Barely 14 hours after leaving Allianz Field, I was back on Sunday afternoon, to see the dawn of the MNUFC2 era, and the first MLS NEXT PRO game for the Doubloons. Of course, I wanted to see any number of Loons players, but mostly I was there for one thing: to find out what these games were going to feel like.
Ultimately, the vibe was pretty much exactly what I expected: an early-season Minnesota Thunder game, crossed with a Triple-A baseball game.
I’ve repeatedly fallen back on that Triple-A metaphor to try to explain MLS NEXT PRO, and that matched up pretty well with reality. The MNUFC lineup had first-team guys that just needed to stay sharp and get some playing time. It had teenaged prospects who need to play at a higher level to continue to develop. It had young guys outside the first team that are hoping to impress someone and get a chance to play more at a higher level. It was Triple-A, down to the ground.
Maybe the biggest difference, though, was that this second team wasn’t toiling away in semi-obscurity. They were playing in the same stadium as the first team, and with the eyes of the club squarely on them. The first-team coaching staff was there, much of the front office was in attendance - even a dozen or so MNUFC players showed up at Allianz Field, some of whom took the chance to sit in the stands and spend their time heckling the referees.
“I think it’s great,” said MNUFC2 head coach Cameron Knowles. “To have guys come out to see their teammates and guys from within the club play, I think that’s important. You’ve got the full first-team staff out here, you’ve got lot of people from the front office here. I think that’s what makes a club. That’s why we have the second team, to connect to the academy, for everyone to come out and be a part of it and take ownership over its success.”
What they saw, unfortunately, was a second loss in two days for the club. MNUFC2 gave up a second-minute goal to Collin Fernandez, then a 63rd-minute score from Matteo Bunbury (younger brother of MLS veteran Teal, and a Minnesotan, making good on his homecoming), and lost 2-0 to Sporting KC II.
Said Knowles, “We talked in this game about coming out and being more aggressive and starting on the front foot, and being a bit more difficult to break down, and we didn’t do that, not until the second half. And then already you’re chasing it, so that’s the difficulty with this one. Between the two halves, second half we were the much better team, and then you concede the second goal, that’s always going to make it tough.”
As you might have expected, the standout Loons were the first-teamers. Jacori Hayes put in a 90-minute shift as a defensive midfielder, Niko Hansen had a couple of really good chances from right wing and rattled the woodwork in the first half, and Justin McMaster looked pretty good playing as a central attacking midfielder, and almost made it two goals from two games in the second half.
As for the young homegrown players: Aziel Jackson came in at halftime and created some chances after sliding into that number 10 role (somehow, doing so while appearing to play with a paper towel in his mouth.)
Fred Emmings made a couple of good saves in goal - one in the first minute, where he had to claw away a close-range shot that practically landed on top of him after a dive, and one in the second half, when he made an excellent reaction save on a deflection. He also had some learning moments, like the second SKC II goal, when he came a long way out to challenge a contested shot, allowing Bunbury to roll the ball underneath him for a much easier goal.
Devin Padelford, the team’s newest homegrown signing, looked like he fit in pretty well at left back, despite just having come up from the team’s academy. Like Emmings, he had good moments and bad moments, but for someone at the place he’s at in his career, just looking like he belonged is an accomplishment.
He also gave the best fullback quote of all time, saying, “It’s not necessarily always how you’re playing with the ball at your feet, it’s if you’re willing to do the dirty work and being able to run for 90 minutes. If I’m able to do that, good things come when you’re running all over the place.”
Knowles acknowledged that, for the young players, these games will always be a learning experience. “These guys need games and they need feedback,” he said. “We’ll sit down and talk with them during the week about what went well and what didn’t, and how they can solve problems on the field. They’ve come through and been good at the academy level, now they have to get up to speed at this level and push on to the next level, and that’s our job to keep them moving forward.”
Sunday, though, felt less about the result, and more about the start of something for MNUFC.
- Striker Tani Oluwaseyi and defender Callum Montgomery, both of whom started in week one against North Texas, were held out of the game with minor injuries.
- The Loons played almost entirely out of the same 4-2-3-1 that the senior team plays. “We have to have a structure that makes sense, so that a player like Devin is getting evaluated so that he they can see if he can do that job with the first team, and that it’s not a completely different position or tasks that you’re asking of him,” said Knowles.
- Three players from the MNUFC youth development program made the bench - defender Anthony Mator and defender Drew Brown, as well as Johapson Cetina, who I cannot find a position for.
- That’s according to the official MLS NEXT PRO box score, which also had Joseph Rosales on the bench, and he played 45 minutes the previous evening against Seattle. That can’t be right, can it?
- The official attendance for the game was 461. It also snowed off and on throughout the game. A hearty kudos to each and every one of those 461 people, some of whom weren’t even related to Padelford, Emmings, or Emmanuel Iwe.