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MLS returns to a full 34-game schedule in 2021, but it will be anything but normal.

In the name of safety and minimizing travel in a pandemic age, Minnesota United will play 32 of those 34 games against opponents from their own competitive Western Conference.

The Loons will start with the season opener April 16 at Seattle and the home opener against Real Salt Lake at Allianz Field on April 24.

Minnesota United play eight Western teams — including Seattle, Sporting KC, LA Galaxy and expansion Austin FC — three times. The Loons play four teams, including Los Angeles FC and Portland, twice, once home and once away.

"It's a bit of a mixed bag again," Loons coach Adrian Heath said. "We've got only two Eastern Conference teams. When you generally consider how strong the Western Conference is, you would have liked that evened up a bit more."

Their only games against Eastern Conference opponents are Sept. 29 at D.C. United and Oct. 20 at home against Philadelphia. MLS announced its complete schedule last week.

"It leaves things where every game is important," Loons veteran goalkeeper Tyler Miller said. "There's going to be a lot of fluctuation in the Western Conference standings. The Western Conference has always been a difficult place to play. With the travel and the opponents and the quality that the Western Conference has now more so than ever, there will be a lot of teams vying for that top spot.

"I don't think one team is going to run away with it this year. We can't take games or time off no matter who our guys are on the field. We have to approach each game as the most important we have."

Back in training

Defender Callum Montgomery and goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair on Tuesday were the first Loons players to return to training in Florida from their respective Canadian national teams.

Montgomery's U-23 team lost to Mexico in Sunday's CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinal in Guadalajara, Mexico. St. Clair played in World Cup qualifiers for Canada's senior team.

Five other players, including U.S. U-23 national team midfielder Hassani Dotson, are or soon will be returning as well. The Loons play the second of four preseason games — and first against MLS competition — near Orlando on Wednesday against Columbus Crew.

Silver lining

The United States' 2-1 loss to Honduras on Sunday in the Tokyo Olympics qualifying semifinals means the Loons will lose one fewer player to their national team for a chunk of the summer, as the Americans failed to qualify for the third Summer Games in a row.

Dotson proved himself both versatile — just as he has in his first two MLS seasons — and a goal scorer after he scored twice as a second-half sub against the Dominican Republic.

"It's strange," Heath said. "Somebody said people were surprised at his versatility. There's not many heard for two years then what I've been saying about the kid. I spoke about him being arguably one of the best finishers in the club. … He's highly thought of in our group. I know he is with their group there now. He has put himself in a really good spot."