Preseason is flying by. After almost two weeks in the desert sun, the Loons are returning home from their first get-away of 2024. Though their time in Tucson is up, there were plenty of exciting developments over the past week that deserve a mention in this week’s report.
Regular training continued throughout the week, with various players at different points in their journey back to match fitness. Some late arrivals to camp have yet to be fully integrated after taking care of important paperwork for work visas and green cards, but one way or another, the whole squad is accounted for. While the newcomers were busy building up their match fitness during training, another scrimmage gave the coaching staff a chance to test out the roster.
This time, MNUFC took on CF Montréal, their first MLS opposition of 2024. Heavy rotation and a quality opponent made for the perfect environment to experiment in, ultimately seeing Interim Head Coach Cameron Knowles utilize two completely different elevens in each half of action.
“I think the whole group impressed,” Knowles said after the game. “We made a number of changes, with a whole new group coming on for the second half. But the energy, the effort and the execution from the guys were outstanding. We created a number of really good chances. They played aggressively, and they played on the front foot, which is what we wanted to see. It's always a bit of an unknown going into a game like that against MLS opposition. You don't know if the work you've done is going to show, and I thought the guy's got a really good reward, in terms of their performance, for the work that they’ve put in over the first couple of weeks.”
The match ended in a 1-1 draw, with MNUFC2’s Loïc Mesanvi scoring for the Loons in the second half. Plenty of new faces donned the Black and Blue for the first time in this one, furthering their integration into the squad and helping them find their place on the field. Coach Knowles was pleased with the new arrivals, noting a high work rate across the entire bunch.
“From my point of view, on the field, they've all just come in with a really good attitude,” Knowles said. “They've worked hard. We're asking a lot and demanding a lot of the players, and they've stepped up to that task. It's early days to see where anyone fits in, but we're just really happy with the effort and the attitude of the players that have been brought in.”
It’s been all hands on deck this offseason, with first-team, MNUFC2, and Academy players working alongside one another. This is the kind of integration that makes the pathway worthwhile, and it’s actively benefiting every level of the club. Youngsters Kage Romanshyn and Darius Randell have impressed thus far, earning praise from Coach Knowles.
“They've been excellent,” he said of the Academy products. “Darius played with the first group against Montréal, and he was dangerous going forward. It was a tough test for him, for sure. He's a 16-year-old playing against some experienced players, but he showed well and proved that he's brave. He's still learning some of the positional sense, but we're really, really happy with how he's done. Kage too. It was unfortunate that Kage didn’t get to see the field in that game, but he's been very, very steady throughout preseason. I think stretching them in this environment will make it really exciting to see them go back, whether it's a second team or Academy environment, to see how they do.”
After two busy weeks of player acquisitions, things have begun to slow down on the signing front. For now, the focus is on integrating the new guys with the returning players and finding the right mix of skills to put together a winning lineup. That responsibility won’t fall entirely to Knowles, though, as this week’s lone new arrival will have plenty to say about tactics and approach.
After working remotely for the start of the year, MNUFC’s new Sporting Director and Chief Soccer Officer, Khaled El-Ahmad, has arrived in the United States. El-Ahmad made a quick stop in Minnesota to drop off his things and say some quick hellos before joining the team in Tucson, where he has been getting acquainted with the players, coaches, and additional sporting staff that he’ll be working with moving forward. To hear more from the man himself, look out for the next episode of Sound of the Loons, where host Kyndra de St. Aubin will be sitting down with El-Ahmad to introduce him to the Legion.