It was a busy start to the 2023-24 season for MNUFC’s MLS NEXT teams. With new faces on the field and on the sidelines, this year’s Academy lineup came together for a strong start, displaying even more individual and collective talent than in years past. From the U15s to the U19s, the fall season provided plenty of chances to learn and grow, all while the young Loons continued to show that they have what it takes to compete at the national level.
For the U15s, the start of the season always takes some adjusting. As the first level of MNUFC’s Academy, these players were almost entirely new to this level of soccer when MLS NEXT kicked off in September. Assistant Coach Jamie Carroll-Rolfe was in charge of the team to start the season, a period during which the U15s were finding their footing and growing into the Academy setup.
“It's always interesting as we get them in because they're the first age group we get, so the first part of the season is always about the group of players coming together and seeing how they get on as a unit and as people before they even go onto the field,” Carroll-Rolfe said. “Creating those relationships early on is important because they’re coming up against some quality teams that have been together for years.”
Carroll-Rolfe saw his team put in some impressive performances early on, with the versatility of Lazar Angelovski and the reliability of goalkeeper Keane Perkins helping the team take shape against some very good opposition. When Head Coach Thomas Harris joined the club in mid-October, the team was ready to take the next step.
“When Tom came in, he added some different ideas, and it's just stuck,” Carroll-Rolfe said. “They understand the reality of where they are now. They finally have their feet under them, and they're expressing themselves and understanding the ideas a bit better because they've been in the environment for longer. The first piece of the season was sticky; it always is with the U15s initially, but as we get close to NEXT Fest, we’re starting to mold into something we are happier with, and we’re looking forward to the challenge down in Arizona.”
At the U17 level, there was plenty to be excited about. MNUFC Academy Strength and Conditioning Coach and U17 Assistant Coach Tomaz Marinelli was proud of the way that the team came together, seeing their ability to compete at a high level as evidence of the relationships they’ve created.
“These players are in a really good spot where they’ve started playing competitive games against MLS teams at the U17 level, which is a pretty competitive level for the Pro Player Pathway,” Marinelli said. “We're at the point where we can not only be in these games, but we can win them. So going into this tournament at the end of the season is a really good measuring stick for us now that we've proven that we can win these games.”
In a lot of ways, the U17 squad had a similar experience to their younger counterparts, but the process of coming together was different. With parts of the team already having some familiarity with one another, it was more about blending groups than getting a team of individuals to become one.
“We’ve got a really young group of kids,” Marinelli said. “I think the hard part with this age group is mostly the jump from U15 to U17, in terms of maturity, which is really big. As the group gets to know and trust each other better, they start playing better because the younger kids have a sense of ownership and belonging. I think that's what we saw on the field. As they grew and started to just enjoy playing next to each other, the team and individuals improved. Obviously, you still have things that you need to work on, but that's part of the learning process.”
As the season has progressed, the standout performances of Donovan Sinicropi, Aidan Martinez, and captain Bryan Espadero have powered the team to some wonderful results, while goalkeeper Kai Zeruhn’s combination of shot-stopping and foot skills has raised the squad’s overall quality.
Once again, the U19 side is on the younger end of the spectrum within their age group. With a lot of players in their first year at the U19 level, the side has endured a similar period of team-bonding early on. Several players from this group had the chance to appear with MNUFC2 during the 2023 season, including the likes of Kage Romanshyn Jr. and Darius Randell. Both young men have continued to show their skill in MLS NEXT competition, with Randell’s goal-scoring touch helping his team to some big results.
But, Head Coach Fanendo Adi has gotten plenty of good performances from other players across the pitch. Defender Jonah Gasho has kept his backline in fine form, while Julian Banks has added goals and assists at key moments during the opening stretch of the season. Much like the younger goalkeepers, Oliver Kelly has performed admirably for his side, showing that the MNUFC goalkeeping corps are in good hands, pun intended.
“We learned a lot about this group when we played the Chicago Fire in September,” said U19 Assistant Coach Alex Morawiecki. “We’re excited to have three games against MLS U19 teams at MLS Next Fest next week. The necessity of having to play quicker, run harder and solve problems in a different way against these teams is outstanding for development and we think this group is ready to embrace those challenges.”
A proven ability to create chances and finish them off has seen this U19 squad compete with the best, with NEXT Fest offering a chance to prove themselves against New England Revolution, FC Dallas and the Chicago Fire. As they travel to Arizona in the coming weeks with the rest of the Academy, they seem more than ready to show the world what this club is all about.