As Minnesota United gets ready to hit the road for preseason matches in Orlando next week, the team has focused squarely on fitness and beginning the process of integrating a host of new faces in their first week of training camp. The squad has been through morning and afternoon sessions most days with activities ranging from straightforward running to agility drills to beep tests to soccer tennis to small-sided scrimmages and everything in between.
“I always say it’s like the first day back at school,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “Everybody is trying to impress. And everybody just gives a new, fresh impetus to the group. It’s always good the first few days in training camp, and we feel as though with the addition of one or two more — which we’re trying to do — we’re hopeful of getting a couple more before we get out to the serious stuff.”
The players who’ve been through the beep test — an ever-escalating cardiovascular test designed to measure a player’s VO2 max — might dispute the notion they haven’t gotten to the serious stuff. But for many of them, the excitement of getting back to it has overridden any notions of tired legs.
“Sunday night, I didn’t sleep much just because I’m excited, still nervous, right?” said midfielder Ethan Finlay. “This is my seventh preseason and you still have the same jitters. I’m in bed like it’s the first day of school at 9:00 p.m. Didn’t sleep well most of the night. My fiancée in fact was like, ‘What was wrong with you last night?’ I was like, ‘Just don’t worry, you know, go back to sleep.’ She knew I was up, rustling.”
If a vet like Finlay gets amped up for the start of training camp, one can hardly imagine what rookies Mason Toye, Wyatt Omsberg, Carter Manley and Xavier Gomez are going through as they make the leap from college competition to life in the pros. To a man, though, they’ve all shown themselves willing to put in the work. Toye in particular talked about what Heath did with Abu Danladi last year and how that played into his excitement in being selected by the Loons.
“It was huge,” he said. “And he worked with Dom Dwyer as well, which people don’t really realize. He really took his game to the next level, and you see where he’s at now. So yeah, I’m super excited to work with him. Just over the course of these last few days, he’s just said little things that make big differences and make the game a little bit easier. So I can tell I’m going to make huge strides with him.”
For now, though, concerns about development remain secondary for the staff as they focus squarely on fitness and the chemistry of the group, the latter of which is already ahead of where the team was last year at this same time. Instead of an entire team who barely knew each other living in hotels, MNUFC has a core and a handful of new guys to evaluate.
“The focus is on just what’s out here, and not on some of the other stuff,” said Assistant Coach Mark Watson. “The majority of the group were here last year. So you don’t have to spend as long on the basic stuff — you already have the basics. You get to the fine tuning and the stuff that we maybe got to in week five or six in preseason in week two.”
Having those basics down will also help streamline the process of evaluation when it comes to the rookies and how they fit into the team. As it is in many sports, teams in soccer are made up of individuals who exert their own individual gravity within the team’s structure, changing and shifting each other over time even as they evolve on their own. Measuring and assessing all these interdependent vectors becomes a little easier when some of them are more familiar, more established, more dependable.
“We’re so familiar with some of the guys, and what they gave us last year, and what they’re going to bring to the table this year,” said Assistant Coach Ian Fuller. “But some of the new guys, you know, you are constantly evaluating how they are within the group, how they are on the pitch, how they are with fitness. You’re looking to get better constantly. You evaluate what you’ve got and know that things change constantly about your thoughts about what you need. Even going into season, we’re still going to be looking and evaluating our needs and wants and where our plan is to go from there.”
The process, then, is a mix of understanding what you have and what you need. It never really stops being just this. For now, though, the players’ most important job is making clear who they are by putting in the work every day so they’re ready when March comes.