MLS Closeup: Loons' hopes of strong finish boosted

Surprises are the norm in MLS but very, very few people would have predicted that in late September, expansion newcomer Minnesota United would have just one fewer victory than defending Western Conference champion FC Dallas.

True, FCD (9-8-11) is mired in a nine-game winless run as it prepares to face the Loons (8-15-5), which have labored through some bad times but rose up last weekend to stun Montreal, 3-2, at Stade Saputo. Given that the Impact turned around and dealt Toronto FC its first home defeat of the season Wednesday, 5-3, there’s cause for optimism that MNUFC can extend FCD’s run of frustration back home at TFC Bank Stadium. The Loons are in form, visitor FC Dallas is not.

“I’m expecting to see one of the best teams in the league, which is what they are,” said MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath. “They’ve had a little blip, and they’re probably a little bit concerned. But I know that we’re going to have to play well to beat them.”

While the comeback in Montreal stirred up the spirits of players and fans alike, Heath lamented yet another slow start that necessitated a rally in the first place. The Loons have conceded a goal in the first 10 minutes of their last three games and got a break when keeper Bobby Shuttleworth turned aside a penalty kick by Ingacio Piatti with the score 1-0.

“You know, we can’t have emphasized this enough,” said Heath. “We’ve shown them video of their starting badly, turning the ball over cheaply in dangerous areas. Last weekend, we managed to get out of jail. Had Piatti scored the penalty, that game probably would have been done and over. We’ve got to get that out of our mindset because we’ve got to start the games quicker, and realize that the game starts at minute one, not minute 15 or whatever.”

A fast start at home against a struggling team makes sense, though FCD is not your typical occupier of eighth place. It patched up a leaky defense sufficiently to shut out Seattle last week, its first clean sheet since late May, though it also failed to score. FCD is edging into desperation mode with a playoff spot just out of reach and that anxiety could play to the Loons’ favor if they can contain the FCD attack.

“I’ve got enormous respect for Oscar Pareja and his coaching staff,” said Heath. “I think they do everything right, play football the way it should be. They've got pace in the right areas. Maybe their confidence is a little bit down at this moment in time, but I’m aware that if we don’t play well, we’ll find it very, very difficult on Saturday.”

The Loons rallied with a penalty kick by Kevin Molino, Christian Ramirez’s team-leading 12th goal of the season, and a spectacular winner into the top corner by rookie Abu Danladi. After the FC Dallas game, the Loons have just one more home match to close out their inaugural season in MLS. They also haven’t won at home since late July and aren’t all that proud of a 6-6-3 home mark.

“The group is tighter now than it’s probably been at any stage,” said Heath. “We’ve all gotten to know each other that much better, and I just think it was always going to be a time thing. I feel as though if we were starting from the season from where we are now, we’d be in a completely different position in this league. But that’s the way it is, you know: we can’t go back.

“But we’ve got a big game for us at the weekend — we haven’t had back-to-back wins all season.”

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