MLS NEXT: Academy Season in Review

MLS NEXT Team Talk

The 2022-23 MLS NEXT season is officially over, and preparations for next year are already underway. Before we shift our focus forward, though, it’s important that we slow down and look back at what was accomplished in the season that has just passed. All three of MNUFC’s Academy squads stepped it up this year, building on the foundation they laid last season and pushing the club forward in more ways than one

While results and tournament performances are easiest to measure, true success in youth development is about more than numbers and trophies; it’s about noticeable growth, consistent progress, and building a culture that athletes want to be part of. In each of those departments, the young Loons and their coaches made tangible steps forward.


For Peter McDonnell and the U15s, 2023 was a year of big results and plenty of valuable learning experiences. The Loons earned big results against perennial academy powerhouses, including wins against Austin, Dallas, Colorado, and Toronto. Such results give young players invaluable experience and memories, but the best learning doesn’t always come from winning.

The 2023 Generation adidas Cup gave McDonnell’s team a chance to see both sides of the game. A disappointing 4-0 loss to FC Nordsjælland saw them start the tournament off on the wrong foot, but there was plenty to take from the game.

“The first game we performed below expectations with the U15s, so it became a learning experience for the next ten days there,” McDonnell said. “How do you react to that? Same thing if you’re in first-team preseason and you have a poor game, or if you’re an Academy player that has a bad session when you’re in first-team training. How do you react to that? It’s continuously going to be a learning experience.”

And learn they did. Though they didn’t advance from their group, the GA Cup showcase gave the young players the chance to play international opponents, including a win against Arsenal FC. With valuable game time and perspective under their belts, the U15s moved on with their season, continuing to learn and grow.

Beyond their club commitments, this talented group of players also received national attention, with three athletes receiving call-ups to U.S. Youth National Team camps and one even making the MLS NEXT Best Of roster. As they continue to move forward in their careers, there’s plenty of reason to be excited about this group.


At the U17 level, the primary focus was on realizing potential and taking meaningful steps forward in development. This is the age where many athletes begin to make the transition from youth to professional, growing into their bodies and fine-tuning the skill sets they’ve put together along their soccer journeys to that point.

In just their second year of competition, the U17s went undefeated in their fall Flex play, a marked improvement from year one. They followed that up by winning more Pro Player Pathway games than they ever had, ultimately only missing out on the MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs on goal difference. Head Coach Justin Ferguson was proud of his squad’s performance this year, but it was their mentality that stood out to him most.

“They've shown progress and ways of actually getting results and going on to win games, which is obviously what's really important at the first-team level,” he said. “I think the collective spirit in that group as well has been something that Minnesota United should be proud of, because you got a bunch of guys that want to play in the club that want to be at Minnesota United.”

If this group of players can continue to develop and realize the potential they’ve already shown, the sky's the limit. They’ve already pushed the program forward this season; now it’s time to start making the jump to the next level.


For the U19s, the transition to professional soccer is a constant and fluid goal. With the right amount of focus and effort, they could find themselves playing for MNUFC2 any given week, a practice that we saw even more of this season than we did in year one of MLS NEXT Pro. In fact, 12 Academy players have made MNUFC2 game-day rosters this season, with seven of them actually getting minutes.

Even if players don’t move directly into the second team, the development pathway can lead to several other viable options to continue a soccer career. MNUFC has already seen 20 Academy graduates go on to play college soccer, with athletes earning spots at significant NCAA D1 powerhouses like Duke, Wisconsin, and Portland, among others.

Not only did the U19s prove that they could compete at a high level of youth soccer this season, but they also showed that they have what it takes to move on from there. The path to pro is long and arduous, but it’s paying dividends for the players in MNUFC’s Academy.

The Big Idea

At the end of the day, every academy’s success is best measured by the players it produces. That includes more than just the play on the field, though, taking into account the mentality, work ethic, and commitment of the athletes that graduate from the program. MNUFC’s Director of Youth Development Noel Quinn, summed up the ultimate goal of the Academy after the season concluded.

“Overall, we want to continue to build a love for the football club,” he said. “Making sure that anybody who walks in here is not only talented at football but also wants to play for Minnesota United. I think that's hugely important when you're a small football club. And I think we have a whole lot of boys in our academy here that are Minnesota United men and will be Minnesota United men long term, whether it's playing, working, or supporting the team in some other way. Obviously that's our goal, but we need to build a football club here, and then we need to build a home for what it means to be Minnesota United.”

Part of building a club is moving forward. For MNUFC’s Academy, growth and improvement are the keys to success, as evidenced by the changes they’ve made in the last year. With new coaches, a larger staff, and products like Devin Padelford, Fred Emmings, and Patrick Weah proving that the pipeline works, the Academy is on the rise.

“I think overall, this season, we've reestablished Minnesota United from a youth perspective as being a contender at a high level,” Ferguson said about the 2023 season. “And I think people have started to not want to have to play against us. In general, I think people know that it's gonna be a tough game; they know that it's gonna be a battle. I think that's a really important step as we build this thing. Because you have to have people sort of not want to have to play you, in the same way that people would be intimidated to go into Kansas City or Dallas because they have these reputations as being big-time academies in this country. I think now you're starting to see Minnesota United beat those teams.”

The MNUFC Academy is here now; they’re contenders, and they aren’t going anywhere but up. With their gaze fixed on a bigger, better future, there’s no telling what next year could bring for the young Loons.