That Minnesota took two Ls to start the season should surprise few, though the cumulative 11-2 scoreline, a record-setting start of the wrong variety, has been particularly humbling, if not closer to humiliating. Such is life as an expansion club.
On Sunday, as fellow expansion side Atlanta United FC were putting the finishing touches on a 6-1 thrashing in Minnesota’s home opener, a win that naturally prompted comparisons between the two clubs’ roster-building philosophies, I thought back to a conversation I’d had with head coach Adrian Heath the week before. Minnesota were coming off a 5-1 loss in Portland that looked worse than it was, and Heath was plenty critical – but also hopeful.
One game – and by extension two – doesn’t change the task at hand, he’d said then. There was plenty of work to do in January. There was plenty of work to do after the loss in Portland. There is plenty of work do this week after yet another lopsided scoreline. There will be plenty of work to do every week after that. They might as well get used to it.
And there would be more setbacks, Heath said, plenty of them. Each one requiring a collective response that would define Minnesota United’s first MLS season but also the MLS ethos of the club.
“It’s very hard for people to understand how difficult a process expansion is,” Heath, who nearly led Orlando to the playoffs in their 2015 expansion season, told me. “People have to understand that and then allow you time and realize there are going to be quite a few big bumps in the road that first year.
“You hope in the second year you really make inroads, and by the time you get to your third year you’re hoping that you’ve learned all your lessons, you’ve developed your squad each and now you’ve got a squad of 20-odd players who can not only come in and play but there’s no drop off. For me, it’s having a plan, and sticking to the plan.”
It’s that final piece Heath feels went missing in Orlando, where he was let go halfway through his second season after building the club from the ground up. And it’s patience and stability that he pitched Minnesota United when he interviewed for the job last fall.
Patience may be tough for Loons supporters after their MLS honeymoon lasted barely two weeks, but it’s progress they should focus on in the coming weeks and months. The playoffs may be a step too far – hey, it’s MLS, who knows? – but improvement, marginally or a significant step forward, isn’t too much to ask from their team.
Heath knows it’s his job to deliver that growth – in performance, mentality and, ultimately, results – over the course of this year.
He also knows the job goes beyond the field. As of last week, only a handful of the players Minnesota brought in this season had found a place to live. Most have only known each other and the coaching staff for two months. Some are just weeks (or days) into their MLS careers. Others haven’t yet arrived.
“I know that this squad is nowhere near the finished article yet. We’re still actively looking to bolster the squad in one or two positions," Heath said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m quietly optimistic with this group. I think we’ve got some good players at a good age who can have good seasons for us.
“We’re getting to know them, what their strengths and weaknesses are. This is an ongoing process, day to day and week to week. Regardless of the results, I know that we’re going to be a work in progress for quite some time.”
And so, week to week, Minnesota will put in that work. Some weeks it will show more than others. Some weeks the Loons will take a step back. Some weeks they'll win and feel like they're on top of the world. Others, like these first two weeks, they'll be reeling from a shellacking.
Every day, Heath said, they’ll tackle their respective jobs in the same way.
“I was taught, as a young player, ‘What are you going to do today to make this team better, to make yourself better and to make this club better?’” he told me. “We speak about that. That’s how we all have to think.”
If Minnesota want to avoid more no good, very bad days, it’s the only way to think. It doesn’t get any easier, of course. On Saturday, Minnesota head to Colorado (9 pm ET, MLS LIVE), whose lineup is disrupted by injury but finished second in the Western Conference last year, a place the Loons can only dream about for now.
And while that game requires all of Heath and his players’ focus for the time being, they also know what they do this year is part of a much longer play. What they do now (and how they do it) will shape this club for years to come.
“We’re here to put this club on a firm footing, to build it and to grow it. This isn’t an overnight thing,” Heath said. “We have to look at the long-term picture and the project. The responsibility that I have, along with the other people working at the club now, is that when the day comes when we’re not here people say, 'What a good foundation they laid for the future.'
“We’re trying to do all that now. We’ve got a long way to go, and we know that. But we have an obligation to get it right for the next generation of kids who get brought up in the Twin Cities, to have a club that they’re proud of.”