BLAINE - Adrian Heath couldn’t resist the chance to crack a joke as Minnesota United finished its second practice of the season on Tuesday.
“So far we’re undefeated,” Heath quipped.
Heath was smiling and jovial addressing local reporters for the first time as the Loons get ready to embark on a new season. He has every reason to be, coming off leading Minnesota United to the finals of the U.S. Open Cup, and the franchise earning its first Major League Soccer home playoff game last year.
It didn’t result in a win, but management saw enough to give him a contract extension through potentially the 2022 season. With the extension also comes more say in player personnel decisions.
“It goes to show that we’ve improved every year, which I said let’s see where we are at the end of the third year. We made significant progress from where we were, the secret is now can we keep pushing that on?” Heath said. “Going a bit farther in the playoffs was probably the only disappointment, because if I have one lingering disappointment from last year, it was the fact that we lost to the Galaxy and I thought we were better than the Galaxy. But I’m pleased with the group that we’ve got, I’m pleased with what we’re hoping to do in the next week or so.”
That 2-1 loss to the L.A. Galaxy in the MLS Playoffs was just the second home loss all year for the Loons. They finished 2019 earning points in 16 of their 18 matches at Allianz Field.
Heath emphasized a three-year plan to improving the Loons, and the numbers speak for themselves. In 2017, they finished 10-18-6 for 36 points. Two seasons ago, 11-20-3 for 36 points before last year’s breakthrough at 15-11-8, 53 points.
Jan Gregus, who led the Loons’ midfield with a team-high 12 assists and one goal last season, wanting nothing more than to have Heath manning the sidelines long-term for the Loons.
“To be honest, nobody deserves it more than him because of the work he put in and the team he created with all the new players. He completely deserves it and I’m happy for him,” Gregus said.
The Loons finished last season with 53 points and tied for fourth in the Western Conference, good enough to let the “Wonderwall” at Allianz Field experience playoff soccer. While they’re only about a week's worth of training in, there’s already been plenty of talk about raising the expectation for the 2020 season.
Gregus is one of a few veteran Minnesota United players who have talked to the rest of the team about what they want to accomplish in 2020.
“The expectations must be higher. Like we said to each other last year, we wanted to go to the playoffs and that’s what we did. So why not go even higher and let’s see what we hit? That’s our main goal, to be even better than last season and win something,” Gregus said.
If they’re going to continue on the upward trajectory, they’ll do it with newer and younger faces. Two of their top players in 2019, Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra, are gone. Also gone is keeper Vito Mannone. Angelo Rodriguez, who had five goals and two assists last season but is in his early 30s, is no longer with Minnesota United after the team bought out his contract on Friday.
In are keeper Tyler Miller, midfielder James Musa and midfielder Jacori Hayes, newly acquired in a trade from FC Dallas. The Loons have also brough in speedy defender Noah Billingsley. Heath said they’re not done adding players, at least not yet. He’s hoping to add two, maybe even three more players by early next week.
The Loons do have three of their top five scorers from last year back in Ethan Finlay, Mason Toye and Hasanni Dotson. The overwhelming theme during Week 1 is that after making the playoffs last year, it’s time to take another step.They want hardware this year, after earning a home playoff game and getting to the Open Cup finals. It won’t be easy, they hit the road for three preseason games in mid-February before opening the season at the Portland Timbers, a playoff team last year.
Including the preseason, Minnesota United has five straight road matches before hosting the New York Red Bulls on March 15 for the home opener at Allianz Fied. Until then, the focus is on finding the right mix of young players and veterans to take the next step. One thing is certain, Heath wants his team to be younger and more athletic.
The pace at practice during live situations Tuesday was fast and furious.
“The group knows more what’s expected of them. There’s a real determination, we had a little chat yesterday about expectations for the year. The experienced members of the group, they let people know what they think as well. We’re all excited,” Heath said.