A Whole New World … Sorta: A MNUFC 2024 Season Preview

MNUFC Sporting Side Overhaul

On Thursday, I sat in the National Sports Center (NSC) Sports Hall’s Media Workspace for the first time. I am filled with excitement to help Northland Soccer Journal cover Minnesota United FC. MNUFC Public Relations Specialist Aaron Tomich lead me past an indoor space where Amos Magee was training the academy players. Eventually, we arrived at the soccer dome where the senior players are training. MNUFC2 head coach Cameron Knowles is still the interim head coach for the senior side. Assisting him are MNUFC2 assistant Jeremy Hall and U19 head coach Fernando Adi.

While I am impressed with the coaching and the 6-vs-3 rondos in front of me, I ask, “How did we get here?” Let’s take a look at the changes Minnesota United FC has made to the sporting side of club.

Miguel Tapias pulls back his right leg to kick the ball as Caden Clark defends.
Minnesota United players Miguel Tapias and Caden Clark during a training session at the National Sports Complex in Blaine, Minn., on Friday, January 19, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

“Let It Go” – Heath Out

On October 6, 2023, Minnesota United FC parted ways with Technical Director Mark Watson and their only Head Coach since moving to MLS, Adrian Heath.

As reported by Jerry Zgoda, Minnesota United CEO Shari Ballard emphasized that the decision was not about one game or one season: “It felt like the performance has been plateauing a bit the last couple years.” She continued, “We’ve had some really positive stuff and some things that are hard. As we went through the year, we continued to go in the wrong direction. Once you know that’s what you’re going to do, you just move forward and that’s what we did.”

“Send It On” – What Happened Next

Assistant Coach Sean McAuley stepped in as interim head coach for the last two matches of the 2023 season. Minnesota United FC finished 11th in the Western Conference and 21st overall out of 29 teams. Despite MLS expanding the playoffs to include 18 teams, the Loons missed the playoffs for the first time since 2018. In the Loons’ four MLS Cup playoff appearances, they have made it to Western Conference finals once but exited in the first round three times.

“Considering how we finished last season, we need to start this year on the right foot. It’s just one game at a time in a long season. We’ve got goals of hosting playoff games and it starts with habits that we put in now. So, going away to Austin [FC] is a tough place to play, but we’ll be ready for the fight.” — Michael Boxall

“Not in Nottingham” but Barnsley is 54 miles North

To rebuild the sporting side of the club from the ground up, Minnesota United FC wanted to start at the top. On November 8, MNUFC announced the hiring of Khaled El-Ahmad as their new Sporting Director and Chief Soccer Officer. El-Ahmad was born in Lebanon and raised in Sweden by Lebanese and Czech parents. He played in the youth academy for IK Sirius in his hometown Uppsala, Sweden. If that club sounds familiar, it might because former Loon Mohammed Saeid played for IK Sirius’ senior side for 3 seasons.

Photo Courtesy of Minnesota United

This is not the first time El-Ahmad has been to the upper Midwest. From 2000-2004, Khaled El-Ahmad attended the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, earning his Bachelor of Business Administration. He stayed to attend their graduate school to receive a Masters of Business Administration and International Business. In 2013, he earned a Sports Management Leadership Diploma from Örebro University.

El-Ahmad’s experience includes Head of Recruitment for Djurgården Elitfotboll AB in the Allsvenskan (Swedish first division), multiple roles with City Football Group including roster construction and recruitment for NYCFC, and most recently the CEO and Sporting Director for Barnsley FC in League One (England’s third division).

“Un Poco Loco”

Minnesota United did not announce a head coach by December 14th’s MLS Re-Entry Draft or December 19th’s MLS SuperDraft. However, Khaled El-Ahmad helped to draft four players in the SuperDraft. More unusual, Minnesota United didn’t name their head coach by their January or February Preseason friendlies.

On January 5, Minnesota United announced that interim head coach Sean McAuley had left and MNUFC2 head coach Cameron Knowles would be the new first team interim head coach.

Minnesota United defender DJ Taylor (27) during a training session at the National Sports Complex in Blaine, Minn., on Friday, February 23, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

DJ Taylor said this on Cameron Knowles’ focus: “A lot of it’s been kind of tactical implementing what Khaled wants us to play, that different style. [The] biggest thing with Cam is he’s been very transparent. So whatever he asks of us, he’s very transparent about it, any updates from the club as well. But the biggest thing has been, we go together, do everything together.”

When I asked for an example, Taylor added,

“For this game tomorrow, [regarding] the different positions I’ll be in when when I get the ball or when Boxy gets the ball, I had some questions. Does he want me higher than their their midfielders or just want me lower, and we were able to discuss that. And obviously in the game, it’s going to be on in different moments, whether I go higher or lower. It’s just about me reading the position and the different situations, but that’s an example of where I could go up to him and ask him for transparency on that.”

“On My Way” – New Head Coach

This past Thursday, Februrary 22, Tom Bogert of The Athletic reported that Manchester United assistant Eric Ramsay would be Minnesota United’s new head coach. At 32 years old, he is the youngest MLS head coach this season. The next youngest is 39-year-old Nick Cushing of NYCFC.

Ramsay also served as the Wales Men’s National Team assistant coach and the Men’s U23 assistant coach at Chelsea. The Athletic also reported that Ramsay speaks fluent Spanish and is scheduled to leave Manchester United after the Manchester Derby on March 3.

Something Old, Something New – MNUFC’s 2024 Roster

Who’s on the team now? Will you know any of the players? Keep reading, Loons fans.

“Remember Me” – Loons Departed

On December 1, 2023, Minnesota United announced declined contract options for GK Eric Dick, CB Bakaye Dibassy, FB Ryen Jiba, CM Ján Greguš, AM Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, W/F Emmanuel Iwe, and F Ménder García.

Brent Kallman and Cameron Dunbar were out of contract. Both have signed with other clubs. Kallman signed with Nashville SC, and Dunbar signed with Orange County SC (USL Championship).

Under contract but loaned out for 2024 are FB Ethan Bristow to Stockport County FC (League Two, England fourth division) and CB Mikael Marqués to recently promoted Västerás SK (Allsvenskan, Sweden first division).

“Hakuna Matata”

“I think it’s been really important, for the entire preseason with a lot that has been in flux from day one, to have a mature returning group of players. To have them to lead the team and make sure that we’re driving forward to that first game and staying on task, week-in and week-out, day-in and day-out, has been really important.” — Interim head coach Cameron Knowles

No worries, plenty of Loons return from last year. MNUFC exercised the contract options for CB Michael Boxall, RFB Zarek Valentin, LFB/CM Joseph Rosales, CM Kervin Arriaga, and F Tani Oluwaseyi.

Goalkeepers Dayne St. Clair and Clint Irwin have guaranteed contracts through 2024. Also, with guaranteed contracts are CB Miguel Tapias, RFB DJ Taylor, young LFB Devin Padelford, MF Hassani Dotson, MF Robin Lod, AM Emanuel Reynoso, LW Franco Fragapane, F Bongokuhle Hlaongwane, F Sang Bin Jeong, and S Teemu Pukki.

Wayzata High School’s Patrick Weah is under contract and returns from a loan with FC Tulsa. Wil Trapp was out of contract but stays with Minnesota United under a one-year contract with a club option for 2025.

“Strangers Like Me” – New Recruits

The Loons picked up several reinforcements. In various other interviews, Khaled El-Ahmad has emphasized the importance to bring in youth. All the new recruits are  25 years old or younger.

20-year-old Medina native AM Caden Clark’s transfer was announced last year, but made his first appearance with Minnesota this preseason. For those unaware how the New York Red Bulls acquired the Minnesotan, read more here on this Clark’s Circle of Life.

“Caden’s been noticing a little bit of a little muscle strain throughout preseason, but has really looked good this last week or so. So we haven’t had him available for that whole chunk of preseason to really get as much time on the field in those games as you would have liked. But you know, he’s back. He’s healthy, and he’s certainly bringing energy into the game.” — Cameron Knowles

Minnesota United interim head coach Cameron Knowles is interviewed by the media after a training session at the National Sports Complex in Blaine, Minn., on Friday, February 23, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

On defense, Victor Eriksson is a new 23-year-old centerback from Sweden. FB Derek Dodson joins the Loons from USL Championship’s Charleston Battery.

“Alejandro Bran, another guy we brought in that’s been wonderful. He shows a lot of quality on the ball, turning in tight spaces, and being someone who certainly values possession [and] can get up and down the field.” — Wil Trapp

In the center midfield, the Loons loan in 22-year-old DM Alejandro Bran from CS Herediano. The Loons have also signed 24-year-old Panamanian CM Carlos Harvey from USL Championship side Phoenix Rising. 20-year-old Liberian midfielder Moses Nyeman joins on a three-year deal. He previously played for Real Salt Lake and DC United.

At forward, Jordan Adebayo-Smith is only 22 years old and scored 12 goals for New England Revolution II last year.

“Two Worlds” – MNUFC at the MLS SuperDraft

The four SuperDraftees can be split into two worlds. West Virginia forward Marcus Caldeira and Wake Forest midfielder Babacar Niang both will return to college for 2024.

Defenders Morris Duggan and Hugo Bacharach are both training with the first team. In fact, Morris Duggan who attended Marshall and grew up in Munich just signed a one-year deal with club options for 2025, 2026, and 2027. Hugo Bacharach had four goals and four assists for Indiana last year. He was born in Benicàssim, Spain and spent time in Villarreal’s youth academy. As of this writing, Bacharach has yet to sign with the club.

MLS Needs to MLS Once In A While

“Whistle While You Work” or not work – Referee Lockout

The 2024 MLS Season is starting with replacement referees. The labor union Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) has been locked out of MLS games and is at odds with MLS and Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which manages the referees for US Soccer Federation, Canadian Soccer Association, MLS, USL, NWSL, and the US Open Cup.

Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator for PSRA, was quoted in The Guardian:

“Rather than taking care of some very basic needs that officials have, MLS and PRO are willing to hurt the quality of the game. That should alarm every player, coach and fan, and it’s devastating to our officials, who have dedicated their entire lives – mind, body and extensive experience – to this game. The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically, and as such has increased demands on both our professional and personal time. Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is reporting record growth, but also for the ability to take care of themselves on the road and at home to continue officiating at the highest level that this sport demands.”

“Topsy Turvy” – MLS and US Open Cup

The US Open Cup goes all the way back to 1913 when it was called the “National Challenge Cup.” It the United States’ oldest men’s national soccer tournament. It is similar to England’s FA Cup in that provides amateur and lower-leagues an opportunity to compete against the highest levels of soccer.

On December 15, 2023, MLS announced that only their MLS Next Pro (2nd teams) would compete. The US Soccer Federation (USSF) denied the request and countered that MLS could lose its first division standing.

Northern Lights Football’s Tim Abbott shares his memories and thoughts on US Open Cup here. You can read more on the subject from this Chuck Booth article for CBS Sports Golazo.

The 2024 Schedule for Minnesota United FC

Despite the US Open Cup unknowns, Minnesota will still compete in the Leagues Cup and of course the MLS regular season.

“Never Knew I Needed” the Leagues Cup

The 2024 Leagues Cup will once again include all 18 sides from Liga MX and all 29 sides from MLS. The 2023 MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew and the 2023 Apertura (Fall) champion Club América get byes to the knockout. The remaining 45 sides are seeded by a combined table and then put in 15 groups of 3. The Group Stage starts in July. Minnesota will play in the West 6 group with the Seattle Sounders FC (2nd place in 2023 Western Conference) and Necaxa (18th place in 2023 Apertura).

“Go the Distance” – MLS Schedule

The MLS Season gives each team a grueling 34 games, 17 home and 17 away. Minnesota United plays 7 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams only once. While Inter Miami and more appalling Chicago Fire (closest MLS team by 50 miles) are not on the schedule, Minnesota United gets to play both Ohio teams. And, for the first time, Minnesota will play against 2022 expansion side Charlotte FC.

The other 27 games are home and away versus the other 13 Western Conference sides. Doesn’t that make 26 matches? Yes, but we play Sporting KC three times. Is it still the “nicest rivalry”?

We end the regular season at home on Decision Day versus St. Louis CITY SC, October 19, 8 pm. You can find the full MNUFC MLS Schedule here and the Promotional Games here.

“Be Our Guest” at Allianz Field

The home opener in next week Saturday March 2, 7:30 pm at Allianz Field against 2023 MLS Cup Champions Columbus Crew. Will former Loon Christen Ramirez finally step foot in Allianz Field?

Leading up to the home opener, on Tuesday, February 27, there is open training session open to fans and media at Allianz Field. You must sign up to claim your free ticket.

Also, for the second consecutive year, Minnesota United will host a Bangers-Only Ball on Thursday, February 29 at First Avenue.

You can find out more about both events here.

“The Journey” to Austin, TX

Minnesota opens their eighth season today, Saturday February 24, at Austin FC.

Austin FC Roster

For Austin, midfielder Memo Rodríguez is at Sporting Kansas City, forward Will Bruin retired, and forward Maximiliano Urruti returned to Argentina. However, they still have their Designated Player trio in the midfield: CM Alex Ring, RW Emiliano Rigoni, and AM Sebastián Driussi. Driussi had 13 goals in all competitions last year with 11 goals and 4 assists in MLS. They still have US veteran Gyasi Zardes and picked up striker Diego Rubio from Colorado. Austin also transferred in Brazilian LFB Guilherme Biro from Mirassol of Brasileiro Série B.

Former Loon Duluth-born Ethan Finlay is still with Austin as one of the Friends on the Other Side.

Austin’s Playing Style

For those that don’t remember or haven’t noticed, Austin loves possession. Coach Cameron Knowles said, “They’re a good team. They’re very well-coached, really disciplined in the way that they play.”

Wil Trapp had this say about Austin FC on Thursday:

“They’re a team that’s very confident in possession. Since they’ve come into the league, they’re a team that really likes and values the ball. So they try to manipulate you with with clever movements, and a lot of passes to try to unbalance teams. So for us, if we’re going to be high pressing and difficult to break down, it’s really getting a lot of pressure on them from the front half of the field and disrupting that that rhythm that they like to have.”

Minnesota United FC Roster Notes

Bongokuhle Hlongwane is back in Minnesota with his visa secured but not ready to play. Cameron Knowles had this to say about Bongi being back: “a massive positive, and now it’s seeing where he’s at. We’ve been in contact with him while he’s been away, but we have to assess him once we get him on the [training] ground, … get that physical testing done so that we can assess how much training we could get him into, and how quickly we can get him up to speed to contribute to the games.”

Honduras vs Argentina Teqball: Kervin Arriaga and Joseph Rosales (near) take on Emanuel Reynoso and Franco Fragapane (far) at the end of training Friday – photo by Matthew Johnson

Emmanuel Reynoso is also back in Minnesota and trained with the team this week, but he will not make the trip to Austin. Cameron Knowles related, “Yeah, he won’t be involved in the squad for the game. We had that little setback earlier in the week. He’s back, you know, and obviously in some of the training today, and we hope that we can continue to progress him as we build towards that first home game.”

On newcomer Alejandro Bran, Knowles spoke enthusiastically: “He’s come in and played in several of those preseason games. He’s certainly will be with the squad and likely to feature in the game this weekend, has a good energy on both sides of the ball. He’s good in sort of pressing and defending moments. His movement is really good; his ability on the ball is really good. So yeah, he’s been really bright spot.”

MNUFC Playing Style

Knowles mentioned that the Starting XI in Austin will be “pretty close” to the one for the most recent preseason game. He added, “we played, what we thought was the best available of the group, and put them in a way that we thought was the best way to play that group. Barring potentially maybe one change that’s that’s likely the group you’ll see.”

At top: [MNUFC crest] vs [Charlotte FC crest] Starting XI Preseason7 Fragapane 22 Pukki 11 Jeong 31 Dotson 20 Trapp 17 Lod 8 Rosales 4 Tapias 15 Boxall 27 Taylor 97 St. Clair Bottom: [Blue Cross Blue Shield logo] MN
MNUFC Starting Lineup preseason versus Charlotte FC
On the 4-3-3 formation and the three players in midfield, Knowles was willing to “Dig A Little Deeper”:

“It gives us good balance. We talked about the flexibility of the system before: if you have to have Hassani play a little bit deeper and sit into that double pivot with then Robin playing a bit higher, you can. If it’s just Wil sitting in there as a six, and you get that progressive ball-carrying and playing ability from Hassani. And he’s got Robin there: he’s a good creative player, final pass, good link up play with Pukki, I just think it gives us good balance in the midfield.”

One final note that Minnesota just released: Former Lakeville South and former Minneapolis City player Loïc Mesanvi as been called up on short-term loan from MNUFC 2 to the senior team for this weekend. He has played well, scoring a goal in preseason vs CF Montreal in January.

In 2023, Austin won both matches against the Loons. What will happen tonight? Will Christian Ramirez play in Allianz Field for the first time ever? Will the Loons have any US Open Cup matches? Stay tuned to Northland Soccer Journal and find out.