The MNUFC2 inaugural season is in the books, and it was an exciting one at that. A formation of moving parts, both the team and the staff worked against the growing pains of a new season to find success. MNUFC2 incorporated MLS NEXT Pro contracted players, first-team players, and Academy players, finding a way to make that combination work within the continual wheel of new hires and shifting rosters. Finishing the season in sixth place out of 11 teams in the Western Conference, the Twos showed resilience, strength, and creativity throughout 2022, and pulled off a successful inaugural season.
MNUFC2 began the season on the back foot. The shifting ground that affects any new team was difficult to power through, and the Loons lost their first two games. However, the turmoil did not last long. Whether it was a piece falling into place, or sheer player determination, those first two matches were followed by an eight-game unbeaten streak from April to early June.
“It was a critical run,” said Head Coach Cameron Knowles. “It was hard to say exactly, to pinpoint one thing, but we knew it was going to take time for the group to come together. The majority of our guys were signed to contracts in the days leading up to that first game against North Texas [SC], so we hadn’t really had the full group together for very long at all when we went into that first game. It takes time, and guys get more comfortable and understand their role, understand what we’re looking for, understand the demands of the league. And fortunately, we could string results together in that time.”
In that stretch of success, MNUFC2 managed to win five and draw three – winning the shootout following each draw. The unbeaten run from April to June contributed heavily to the Twos final season record of 9-10-5, where they notably won four out of their five shootouts – proving the talent and depth in the goalkeeper position. One of those shootout victories featured an especially impressive performance from goalkeeper Alec Smir, in which he stopped three penalty kicks in a row to secure the extra point.
“Probably one of the positions that we’re actually deepest in,” said Knowles on his keeper corps. “We came into the season, and Alec [Smir] was in a difficult situation because he knew going in that this was going to be an opportunity largely for Fred [Emmings] to get games. Fred did really well with his opportunities to play, but then Alec got to play a lot more games than anyone expected, and he played really well…We had a really strong group in that position [and] on any given day it didn’t really matter who was in goal; we knew that we had a really strong goalkeeper, which is important.”
Throughout the course of the season, MNUFC2 managed to beat or draw each of the top three teams in the Western Conference
(St. Louis City2, Tacoma Defiance, Houston Dynamo 2), notably whalloping St. Louis 4-0 during the eight-game unbeaten streak followed by a 2-1 victory over Tacoma during the stretch run. The victories against such strong teams showed that the Twos could compete against anybody. To beat Tacoma Defiance especially, the top team in the conference, was huge for the Loons, who not only needed the points for their playoff push, but wanted to prove to themselves that they could compete with the best the league had to offer.
“They’re athletes,” said Knowles. “They’re competitors, and you always want to show that you’re better than someone. You want to show you’re better than someone as an individual; you want to show you’re better than someone as a team. And it gave them the opportunity to show against the best team that they could mix it; they could compete and ultimately come out on top. So those are some of these exciting things throughout the season, but I think it also showed the continued growth from the group as we continue to work through the year as well and that continued progression.”
A consistent sentiment held throughout the season was the idea of playing the “full 90 minutes” instead of just a half or pockets of games. The Tacoma game is the perfect example of what the Loons could accomplish with a full-press effort. Defensively, the team held down the back line and kept Defiance to one goal. Offensively, many chances were created, and ultimately, two of them were finished.
“While we didn't really talk about it being a must-win game, I think everyone kind of understood the importance of that in terms of the playoff run,” said Knowles. “So you could feel it. The atmosphere in the locker room before the game, everyone was up for it. And even to go down in that game, for the guys to not completely lose sight of the goal and let the game get out of hand but come back and score the late winner. Those two goals were both great goals and obviously a lot of excitement and belief in the group. It was a shame that we couldn't then follow on from there and get ourselves into the top four, but that was a really special moment for the guys when we look back at that season.”
A place the squad consistently performed well in was chance creation. Midfielder Aziel Jackson was a key player in that regard, earning himself a spot on the MLS NEXT Pro Best XI for his offensive prowess. Jackson was the top player in the league for key passes with a total of 70 scoring chances created.
“He [Aziel Jackson] was a consistent player in the lineup and [was] far and away the leading chance creator in the league, which is exciting,” said Knowles. “And I think, too, [it’s a] credit to some of the players around him that he was able to get that support and get players that could give him the ball in dangerous areas. If we were to capitalize [on] a few more of those chances that were created, I think we would have seen even further success in terms of where we finished in the standings towards the end of the year.”
Another key starter was Academy player Carlos Leatherman, who made 20 appearances and 19 starts – third most across all players who appeared for MNUFC2. The Academy played a big part in the MNUFC2 machine. MLS NEXT Pro is the bridge that fills the gap between the Academy and the First Team, so having such a strong Academy presence proved beneficial for MNUFC2, and is something Minnesota United is certainly focused on continuing next season.
“We had constant communication with the Academy staff,” said Knowles. “While there were a handful of Academy players that played, there must have been fifteen to twenty different players that trained with us at any given time, some as young as fifteen years old. You see someone like Carlos Leatherman, when we look back to when he made his first appearance at St. Louis as a substitute to where he finished the season, you know there was a lot of growth and that's the exciting thing. When you put a young player in the next environment to see them continue to improve and raise their ceiling is really exciting.”
Considering the fact that this is the first season MNUFC2 has existed, sixth place is an impressive ending point. Now in the offseason, the team is looking at what can be done to improve, not just in terms of league success, but as a developmental pathway as well.
“I think that’s the key part – building on the foundation – you know, making sure we retain some of the group together so that we don't have as heavy a lift next year,” said Knowles. “And so that's been a lot of our discussions in the last couple weeks. What do we add to the group? How do we get that balance where we have some exciting young players and we have some players we know we can rely on? [And how do we create] a pathway for Academy players coming through? So a lot of moving parts, a lot of moving parts.”
MLS NEXT Pro is adding seven teams next year, which just means more healthy competition for the Twos. Now that a lot of the heavy lifting has been done, leaping into next season promises to be an especially exciting challenge. The base has been set, and now it’s time to grow.
“There’s so many people that have contributed so much to it, and for me that's the biggest thing is just how much work it took,” said Knowles. “You see the games every week and you see ‘okay we’ve had a season…one in the book,’ but man, where we were January, February of last year to where we ended up, for me is just a monumental achievement from a lot of people.”
What an accomplishment for MNUFC2 who successfully launched a new team in such a short time-frame. The Twos now look ahead to next season, where they will focus on building upon their foundation. The success of MNUFC2 is a success for the First Team as well. As the Twos continue to grow, the pool of Academy and second-team players that can contribute to the club as a whole will become more readily available. MNUFC2 is still in its beginning stages, but the possibilities are exciting, especially now that the first season has successfully come to a close.