After two months to reset, refresh, and enjoy the holidays, the MLS NEXT season is set to resume on February 17, when the Chicago Fire will make their way up to Blaine to take on MNUFC Academy, followed by Sockers FC the very next day.
The lads have been back in training for a few weeks now, regaining their sharpness and fitness while they continue to work towards mastering the philosophies their coaches are asking them to implement. Across the entire Academy, the second half of the season is all about improvement, from both a team and individual standpoint. Vice President of Youth Development Amos Magee expressed his eagerness to get the Academy teams back on the field.
“We're excited to get restarted,” Magee said. “Our guys needed time off to recharge, refresh, and get away from the building. The energy levels have been really good coming back, and I think our guys are getting excited for the second half of the year. We ended on a note with our 15s and 17s, where they had some good moments, but we weren't able to manage games well enough to get results down in Phoenix. So I think they're itching to remedy that situation. But our goal of producing top players and top people continues. And we're starting to focus on even more individual work with players as we build throughout the spring season.”
Since their last outing in mid-November, the entire Academy has had a chance to step up, especially given the inflection point that the club is currently experiencing. With new additions and turnover in the sporting staff of the club, Academy players are taking advantage of their shot at first impressions.
“I think we had over ten U19s and U17s train with the second team in their first week,” Magee said. “Our academy is really starting to fill out in the way that we hoped it would. You see it in both our first and second teams: young, exciting players that our coaching staff can work with and are excited to play for the club.”
This offseason, Academy product and MNUFC2 midfielder Kage Romanshyn and current U19 forward Darius Randell have spent time in first-team preseason training, stepping up and impressing their coaches. More and more players are rising to the occasion from within, as the Academy is already proving its worth in year three.
While the older guys have taken steps toward the first and second teams, the youngest squad has been learning what it means to be part of an academy system. U15 Head Coach Thomas Harris is ready to get back to work with his team, and sees opportunity for growth in this young group.
“With the 15s being the first entry point into the academy at the moment, our players miss some of that team cohesion or connection that perhaps some of the other team’s players get if you start playing together at U12,” Harris said. “Those terminologies you build up over time make the communication and understanding between one another a little bit more advanced than it is when you assemble a team later on. So we're still going to have to focus on building those connections for the players between each other and understanding of how we want to play and what we want to do. We've been given a little bit of guidance from Khaled in terms of what he's going to look for in the future, in terms of style of play, and some ideas that he wants us to be thinking about. So we can start to kind of drip those in with the groups right now.”
On a frequently-changing squad of 23, only 18 can make a gameday roster. With trialists and new players being added from time to time, the environment is conducive to competition but makes it difficult to quickly form a sense of team unity. Harris himself joined the club midway through the fall portion of the season, and while he’s gotten to know his players well, he knows that there’s still a ways to go.
“There's always work to be done,” Harris said. “Collective alignment is still an important thing for us to understand. Clarity on what is expected and clarity on the objective for the group. We still have a lot of individuals and a lot of small groups, and we’ve got to get them to focus on the collective. Some of the results at the tail end of the fall weren’t what we wanted; we weren’t able to finish games that we could have gotten something out of. We'll get everything outlined with them tonight, and then it's going to be up to them. It’s their standards, their decisions, not any of the coaching staff; that will be theirs, and they have to own it, adhere to it, and live it and breathe it for the rest of the season.”
With clear objectives in mind, the second half of the season will be huge for all three Academy teams. With several big tournaments awaiting them and even more opportunities to grow within the club than ever before, this is the perfect time for MNUFC’s Academy to shine, and it seems that the coaching staff is confident that their players have what it takes to do so.
The remainder of the regular season will run from February to May, with several additional tournaments sprinkled throughout. If you want to catch some Academy games this spring, check the schedules and come on out to the National Sports Center to cheer on the future of the club.