MLS NEXT PRO is nearing its return for year two, and preparations are already well under way at the National Sports Center in Blaine. With just under three weeks before their second ever season, MNUFC2 players and coaches are itching to get back on the field to improve upon their 2022 results.
Taking Another First Step
With seven new teams, a longer season ahead and new faces all around, the second year of MLS NEXT Pro likely won’t look much like the first one. Established practices will be expanded upon, but unlike in 2022, there is now precedent to build off of. Though this year will be different, MNUFC2 Head Coach Cameron Knowles sees 2023 as an opportunity for both the league and his team to take steps forward.
“The focus last year from a lot of the teams, especially the teams that were new to having a second team and the league itself, was getting it going and getting things in place,” he said. “Now, we’re looking at refining some of those processes. For us, we’re trying to close the gap between what it means to be with MNUFC2 and how you make that jump to the first team. I think you look around MLS NEXT Pro and there are a number of guys that have signed first-team contracts going into this season. Columbus had three players play in their first game of the year that played with their NEXT Pro team last year, so that’s the next thing for us. We got this thing going, we’ve got it up and running. We were competitive in the league last year, so how can we now get players into the first team and continue to serve our academy players.”
As always, the goal of this league is player development. However, as MNUFC2 seeks to move onward and upward, the bar for a successful season has risen. With experience comes the expectation of improvement, and Coach Knowles certainly believes in his team’s ability to step up.
“I think success is a lot of different things,” he said. “As competitors, the athletes and coaches ourselves, we’re always driven by wins and losses. I think that’s also part of development, you know, when you get into this pointy end of it. At this sort of last step on that development ladder, they have to know what it means to win a game, to lose a game and how you manage those final minutes in a game. So we have to have some emphasis on that. Now, it’s not the end-all be-all — like it is at the first team level — but they have to know. Success for us is competing for the playoffs. We were disappointed last year to miss out. I think we’ve got a good enough team; we just let different results get away from us last year.”
MNUFC2’s squad has changed quite a bit since this offseason. With 12 players currently on the roster — including nine returning players — the team has seen the departure of several pieces from the inaugural season. This has opened the door for new players to fill the gaps, whether through new signings, Academy call-ups or first team players.
Among the returning players, there are several faces that will have bigger roles this season. Minnesota native Emmanuel Iwe will be returning from an injury that kept him out of the back half of 2022, fresh off becoming MNUFC’s second-round pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Likewise, Trinidad and Tobago international Jesse Khan missed much of last season due to injury and national team duties. In 2023, both will be expected to play a bigger role for the Loons.
Academy product Loïc Mesanvi will be playing his first full professional season this year, though he joined MNUFC2 for several games in the latter stages of the 2022 season. Academy fullback Carlos Leatherman also spent a lot of time with MNUFC2 last season, a trend that is expected to continue as the team moves forward. More Academy names may be added to the list this season, as Coach Knowles looks to fill out the squad.
“I’d like to see more Academy players get involved with us this year,” he said. “Carlos played the bulk of the minutes and carried that load for the Academy last year. If we can get a couple more guys involved in that week-to-week I think that would be really exciting for the club.”
Thus far, three official signings have been added to the team. Australian midfielder Zaydan Bello brings first team experience from the Australian top-flight, adding a quality option to the middle of the park. 19-year-old center back Britton Fischer joins the team from North Carolina FC, where he played professionally for one season after climbing through the academy ranks.
The final confirmed signing at this time is goalkeeper Will Pulisic. Pulisic also comes to the Loons after spending time on loan at North Carolina FC, where he played previously with Fischer. There is still time before the season begins, so the possibility for more signings still remains.
The Year Ahead
It’s clear that both Coach Knowles and the squad want to improve upon last season’s result. In all aspects, the club is looking to take steps forward and establish an identity for the MNUFC2 program. Midfielder Emmanuel Iwe shared his hopes for the season ahead.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how we’ve grown as a team since last year,” Iwe said. “Obviously there’s a lot of guys that are gone, a lot of new guys coming in. I think it’s up to the guys that have stayed, in terms of the second team guys that have been at the club, to step up in a leadership role and build more of a foundation. Last year we were a team, but it was more thrown together. This year, I wanna see how we mold and uplift new guys, whether that’s Academy players coming up or first team players playing with us.”
First-team integration is a major point of emphasis for MNUFC2. In fact, the squad returned to Minnesota at the same time as the first team to give their players a chance to train with the MLS squad and experience the next level. Midfielder Diogo Pacheco was one such player, and he spoke about the opportunity with enthusiasm.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” he said. “I was looking forward to it when I was back home in Portugal. I’m very thankful that I was there during that month. I feel like I developed a lot as a player, getting to know how things work with the first team. I feel like I improved a lot during that time, so hopefully I get more opportunities like that.”
Pacheco joined the first team during their preseason trip to Florida, scoring a goal in their friendly against the Philadelphia Union. Several other players made appearances as well, a trend that the club would love to see develop even further as the season progresses.
“As a second-team player, we’re all trying to take that next step to the first team,” Pacheco said. “At the same time, you’ve got to remember, you’re working and competing as a second-team player. It has its advantages, because we’re helping the first-team players get better. When they see us playing well, they feel like they need to get better. At the same time, we’re still competing to get wins in our league. We want to make the playoffs, score goals, and win games.”
Though their schedule is not yet public, the season will be here soon. MNUFC2 will be approaching this new beginning with more experience than before, as well as a clearer vision for the future. With the roster slowly filling out and the team culture building, 2023 is shaping up to be an important year for the MLS NEXT Pro side.