With just about two weeks until the 2024 MLS season gets going, there isn’t much time left for preparation. With their precious remaining days, the Loons have decided to venture west once again, this time settling in the California desert for the Coachella Valley Invitational.
There was a short turnaround between trips for MNUFC, but the boys had a chance to get some training in while they waited. As the season approaches, more and more of the players are approaching match fitness, and the focus of training has shifted to more technical and tactical aspects of play. Interim Head Coach Cameron Knowles spoke about the style the team hopes to employ after training earlier this week.
“We're really focused on that aggressive mentality,” Knowles said. “Defending a little bit higher up the pitch, being more aggressive in the right moments. That was shown in the Montreal game, but I know it wasn't broadcast, streamed, or anything like that for people to see. That was a real focus for us in that game: being on the front foot, being a bit more aggressive, and defending higher. We'll continue to instill that in the players, and hopefully, we see that as we go into this next stretch of games.”
The team will be in California until next Saturday, giving them a little more than a week to train in the warm sun. During this trip, they’ll have three matches to get their lineup settled, including two games against MLS opposition. Loons midfielder Carlos Harvey will have a chance to take on his old side as well, as MNUFC face Phoenix Rising in their first match of this important invitational.
“I think the group gets a little bit tighter as you get a little bit closer to the first game,” Knowles said. “These games will be treated more like games, as we're building fitness to start. And now it's time to pick a team to play with for as close to 90 minutes as possible, then rotate the squad for the midweek game. Then that last game is probably a 90-minute game for most of the guys that start. It's just about continuing to dial in the 90-minute focus and getting closer to the team that will start the season.”
While the Rising match won’t be streamed anywhere, the other two games will be hosted on the club’s website. Visit this page on February 14 and 17 to see the Loons take on Chicago and Charlotte, respectively.
From the Locker Room
While the club still has positions to fill, the feeling in training has been settled and focused. Veteran defender Zarek Valentin spoke to the press during this week’s media availability to provide a player’s perspective on the state of the team.
“Honestly, Cam has been awesome,” Valentin said of the interim coach. “I've known Cam for a lot of years from my time in Portland; we go way back. I played with Adi, and I've known Jeremy as well. So for me, it's a very familiar staff. I think for some of the younger players, there's a familiarity with Cam as well. So I think perception is not always reality with a lot of things going on here. There've been a lot of changes and a lot of moving pieces, and people can come up with whatever assumptions or ideas they'd like about that. But the people on the ground here know that it's been steady; the messages are very clear.”
Among the people providing guidance has been the new Sporting Director, Khaled El-Ahmad. Since arriving in the country during the Tucson trip, El-Ahmad has made it his mission to get to know the people he’ll be working with, from the top to the bottom of the club’s directory. For Valentin and the rest of the players, that has proven to be a valuable piece of the preseason puzzle.
“We all had individual meetings, and it's been great to hear his philosophy,” Valentin said. “It's awesome. I can't give too much information, but a lot of the clear pictures are great. I think, as an older vet, having someone come in with leadership and be very clear with ideas on and off the field is fantastic. I think it provides a certain standard for us as players, again, on and off the field, to abide by in terms of just accountability and just changing up the culture here. I think that we're moving in the right direction. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was Minneapolis. So we're going to take it little by little and go from there.”
The important pieces are falling into place as the season gets closer, and while there is still work to be done, it appears that the players are feeling well-prepared to tackle another round through the gauntlet that is Major League Soccer. Don’t forget to tune in to the preseason matches next week and get ready for the season opener on February 24!