Just a few short weeks ago, Minnesota United’s Academy teams participated in the MLS NEXT Flex qualifying event in Maryland. What the heck is that, you say? Well, hold onto your hats, folks; there’s a little bit of explaining to do here.
Every year, 133 academies across the country work toward qualifying for the MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs. At the end of the season, 32 teams in each age group compete for the title of best academy in the USA. However, no one’s spot at the big dance is guaranteed, and there are two ways to get there.
First, academies compete in a regular season, playing against other MLS sides and earning points much like you see at the professional level. The 16 best squads in each age group qualify for MLS NEXT Cup, making up half of the tournament field. The remaining 16 spots are granted to group winners from that season’s MLS NEXT Flex tournament.
Much like MLS NEXT Cup, teams have to qualify for the MLS NEXT Flex tournament. This is done through qualifying matches during the regular season, incorporating both MLS academies and various other clubs around the nation. Qualifying teams compete in groups of four, playing a typical round-robin group stage to determine who will earn the MLS NEXT Cup spot up for grabs in each group.
Did you get all of that? Good, me neither. We’ll pick it up eventually. For now, let’s just focus on how Minnesota United did at this year’s edition of MLS NEXT Flex.
This year’s edition of MLS NEXT Flex saw all three Minnesota United Academy teams take part, marking the first time that the U15, U17, and U19 teams have all qualified in the same year. While none of them won their groups, all three represented the club well, earning big results and fighting to the final game.
Peter McDonnell’s U15 side was in a group with Portland Timbers, South Florida Football Academy and Tormenta FC. The young Loons came out of the group with two wins and a single loss, falling 1-0 to eventual group-winners Portland. Their performance was good enough to secure second place in the group, demonstrating an ability to both score and defend efficiently.
For U17 Head Coach Justin Ferguson and his side, a group with NYCFC, Real Salt Lake, and Kalonji Soccer Academy proved to be tight. Their 2-1-0 record put them on six points alongside RSL and NYCFC, but goal difference kept them in third place. Though they scored eight goals in three games, the seven goals allowed by the U17s’ ended up being the fine margin that kept them from topping the group.
Despite going unbeaten during tournament play, the U19 Loons also finished third. A group with San Francisco Glens, Beach Side Soccer Club, and RISE Soccer Club saw them earn one win and two draws, winning one penalty shootout and losing the other. Head Coach Fanendo Adi’s side showed a lot of spirit to avoid losing across three matches, ultimately doing enough to end level on points with group-winners San Francisco. However, they missed out on the top spot due to goal difference, just like the U15s.
After three solid showings in Maryland, it’s time for the little Loons to shift their focus back to their regular-season matches. There’s still plenty to play for and plenty of soccer to enjoy in the coming months.