Since restarting the Academy in 2021, Minnesota United has seen the program grow leaps and bounds every season. Just last season, every single graduating player in the MNUFC Academy was offered full or partial athletic scholarships, proving that the level of play in the Academy is up to snuff.
While it’s wonderful to see young Loons graduate from the Academy and succeed wherever they end up, the main purpose of developing young talent is to hopefully see those same young men get their turn at Allianz Field someday. With the addition of MLS NEXT Pro and MNUFC2 to the Minnesota United player pathway, that mission is beginning to take shape in a real, tangible way.
In 2023, the pathway was on full display. This season alone, 15 Academy players earned the chance to train with MNUFC2 and made their way onto game-day rosters. They played a total of 1,978 minutes between them, adding three goals and three assists in their first forays into the professional soccer world.
Meet the Guys
While the stats tell the story of a developing club, it’s the stories of the developing players that matter most. We recently sat down with six of the Academy players that took advantage of this opportunity to play up in 2023 to see what it looked like from their eyes.
When each of the players first got the chance to play up, the opportunity came a bit suddenly and unceremoniously. While several of them were invited to join MNUFC2 for preseason, the rest filtered in throughout the year. After showing their coaches that they had what it takes to play at the next level, it wasn’t uncommon for individuals to receive texts or quick instructions from their coach regarding a change to their practice schedule for the next day.
“Whenever we were training with the second team pretty consistently, we would just get a text from Kevin Jacobs, the team administrator,” said fullback Pascal Leatherman. “And it would just say you're going to be training with the second team; please arrive at this time. The first time, I was super shocked and was like, wow, this is kind of crazy. But then you kind of get used to it. You know, you just get used to the rhythm, and everybody kind of just embraces it.”
Once they’d had a chance to move up for a practice or two, it was clear to each of the players that MLS NEXT Pro was a step up from what they were used to. However, it was a leap that defender Jonah Gasho and his teammates felt prepared to take.
“It was smooth, because I already had some teammates up there,” Gasho said. “And Adi really prepared us for it. I noticed that they just kept a high level for so long. The duration of training is shorter, but it's a lot more intense. Sometimes our Academy training can dip off towards the end, just because we're not at that level yet.”
But training was just the beginning of the experience. For midfielder Kage Romanshyn, the transition to gameplay presented another challenge to overcome.
“I'd say it definitely felt like a step up,” he said. “But once you get used to how they play, it's not too bad. It’s different from playing in the Academy. I feel like there’s more running in Academy games than with the second team, where it's more about structured play and passing.”
Several of the players got the opportunity to travel with the second team, flying as far away as Salt Lake City and Denver to take part in MLS NEXT Pro matches. While the idea of traveling for games isn’t new to the Academy guys, the professional experience that came with MNUFC2 game days definitely stood out to midfielder and defender Merrick Schaeffer.
“I think the coolest part was the first time you made the roster, you go in the locker room and see your name on the jersey,” Schaeffer said. “It's kind of a dream you’ve had since you were younger. Just seeing that name is probably the coolest part.”
Moving Through the Ranks
No two coaches are quite the same, not even within the same club. Every style has its positives as well as its unique drawbacks, but the goal of every coach remains the same: get the most out of your players. Between Fanendo Adi and Cameron Knowles, Minnesota United has developed an effective method of helping players get acclimated to the demands of the professional game.
“They're two very different people,” Pascal Leatherman said about his two coaches. “So, they're obviously going to coach differently. Cam is very technical in his coaching, and then with Adi, you’ve got to be working hard all the time. If you're not working hard, you're going to be running after.”
By putting an extra emphasis on match fitness, the MNUFC player pathway is producing a group of players for Coach Knowles that can handle the physical demands associated with the step up to the professional game. Once they take that step, the focus shifts toward making sure they understand the tactical goals of the team they’re stepping into. For Romanshyn, the transition really helped improve the way he sees the game.
“I definitely improved a lot from the experience,” he said. “It made me more consistent because it made me realize that's how you're going to have to play. You can't be up and down. That's what I think the difference is between U19 and second-team players.”
Moving forward, the club hopes to continue to take advantage of the existing pathway. By moving players through the system from U15s all the way to the first team, MNUFC have the opportunity to produce a team that is Minnesotan through and through. By bridging the gap between the Academy and the first team, MNUFC2 has given players like Tamer Absais and his teammates an even higher standard to shoot for.
“At first, I didn't really think about it because it was still on the U17s, so it was just another thing. But when the summer of our U17 season ended and we got to actually see them play and play against them, it became more realistic. It became the benchmark that you wanted to reach by the end of the year or by the end of next season. And later, during the U19 season especially, I think it's geared toward that belief of making it to the second team. Everything is always about what the second team is like; this is what you need to do to get there. And then when you have second-team guys come down and play with us, or even a first-team guy like Devin Padelford, it kind of helps us integrate into the club.”
The likes of Pascal Leatherman, Kage Romanshyn, Darius Randall, Tamer Absais, Merrick Schaeffer, and Jonah Gasho are still at the beginning of this process, helping the club expand its development efforts while bravely taking steps forward in their own personal careers. No one knows exactly what the future will look like for Minnesota United, but it’s certainly a lot brighter because of the efforts of these young men and those that will come after them.