In any sport, and any career for that matter, good teachers and coaches are among the most valuable assets an organization can have on hand. Whether you’re working with youth or adults, the importance of proper training and leadership is paramount in the pursuit of excellence, and a little bit of clarity and stability in that leadership goes a long way in making your plans work. When it’s time for a changing of the guard, though, stability is often a luxury you can’t afford, unless you’ve got tremendous leaders waiting in the wings.

During the last six months, Minnesota United has seen unprecedented change in its sporting operations. Four different coaches have managed the first team, including two permanent head coaches and two interim. The entire assistant coaching staff has turned over as well following Adrian Heath’s departure, leaving the club with plenty of shoes to fill and not much time to fill them.

From the outside looking in, the situation likely seemed dire, but behind the scenes, MNUFC didn’t miss a beat. From the Academy to MNUFC2, a collection of quality people took it upon themselves to guide the club through this period of change, and after a stellar start to the 2024 season under such unique circumstances, it seems only right that these talented coaches get their flowers.


Next Man Up

Anyone who has followed the team during this period knows that Cameron Knowles was at the helm for the first team as they navigated both their preseason preparations and the first few MLS matches of 2024. Prior to taking on his interim role, Knowles was the head coach of MNUFC2, leading the Twos through their first two seasons of MLS NEXT Pro action. When he was called upon to take on a first-team role, the first domino in a bigger series was felled, and he wouldn’t be the last coach taking on a bigger role.

To round out the first-team coaching staff, the club continued to tap into their existing coaching pool. Academy Goalkeeper Coach Cristiano Costa was tasked with getting Dayne St. Clair, Clint Irwin, Alec Smir, and Fred Emmings ready for the season ahead, while U19 Head Coach Fanendo Adi and MNUFC2 Assistant Coach Jeremy Hall stepped in to provide Knowles with valuable assistance throughout preseason and thensome. 

As these coaches stepped up, others needed to fill in the spaces they left more or less vacant. The academy teams were still playing, and the second team would be starting before too long. So, U17 Head Coach Justin Ferguson and U19 Assistant Coach Alex Morawiecki took on second-team responsibilities, with help from Vice President of Youth Development Amos Magee.

In short, coaching roles have been more fluid the last few months as the club seeks to integrate new ideas and new personnel. And while all of this movement introduced challenges, this period of change has brought to light an important aspect of the development pathway: it’s for more than just the players.

Alex, Jeremy

A Pathway for People: Hear from the Coaches

Alex Morawiecki

For U19 Assistant Coach Alex Morawiecki, it’s been a whirlwind start to life as a Loon since joining in February 2023. He got almost a year under his belt with the U19s before being called into further action, but despite being relatively new, he handled the abrupt changes well. 

“It all happened very quickly, with Cam assuming the first team responsibilities, then Adi going up and Jeremy going with them,” Morawiecki said. “When Adi left to go to the first team, I took on the role of head coach for the U19s, and then it was kind of a collective effort for the second-team preseason. So while those guys were away, in Tucson, Justin (Ferguson) and I and a whole slew of coaches took on the second-team role. So since then, I've been assisting the second team as well.”

Since stepping up, Morawiecki has noticed subtle differences between coaching the academy and the second-team players. Soccer doesn’t change, but motivation and relationships certainly shift in the professional world.

“The game is the same; all that changes is that players start getting paid,” he said. “You're learning a whole new skill set of managing personalities, and everybody's a little bit different. Different countries, nationalities, speaking different languages. I've learned a ton in the last eight weeks. It’s different from coaching the academy kids, but at the same time, the concepts we work on every day in training don't change whether you're here or with the U17s or U19s.” 

All in all, it’s been a growing experience for him, and a rewarding one at that. With a slew of U19 players earning opportunities to play with MNUFC2, it’s been a natural fit to have one of their usual coaches as one of the guiding voices at training and on gameday. One has only to look at the U.S. Open Cup matches to see just how many opportunities have come through for academy players and their coaches already this season.


Cristiano Costa

Since joining the club in 2022, Goalkeeper Coach Cristiano Costa has been shaping the goalkeeping corps of the future for MNUFC. His coaching experience in college and club soccer and years of playing the position himself have given him the tools to coach at the highest level, and he was excited for the chance when it came around. 

“It's been an incredible experience,” Costa said. “When people ask me about it, the first thing I say is that I am very grateful and blessed for this opportunity, for the trust from the club to have me train professional players, and I’m enjoying every moment with the guys on a daily basis as well. I’m trying to push them and develop them, and the goal for us is to make sure that we use this opportunity to be intentional with what we do and be an asset for the team however we can. I’ve never had the chance to work in a professional environment like MLS. It’s definitely a step up, and like I said, these guys are great.”

Though he’s been around the game for most of his life and with the club for several years, the jump to the first team has been quite an adjustment for Costa. Fortunately, his kind demeanor and commitment to working hard have made him a natural fit, forming a real connection with the professionals. 

“Coming from the academy, you don't necessarily know what to expect, to be honest,” he said. “But I think they've been very settled with me since day one. We work hard, but you have moments that we have fun, and we are getting to know each other and the backgrounds we each come from. I think that helps with the trust that we're developing throughout the season.”

Even as he’s developed strong ties to the first team, Costa has maintained his relationship with the academy keepers. Much like Morawiecki with the second team, Costa has used his own opportunity to give the young guys a chance to see what it’s like at the next level. 

“I don't want to forget about them, and now that I'm in a position where I can help guide them better, I’m doing my best to provide opportunities to train with the second and first team,” he said. “We brought a handful of academy goalkeepers to preseason, and that was the first time that I had academy kids training with the first team. I think that was very good because it shows that as long as they're developing, they have a path to go through.”


Justin Ferguson

For the academy coaches, stepping into other roles is nothing new. U17 Head Coach Justin Ferguson has been with the club since 2021, helping the academy grow through its early years and assuming various responsibilities during his time with the club. He shared his experience this season, highlighting the importance of the pathway. 

“In the academy space, especially, we've all been trying to fill gaps and roles and do more because we think it's an important part of the club,” Ferguson said. “We've always been in a position where everyone's been really willing to help each other and work together. I think the piece that's new is that we're trying to integrate that from top to bottom. That means the pathway is more real than it's ever been, and it's important that coaches go in between roles and work together as a team to develop players and help them transition into the next space. My role has been to help that vertical integration, leading coaches and leading players up and down that pathway as they experience something for the first time or go through a step up, helping them find their feet and then hopefully finding success after that.”

And while the pathway has grown noticeably this season, it’s been there all along, to Ferguson’s point. In just three years with the club, he’s become living proof that, with dedication and patience, the pathway works as designed. But he wasn’t the first to prove the concept. 

“I think the pathway is for all the positions,” he said. “Kayce (Godwin) is a great example of that. The first team head athletic trainer started with the academy here, and I don't think people know or recognize that story. She's really the first homegrown, in my opinion, because she's the first one to have gone from an entry-level position all the way up in her area, and there will be more to follow. I hope that people view the club as a place where they can come and progress in their own careers. Some people will wait a long time, some people will get an opportunity immediately, but the hope is that people can grow in their professional careers within the club. I started here as a youth development coach, and now I'm the U17 head coach, moving into the second team space.”

During this hectic start to 2024, Ferguson and his fellow academy coaches have really kept the club going. Between the leaders that have received recognition by name and the ones that have worked behind the scenes, there are plenty of people that deserve praise for their performance in this period of transition for Minnesota United. 

“In times of change, you need everybody to come together,” Ferguson said. “And I think as people have come together and pointed one another in the directions that they’re needed, people have really picked up the slack. I think sometimes the mistake that we make is we highlight one person in a sporting system, while really, it needs to be everybody working together in the sporting system. Oftentimes, when any one person gets credit, we're missing out on the three, four people supporting them. I think it's really important at this time that we recognize all those people, because it hasn't been just one person doing everything. It's been everybody doing a lot of different things that have come together to fill in the gaps.”

As permanent hires continue to be added to the staff, those that stepped up will be able to return to their individual roles, but it’s clear that things will be different for the club, and the professionals developing within it, after such commendable performances. The efforts and actions of each one of these coaches have proven invaluable to the club as a whole, and the extension of the development pathway has once again been proven to be the key to building a better Minnesota United in the years to come.