It was always likely to be tough for Minnesota United. While fellow expansion side Atlanta United had broken Major League Soccer spending records, putting together a squad of international pedigree, ahead of their first top flight season, the Loons were comfortable in their more modest identity.
Having conceded 11 goals in their opening two games, though, they may not be so comfortable.
Indeed, Adrian Heath’s side have been served a rather chastising induction to MLS. The opening weekend 5-1 loss to the Portland Timbers was bad enough, but at least that defeat could be mitigated against the difficulty of visiting one of the most intimidating away venues in the North American game. The 6-1 home humiliation against Atlanta was harder to explain.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) March 13, 2017
Minnesota looked vulnerable every time the visitors to TCF Bank Stadium came forward, with Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez cutting through the hosts at will. The duo ended up with five goals between them as the Loons struggled to even get close to Atlanta United’s attackers when they moved into the final third at pace.
Of course, much of this was to be expected. Heath essentially has a NASL-standard squad to choose from, which is something of an issue when playing in MLS. Minnesota United boast quality in certain areas of the pitch having added winger Josh Gatt and defender Francisco Calvo over the winter. But by and large, they are playing in the top flight with a lower tier side.
It’s for this reason that organisation will be so crucial for Minnesota United this season. They always stood little chance of making the play-offs, but to be competitive Heath needed to drill his team, making sure every player knows their role and responsibilities inside out, back to front.
That certainly hasn’t happened in their opening two games.
Some are already raising the possibility that Minnesota could go down as the worst expansion team in MLS history. Going on the evidence of their first two games, the Loons could be set for one of the worst seasons endured by any team, expansion or not, in the league. If they keep conceding at their current rate United will let in 187 goals in just 34 games. Something has to change.
Let's check in on that Minnesota United defense… pic.twitter.com/yolgqXJrru
— ManeLandMichael (@ManeLandMichael) March 12, 2017
And so even at this early stage Minnesota are facing something of a crisis. “The only positive we can take from today is the people who braved the elements to come out,” said Heath after the 6-1 thumping against Atlanta on Sunday, struggling to find a single aspect of his team’s performance to praise.
“The support was incredible. It’s just a pity that we couldn’t give them any type of performance that warranted the support we got today. I apologise for that, because they didn’t deserve that. It goes without saying that we’ve got a lot of hard work out ahead of us.”
Striker Christian Ramirez, one of Minnesota’s star players having scored 51 goals in 90 NASL appearances for the club, highlighted how even the attackers have a role to play in the defensive tightening of the team.
“Back to the drawing board on Monday,” he said.
“It starts from the front. We have to make sure we help the guys behind us. We just have to focus on not giving up five or six, and then we can start tightening up our defensive shape. We’ll be better off.”
There is a possibility, however, that all this tactical talk is secondary. Might it be that Minnesota United simply don’t have the quality on the pitch to compete at MLS level? They will improve as they grow accustomed to the league and the rigours that come with it, but did Heath handicap his side before they’d even kicked a ball by assembling a squad largely devoid of a track record in MLS.
It’s true that Minnesota’s squad is easily the least experienced in the league, with that already counting against them, but Heath will look at that in a different view. He will see a squad full of players who have something to prove, even more so now that they have been written off just two fixtures into their maiden MLS season.
— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) March 13, 2017
Atlanta United have put their team together with a much bigger budget, but the performances of Almiron and Martinez showed Minnesota what they are so desperately lacking. Heath might rightfully prioritise the re-organisation of his defence, but he has very little in the way of star quality at the other end of the pitch too. The former Orlando City boss might already be looking to the summer window to help address that.
Over 35,000 fans turned up at TCF Bank Stadium for Minnesota United’s home opener, despite the game being played in record-low temperatures. That takes perseverance and those fans will have to show more of the same for the rest of the season. It might prove tough to watch.