I went to both the MNUFC and MNUFC2 games this weekend, and I’ve been thinking more about the MNUFC2 game than the first-team game. Part of this is because there’s only so much I can say about the Seattle Sounders, things like “how is it even possible this lineup is salary-cap compliant” and “imho they should just kick the Sounders out of the league and make it better for everyone else.” But also, I’m just fascinated by the brand-new second team, and how it’s a group of players that are trying to win games together, even though individually they might not have the same goals.
First, you’ve got the guys that are Homegrown players, for whom the club is officially invested in their success - attacker Aziel Jackson, left back Devin Padelford, goalkeeper Fred Emmings. For them, playing for the Doubloons is a development stage, and they’re going to be put into situations that maybe they’re not even ready for, in the hopes of helping them learn and grow.
“These guys need games and they need feedback,” said MNUFC2 head coach Cameron Knowles. “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. “
Second, you’ve got a group of guys that might well be good enough to play in MLS, they just need a chance to show off their skills. In the past, these guys might have ended up somewhere in lower-division American soccer, which has often been a dead end in terms of making it to MLS, as Jeff Rueter pointed out in The Athletic ($). These are the guys like Tommy Williamson or Emmanuel Iwe - young players, not Homegrown players or academy products, who the club is working on developing in much the same way as the homegrown talent, but doesn’t have the anchor of that previous investment.
I asked Knowles about playing a similar 4-2-3-1 to the first team, and while he mentioned Padelford in his answer, he could have been speaking about any of the team’s young players.
“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.”
MNUFC2 gives the team an opportunity to go beyond just scouting and squinting to see how a player might potentially fit with the first team. Now, they can just throw him into a real live-action MNUFC simulator.
Third, you’ve got players who are straight from the club’s Youth Development Program - I need to stop saying “academy” - and while we haven’t seen any of them on the field yet, their names are starting to show up on rosters. Anthony Mator; Drew Brown; David Garcia; Johapson Cetina*. These are guys from the U-19 team that, especially as their season progresses, might be ready for an even greater challenge, to see where they’re at and see what they can do.
(* I incorrectly said on Sunday that Cetina was not on a roster. He’s on the roster and listed as a midfielder, but the MLS NEXT PRO website had him as number 25, while my roster has him as number 52.
It’s two weeks in, but I feel like a lot of this sort of thing is going to happen with MLS NEXT PRO.)
I don’t think there’s a club in the world where fans don’t get excited about prospects coming out of the aca- I mean the Youth Development Program. To quote author Simon Kuper, writing about FC Barcelona, just like I did when I wrote about this for Sota Soccer: “The staffers in the ice-rink café care about the under-13s team, because they expect still to be around when the kids are old enough to play on the first team.”
And then finally, you’ve got guys that are first-team players or potential first-team minute, that need to be playing games. Guys like Jacori Hayes, who has two MLS appearances this year, but has now put in 180 minutes for MNUFC2, running the team’s midfield. Or like Niko Hansen, who’s been in the gameday squad for every Loons match this year but has yet to make an appearance. Or like Nabi Kibunguchy or Callum Montgomery, young defenders who have desperately needed a place to just play some games.
Especially with the last two, I think about a guy like Wyatt Omsberg, a draft pick who was on the Loons roster for a couple of years. He made four starts in 2018, then zero in 2019, when United finally started improving its defense. By 2020 he was with Chicago. Now this year, people are talking about him as a potential Best XI player so far for the Fire.
Obviously, Loons fans would have loved if Minnesota had kept him, but where were they going to put him in 2019? Michael Boxall and Ike Opara started 58 of a possible 68 games that season. Brent Kallman started another 14. Omsberg was 23, and it was no shame on anybody’s part that on the depth chart he was behind the MLS Defender of the Year, a New Zealand international, and a 28-year-old veteran. He was too good to go out on loan, but the team was not in a position to let him develop on the first team. Chicago was bad enough he could make a few starts and give him some chances. Now he’s coming into his own.
Maybe that’s the career arc that guys like Montgomery or Kibunguchy are on, too. MNUFC didn’t have a place to put them, last year, other than sending them out to USL teams on loan, and hoping. Now there’s a place. Now there’s a pathway.
My favorite thing about the MNUFC2 game on Sunday, though, was seeing that the game and the team were not an afterthought for the club. The first-team coaches were there. The team’s sporting director was there. And there were so many first-team players there that it felt like a training session. “It’s awesome,” said Padelford. “Having them come here and tell us stuff. Dayne [St. Clair] was just in the locker room, and was giving us pointers. It’s just good that they’re here supporting us.”
It would be easy, for the guys with MNUFC2, to feel like they’re being thrown out of the group. You see it all the time in sports - baseball players getting sent to the minors, hockey players going down to the AHL. When players talk about this, they rarely talk about their careers or their prospects, though those things are obviously on their mind; mostly they seem to worry about losing their friends and colleagues. It’s far more like being sent to a new elementary school, than losing a job.
So just from a pure perspective of human kindness, of the need to belong, my favorite part of Sunday was seeing MNUFC2 players surrounded by teammates that had played the day before. The whole group, together - not the first group, and a second group that’s being cast out. One group, together.
Apart from anything regarding player development, that feels like an awfully good sign for the future of this club.