It’s not entirely clear who originally said, “Championships are won in the offseason.” Like most effective shorthands, it might oversell itself a bit, but there’s little doubt that teams who start the season on the wrong foot rarely end it on the right one. While preseason results mean little in and of themselves, it’s the time when the foundation is laid by a team, when players assert themselves as leaders or fall into line as followers. It’s when everyone learns who sets the tone and how and so far, Head Coach Adrian Heath has liked the focus and intensity he’s seen from Minnesota United.
“For me, that's been the one constant from the day we got into camp: the attitude of the players and the collective togetherness, the willingness to drive each other on in training,” he said via phone from the team’s training camp in sunny Melbourne, Florida. “We’re working really, really hard, two and three sessions a day, and there's been not one dissenting voice. Everybody's got on with it.”
Towards the end of the season last year, the veterans on the team to a man cited the tone set in preseason as the first sign they saw that the team had the potential to really compete. The key this year is not merely replicating the scrappiness that had the Loons knocking on the door of second place in the Western Conference, but getting better at the things that saw Minnesota score just 10 goals in its final 10 games.
“Last year was good. We know that,” said Heath. “We went to the Open Cup Final, ended up in the playoffs. We could have finished second in the West, in a really competitive West. But for us to do better than that this year, it's going to take an incredible effort. We’ve got to hold each other accountable every single day, every single training session.”
While it’s fair to expect a certain stolid resoluteness from returning players like Ike Opara and Osvaldo Alonso, there are players — new and returning alike — from whom new and better things can be forecast. Although he sneaked into the fringes of the conversation around year-end awards last season, Jan Gregus flew just a bit under the radar overall. The midfielder arrived as the team’s third Designated Player, and while he didn’t struggle to begin the season, he didn’t exactly put his stamp on games right away. But come the end of the season, he was the team leader in assists (12) and had grown into a serious threat on set pieces. Can Heath reasonably expect even more from Gregus?
“I am and more of a leadership role as well,” he said. “He's popular with the guys. He's a fantastic trainer and won't accept anybody who doesn't put a full 100 percent into training and we expect big things of Jan. I know from listening and talking to people around the league what other people's opinions of Jan is and I think if you ask our players what their opinion of Jan is, It would be a glowing recommendation.”
Robin Lod came in midway through the season, just a few weeks removed from the end of his last team’s season and a few weeks before his wife gave birth to their first child. Lod would be the first to admit match fitness came slowly and he wasn’t happy with his production last season. But he’s begun the preseason hot, scoring and assisting in two games so far in which the Loons are undefeated. Again, results in preseason mean little, but once again, Heath is adamant that his peers know what he’s capable of.
“You’d only have to ask any of the players here about Robin’s quality,” said Heath. “He's going he's going to go to the Euros — he's one of the best players in Finland’s history, who've had some really good players, by the way. First name on the Finland team sheet, so we know about his quality. I expect big things from him. Quality player, great in the locker room, great teammate.”
Newcomer Luis Amarilla joins the team this week and the forward presents new dimensions of attack the Loons haven’t had previously. Instead of specializing in pace or hold-up play or poaching, the 24-year-old Paraguayan brings a bit of everything to the table in the attack with room to grow.
“He’s a strange kid because he does a bit of everything,” said Heath. “He's really, really good linking up with players, he’s really good at running away from the ball, he’s really good at being a continuity player. He's got great movement in the box. And the other thing about Luis, If you have a look at his goals, he scores all types of goals — overhead kicks, dribbling past two or three, tap-ins from 3 yards, great headers, always on the move, always in between, always off the back shoulder.”
Just about every coach seems to say they want to play “attacking-minded” soccer, but last season, Heath had to lean into an approach that ran counter to some deeply ingrained instincts as a striker. The Loons’ strength last season resided in the staunch defending of the backline and the midfielders in front of it while the offense found itself creating opportunities it just couldn’t finish. Time will tell if the combination of additions and evolutions can build on last season’s successes without disrupting the foundation already laid but for now, Adrian Heath feels pretty good, and not just because of the Florida sunshine.