This past Sunday, MNUFC2 hosted its first-ever home match, falling to Sporting Kansas City II by a score of 2-0 in an exciting, albeit snowy, contest at Allianz Field. Before the game, I had an opportunity to catch up with Head Coach Cameron Knowles. We spoke about recruiting players and preparing for the season, the relationship between MNUFC’s first team and MNUFC2, expectations for the season and more.
| How has it been preparing for the new league, and what has the preparation looked like?
Coach Cameron: It's been a bit of everything. It's obviously exciting that we've got a new team and a new league, and new players and new staff coming into the club. With that, there's a lot of moving pieces. At times, it's been chaotic. But it's been good. [We’ve been working] to get a group of guys together, to slowly add more players to the player pool, to add staff. When we look at where we are today versus a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, it feels like we've come so far already. But we know we still have a long way to go.
| Obviously there are still some moving pieces, and we'll get to building out the roster in a moment, but when you wake up in the morning, what does your to-do list look like?
Coach Cameron: It looks like all the things I was supposed to do yesterday. When we talk about building the roster, we've got to think about a lot of things. We've got to think about which players from the first team—contracted players that haven't gotten minutes—are going to need time? And how do we make sure that the players we sign don't necessarily block that pathway. We've got to make sure that there's a pathway for some of the Academy players that might be coming through as well. We want to make sure we don't block that pathway. So it's trying to piece it all together.
So from these three buckets of players, we have what looks like a roster while knowing that some weeks we might not have any Academy players. Some weeks, we might only have one or two first team players. Some weeks, we might have seven or eight, and just being prepared to absorb that flexibility with the core group of players that we have.
| How many players are currently contracted to MNUFC2?
Coach Cameron: I think we have eight players that we have under contract to the second team right now. We'll probably add a few more to that before all is said and done, and then we'll probably just wait and see how things shape up before we add. The key thing that we've talked about a lot with the player recruitment team here—general manager, first team, staff—is we just want to be intentional about how we add those players. We don't want to just say, “Right, here's a squad. Let's go and play some games and see what it looks like.” We want to think through each of these moves and make sure we're creating opportunities for all the people that we need to, all the players that we need to.
| What has signing players and recruiting players looked like? Has it been looking more locally and looking at our Academy teams? Has it been looking across the country, tryouts etc?
Coach Cameron: A bit of everything. We had an open tryout here [in Minnesota] at the beginning of the year. We had players from other countries, a lot of local kids, players from out of state. We signed one player from that open trial, and we had another one in with us for preseason from the open tryout.
I think it's great when you can have players from the Academy or local players. We need to also have local players they feel more ownership over [the team]. It’s always just gonna mean more to them, and we need to represent the community that we operate in. So we'll always always consider local players.
| With a brand-new league, how challenging has it been to recruit top talent?
Coach Cameron: It's been really difficult, because this year, with 20 new teams and a brand-new league, there's a lot of competition for players. Some guys get signed to their first contract, sometimes some guys there might get offered contracts with their MLS pro teams. And everyone's going through that same cycle, then you've got this pool of undrafted players that everyone's trying to get their hands on to try and bring them into preseason to see if they can have a look at those.
We've had probably 15 or more different players in for large chunks of time of a preseason. Some of those guys that have just finished college, some of those that have a desire to leave college and play professionally. Some of those are foreign players that try and come in, but most of them are older than that sort of 18 to 23 kind of age bracket. But there's a lot of different places we have to look in terms of trying to find players, and especially this year because everyone's competing
| For the players that have been signed and other folks you're hoping to recruit in the coming weeks and months out, what have been the key points of emphasis in training camp?
Coach Cameron: Half of it is trying to get the guys familiar with each other and them understanding my expectations for the team, and me understanding them as players. We've had players coming in and going in terms of trials, so it's been not the most stable environment really, in terms of training. And so we've really just been focusing on the mentality of the players, the opportunity that's in front of them to get games, and how big that opportunity is for them.
In the past, they would have had to go on loan, they might have been away for a season, they might have been away for four weeks, they might have gotten two games, they might have gotten 10. Now, we've got the opportunity. We've got 24 regular season games in front of us; we get to play half of those at home here, which means more opportunity to be seen by important decision makers in the club. So, I think that's [what we’re] trying to instill in them, because the concept of this team is new to most of those players. They've not been in an environment with a second team and seeing what that looks like. The Academy players haven't had that opportunity before. So trying to get everyone on board with understanding what that is and what it means and what opportunity it presents and how to embrace it so that they can keep moving their careers forward.
| What can we expect as far as the relationship between the first team and MNUFC2? How will the two be working together, not only this season, but in seasons to come?
Coach Cameron: We're in close proximity with each other all the time. We share the same workspace with the first-team staff. We're at the same facility training. There's a lot of back and forth between us on any given day. Players that are with the second team, first team, Academy players coming in and joining us, there's a lot of fluidity with that and familiarity between the two groups. Obviously, I worked with the first team staff all of last season, so I have a good relationship with those guys and understand the expectations of the first-team staff, so that helps.
The support is the opportunity to see the other half of the roster because you know, you've got a 30-man roster, and in MLS, only 20 guys dress on a match day, and maybe 15 or 16 that see the field. So, you've got this whole other group that people don't get to see a lot. And even when some of those guys may have gone on loan to other teams last year, I don't think the broader supporters group knows where they can watch that guy or if that guy still plays for us. On top of that, to be able to see some of the younger players, to see some of the Academy players—players that are in their communities that are out there representing the club, I think it's gonna be really cool.
| Speaking of the players, I know coaches never try to pick favorites. But for the fans looking to grow into bigger super fans, who are some the players that have stood out or folks that the coaching staff are excited about?
Coach Cameron: The naming thing is the worst because then you always forget to talk about someone and they're like, “Why didn't he talk about me?” We’re excited about the players that we’re getting from the first team. We're excited about some good young players from the Academy. I think the best thing people can do is decide for themselves—you know, come out.
There's some cool stories too, for example, we signed a player from an open tryout that was at St. Cloud State, who grew up playing with Joy of The People and now is going to represent Minnesota United. That's a really cool story. We have players that are going to come from other parts of the world that are going to be integrated into our community here, and in Minnesota, and that's a cool story too.
And we're gonna see some hopefully young Academy players, like Devin Padelford, who, six weeks ago, probably wasn't on a lot of people's radar. Now he’s signed, and he’s gonna play some games with the second team. It's exciting to see that trajectory. To have a kid that's come up through the club and now is at the next step and then hopefully he's knocking on the door for the first team in the years to come.
| You mentioned earlier that one of the goals for the team is having players come in and acclimate themselves to one another, but as the season begins, what are some other expectations–where would you like the team to be months from now?
Coach Cameron: The first thing we had to do was get it off the ground, and there were so many decisions that had to be made and so much infrastructure and support from the club that's required to do that. And learning through that process as well..we're adding a whole group and people, new people to this facility, more staff, more players, more bodies…the kitchen staff, and how do we make sure that they're getting the support they need? And when we get outside, the grounds crew—how are they getting the support they need with all these extra people? So the biggest thing initially, it's just getting off the ground and getting it going.
And then obviously, we have a two-pronged focus of development: 1) To be competitive in the league. I don't think there's any athlete that likes losing games–everyone wants to play to win, and that's why they've come to this point already, but 2) We have to have a focus on development. And how do we foster an environment where we can keep guys moving up and keep them moving on to the first team? This shouldn't be really a long-term destination for someone, this should be a stepping stone to the next thing. And so we've got to make sure we have that environment right, and we're gonna make sure it's competitive. You know, because there are points on the line, you know, it's not just some friendly league, there's playoffs at the end of the year. There’s a lot to play for in those 24 games, so it's just a great opportunity.
| Finally, Coach, you're going to be in the spotlight a lot more this season as you lead this team. For our Loons super fans that haven't had a chance to get to know you that well, what can they learn about your coaching style and a little bit about yourself personally?
Coach Cameron: I'm new to Minnesota. I've spent the last 14 years in Portland, Oregon and the bulk of that time with the Portland Timbers. So, I've been with one club for a very long time. I'm familiar with a lot of the staff that are here in Minnesota. I oddly-enough played in one exhibition game for Minnesota and the old Copa Minnesota, when they played against LA Galaxy. I have some old USL ties to Minnesota and am very familiar with the place, when I was a USL player.
I'm just really excited to be here. I think this club is a really special place. It still has a lot of room to grow, and I think this team is a really important step in that. The best thing I can do is give everything I've got, and the staff that we have will give everything they’ve got in order to keep building that. I hope we can do that, because if I go home and my kids and my kids are shouting at me for something, it might be tough. I hope I've got some fun stories to tell them about what's happening with the team and what's happening on the field.