No North American Soccer League team scored more goals or won more games than Minnesota United FC last season. Those accolades made the Loons' abrupt playoff exit all the more stunning.
With every starter except goalkeeper back this season, plus some noteworthy additions, Minnesota coaches and players are determined to finish the job. Repeating as spring season and overall regular-season champion isn't good enough.
The stakes are high. More public attention will be on the club, which recently received a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.
"One hundred percent this year, the vision for the club is to win championships," said United coach Manny Lagos, whose top-seeded team was ousted in a semifinal loss at home in November.
"As good as last year was, there are a lot of things to improve on. We won a few trophies, but we didn't win the championship."
A new journey begins at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Tampa Bay. United FC finished an active offseason of training with a 3-2 victory earlier this week at Orlando City of Major League Soccer. The Loons also trained in Arizona and Brazil, the latter home to seven team members.
While continuity rules — Minnesota returns 12 of the 14 players who saw action in the playoff finale — talented newcomers such as midfielders Ibson and Jonny Steele used the preseason to find their place.
"It's a good bunch of guys driven to win a championship," said Steele, who played a portion of the past three seasons with two MLS clubs. "Our mind-set is to win every game."
While the pugnacious Steele brings new energy, United's talented veteran trio of NASL most valuable player Miguel Ibarra, Christian Ramirez and Daniel Mendes will again be expected to spearhead the attack. Minnesota led the league in regular-season scoring with 47 goals. Ibarra, Ramirez and Mendes combined for 37 goals, equal to or more than five teams.
Ibarra's profile blossomed in the wake of multiple call-ups to the U.S. men's national team. Those sessions helped Ibarra, a tireless competitor, refine his game.
"Some weaknesses I had, I've improved on a lot," Ibarra said. "I'm more focused on defense, my positioning, and striking the ball with my right and left foot."
Ramirez, a three-time player of the month recipient who won the league's Golden Boot (top scorer) award with 20 goals as a rookie, also labored in the offseason to improve. He ate better, lost 8 pounds and sharpened his footwork.
"I starting hitting the weight room to make sure I was more explosive this year," Ramirez said. "I wanted to make sure my first step was going to be there because I feel I lost that toward the end of the season. It was my first real, nine-month season so I knew I needed to better prepare my body for that."
Fellow striker Pablo Campos returns to full-time duty this spring after a knee injury wiped out most of the 2014 season. Campos, a former league MVP, showed his touch with a goal in the overtime shootout in the playoff loss to Fort Lauderdale. He scored on a penalty kick earlier this week against Orlando City SC as well.
Minnesota's defense, which allowed the third-fewest goals (28) last season, remains intact. Veteran central defenders Tiago Calvano and Cristiano Dias are bookended by up-and-coming playmakers Kevin Venegas and Justin Davis.
The primary concern is in goal. The Loons parted ways with Matt VanOekel and brought in keeper Sammy Ndjock, a member of the Cameroon national team. If Ndjock falters, Minnesota can turn to Mitch Hildebrandt. He made eight starts in 2014, posting two shutouts and appearing once on the NASL team of the week.
The club's success last season, Ramirez said, had as much to do with intangibles as talent. He is hoping the players will jell in similar fashion and find the postseason success that proved elusive.
"We all trusted each other and had confidence in what each other brought to the field," Ramirez said. "Our goal in the end is trophies."