Minnesota United weren't the worst MLS team of all-time last year, and they weren't even particularly bad by expansion standards. They had moments when they played some damn pretty soccer, proved they have a stud of a striker in Christian Ramirez, and got a sweet revenge-game victory at Atlanta United late in the year.
But while they surpassed preseason expectations, and you could plausibly argue "hey, they weren't bad!", they sure, sure weren't good. And it was particularly noticeable at the back, where the Loons conceded an MLS record 70 goals, allowing them early and often:
20 days to the @MLS season.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) February 11, 2018
Minnesota United conceded 20 goals in its first five games last season, six more goals than any team had ever conceded in the first five games of an MLS season. pic.twitter.com/hy8fmsIxXT
As you can see, they were particularly horrible early in the season, and the silver lining is that they went from shipping four goals per game over the first five to 1.72 goals per game over the final 29. That is real, measurable improvement.
The problem is that 1.72 goals per game is still too many. Give up goals at that clip and you'll concede more than 58 over the course of a 34-game season, and in modern MLS history only one playoff team – last year's Quakes – has ever given up more than that.
In other words: If you can't defend, you won't play into November.
That brings me to how the Loons have (not) used their Designated Player (DP) roster slots thus far. It seems pretty obvious that they won't be one of the bigger-spending teams in the league in 2018, but in terms of long-term strategy that actually has some merit.
On a team loaded with DPs, Ramirez probably wouldn't have gotten enough playing time to show he's a top-class finisher in MLS, and many front offices would've recruited over players like Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay. Last year's No. 1 SuperDraft pick, Abu Danladi, wouldn't have gotten 1400 minutes to show he can be a consistent threat (8 goals / 3 assists in that time is a good haul).
What's apparent is that MNUFC don't particularly need to buy DPs to create a functional attack. That doesn't mean they shouldn't – Nicolas Benedetti would be a hell of an investment, and one I'd applaud. But it's not strictly necessary.
What is necessary is to figure out how to upgrade the defense. That might mean an immediate starting job for first-round pick Wyatt Omsberg (who fits a huge need at center back in terms of size and athleticism), or it might mean keeping veteran d-mid Sam Cronin healthy for a larger chunk of the year, or it might mean simply playing with a better structure. The Loons were often too stretched and too slow to get pressure to the ball in midfield, and when that happens your defense has a habit of looking... porous.
They need to remedy this more than they need a DP, be it in attack, midfield or along the backline. If MNUFC want to avoid another catastrophic defensive performance in 2018, it starts with organization.