Birdwatchers across the nation, rejoice! The Common Loon has been spotted in California. MNUFC are midway through the Coachella Valley Invitational in Palm Springs, a tournament that guaranteed them three scrimmages to test their mettle before the 2023 season. With opening day drawing ever-closer, here’s what Loons fans need to know from camp this week.
In their 1-0 loss to New York Red Bulls on Monday, the Loons saw Kemar Lawrence return to action after a delayed start to his preseason participation. Head Coach Adrian Heath was pleased with his team’s performance, aside from their lethargic start.
“We started too slow in the first half,” he said. “I thought we moved the ball too slow, we were too slow to react to certain things. Second half, I thought we were really good. I was really pleased with the group; they moved the ball around really well and managed to get the ball from one end of the field to the other very comfortably against a team that we know probably presses a bit more than anyone else in Major League Soccer.”
Though they set up in a 4-3-3 formation, Heath lauded his team’s unique ability to utilize the versatility of Robin Lod when picking lineups this season.
“I think the fact that Robin’s so versatile, it does give us the flexibility of playing Robin down the left, on the right if we need him to, or playing him in an advanced attacking midfield role,” he said of the Finnish international.
For their second game of the Coachella Valley Invitational, the Loons took on San Jose. Heath opted to use a split squad, allowing several depth pieces a chance to impress and earn their spots. The game finished a 4-1 loss for MNUFC, but the whole squad got valuable minutes and fitness in.
Though many new faces have joined the flock this offseason, some of the returning players have stood out even more this preseason.
After missing most of last season due to injury, midfielder Hassani Dotson has come back looking sharp and fit. Head Coach Adrian Heath has been impressed by his progress, and is excited to have the 25-year-old back in the squad.
“He’s physically capable of doing anything that we want,” Heath said. “He’s worked really hard for nine months. We probably could’ve put him straight in when we started preseason, but we’ve given him that little bit of extra time. He’s a fit boy, naturally, and he’s done really really well in training. For us, that will be like having a new player. The one thing about Hassani is that we were able to change the shape of the team. We’ve seen him play in both fullback positions, we’ve seen him play in defensive midfield, we’ve seen him play at attacking midfield. I fully expect him to be available, if not for the game against Dallas then certainly the game against the Red Bulls.”
Further up the pitch, winger Bongokuhle Hlongwane and forward Mender Garcia have been making waves with their preseason form. Though the pair only managed three goals combined in 2022, the coming season could end up being a breakout year for both.
“It’s been very evident that Bongi’s come back in really good knick,” Heath said. “He looks quick, he looks stronger. We forget he’s still a young boy. I think Mender’s come back looking a lot sharper. He’s got good movement, he’s quick. People forget he’s just 23. We’re still working with him, he’s still a work in progress, but I fully expect a lot more from Mender this year.”
The core of this team was already playoff caliber; between new arrivals and the progress of these familiar faces, the goal will be to improve upon last season’s first-round exit.
More to Come
Swedish defender Mikael Marques has officially joined the squad, and he’s wasted no time making an impression on his new coach.
“Very, very athletic,” Heath said of his newest defender. “Very smooth mover, very comfortable running with the ball. We’ve only had a couple of sessions with him and today we couldn’t really see an awful lot because of the weather conditions. He speaks four or five languages, very smart, very intelligent boy. He can play center back, he’s played in a back four, right-back and on the right side of a back three. There’s a lot of versatility there and when I think of him now, and Tapias, at 21 and 25, that gives a little bit of stability and a little bit of strength and depth there moving forward. Since Dibassy’s injury, it was an area of the field we felt that we needed to add some bodies.”
After bringing in seven new first-team players, the coaching staff isn’t done just yet. The backline has seen a huge upgrade in terms of depth, but reinforcements up front could still be joining before the April 24 transfer deadline.
“We’re hoping to add,” he said. “I think I’ve made that pretty clear all the way through. I’d be really disappointed if when the transfer deadline comes around, we haven’t brought somebody in to compliment the group that we already have. Whether that’ll be one attacking piece, whether that’ll be a forward or a wide guy, we’re still looking in a couple of positions.”
While more reinforcements could be on the way soon, the squad is prepared to move forward regardless. One match remains to be played in Palm Springs, a scrimmage against the Vancouver Whitecaps. This will be Heath’s final chance to test out his squad, with FC Dallas awaiting the Loons on February 25.