Other than just a cursory glance at the standings, here’s one very easy way to prove Minnesota United FC isn’t the worst team in Major League Soccer anymore: The Loons no longer have the most stark goal differential in the league.
Even after conceding 18 goals in their first four matches, United is at minus-11, a goal better than Real Salt Lake. United still has the most goals allowed — 28 in 11 matches. But while the Loons started from the bottom, their progress has been very noticeable.
And thanks to national TV broadcasts — such as Sunday’s game on ESPN, as United takes on the Los Angeles Galaxy (3-5-2) at TCF Bank Stadium — the broader public is realizing, too, that United (3-6-2) isn’t quite the joke of MLS any more.
“If they’re being realistic and they’re being honest, that’s all they can say because there has been a vast improvement in our performances,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “We don’t have to say it to everybody. It’s been there for everybody to see. From my point of view last week, given the really nice words that [Toronto FC coach] Greg Vanney and [ Toronto captain] Michael Bradley said after the game, it shows how far we’ve come. People are respecting what we’re trying to do. They can see that this group is better than a lot of people thought.”
United came out of Toronto, the best team in the league, a week ago with a close 3-2 loss after battling back twice. And in the match the week before, United beat Western Conference leader Sporting Kansas City 2-0 in a nationally televised game, the first since the 5-1 drubbing at Portland and 6-1 beating from fellow expansion side Atlanta to start the season.
“When teams hit adversity, they find themselves, and that’s what Minnesota has done,” LA coach Curt Onalfo said. “An expansion team, it’s hard to start from scratch there in a cold-weather climate, and they’re out in preseason, they’re not around, and it takes time to jell. And they’ve done a very good job over the last month or so of getting the team in order and starting to get results.”
Heath said it has been a gradual progression for United now about a third of the way through the season, with a lot of mixing and matching to find the right lineup as well as targeted work on defense to stop the flood of goals. And now, United finds itself solidly in the middle of the pack in the league. The Loons are tied with the Galaxy at 11 points, each only two points from playoff contention. Atlanta, meanwhile, heralded as being much more prepared than United heading into this season, had 12 points entering this week.
That last fact is a bit of a point of pride for United after all the preseason comparisons.
“I laughed with Miguel [Ibarra] about that. He didn’t believe me [that Atlanta has just one more point than United],” forward Christian Ramirez said. “We’re in the same position. So that’s just how this league works, apparently. When they’re saying they’re the greatest expansion franchise, and we’re right next to them. So I mean, it’s OK to look at that and not be too in awe.”
Ramirez said what has helped United turn its season around is just realizing the Loons belong in the top division and can play at that level without intimidation.
“We work so hard to make the little things right, and I think we took a lot of pride in that,” he said. “And I know I personally took a lot of pride in making sure we changed how Minnesota United was viewed nationally because of the winning culture that I felt we built here.
“We didn’t want to become the laughingstock of the United States.”