in goals and assists, a bar coach Adrian Heath set for him last season when the playmaker managed only seven goals and nine assists. Striker Christian Ramirez led the team with 14 scores, even while missing four games because of injury. He hoping for 16 to 18 goals this season.

3. Starting better: The Loons went a respectable 4-4-2 in their last 10 games with opponents outscoring them only 19-17 — an improvement from their first 10 games, where they went 3-5-2 and were outscored by a combined 25-15. United’s main message this offseason was about building on the team’s core, including last-year starters Shuttleworth, Calvo, Molino and Ramirez. That’s a big difference from last year’s rushed assembly of players. Continued development from last season is imperative.

Megan Ryan