The Full Experience: Behind and Among the Scenes of Minnesota Aurora’s Inaugural Match

Friday, May 27, 2022

“Lights, Camera, Action”

A sold-out crowd of more than 5,200 witnessed MN Aurora FC’s first ever match. Their opponents for this historical occasion were the Green Bay Glory, who prior to this season, played two seasons in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL). In the end the team share points on a 1-1 draw.

MN Aurora FC knew this game is not only about the competition on the field. As a new team in the new USL W League on opening day, the game represents months and years of planning. It is about the co-founders, community owners, supporters, and game day employees coming together to pull off a day of “Firsts.” For example, Aurora co-founder Elisa Vicuña missed most of this game as she had to drive to get more merch from storage. These are the headaches of learning from a team’s Firsts.

No Hollywood celebrities, but the Minnesota celebs came out to TCO Stadium in Eagan. Staff from MPR/The Current were there. The Minnesota Lynx represented well: Head Coach Cheryl Reeve, President of Business Operations Carley Knox, and former player Rebekkah Brunson. Minnesota Whitecaps players (and Shattuck alumni) Patti Marshall and Mak Langei were in attendance, as well as Minnesota United FC center back Michael Boxall.

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“Time Is on Our Side” — Progress of MN Women’s Soccer

I got to the press box early — 3 hours before kickoff — and ran into some new and old friends including former MN Thunder/Stars/United Announcer Chris Lidholm. As a MN Soccer Historian, he could give us some perspective on the MN Lightning, a women’s club team that played alongside the MN Thunder at the National Sports Center from 2006-2009.

Lidholm: With the Lightning, this was pre “the success of the [US] Women’s National Team,” . . . but the Lightning were the great opportunity for local female soccer players . . . to play back then. And they [got] a lot of the players, well-known players from Minnesota, playing on that team throughout the summer.

MJ: Some of them named Kallman?

Lidholm: A couple of them, yeah absolutely — and now you have Kylie [Kallman Moore] who is doing the color commentating for the broadcast for Minnesota Aurora which is great. But yeah, the Kallmans, they were all a part of it as well. And so [MN Lightning] was a great opportunity for young girls who are just starting off soccer to see that they could [play] for their home team at the National Sports Center. But now it’s circled again. . . . This is going to be some great soccer for all soccer fans to check out. But also at the same time, you get little girls in the stands who are gonna go, “Hey, I get to play this great level at some point in my life.”

USL W League president Amanda Vandervort, Credit: Matthew Johnson

“Tonight”

Before kickoff, the USL W President Amanda Vandervort displays the USL W trophy for which the 44 teams will compete — and then gets to yell, “Let’s Play SOCCER!” The starting lineups get announced. Green Bay Glory play in a 3-4-1-2, MN Aurora a 4-2-3-1.

After the compulsory, conventional competition chorus, I catch the comeliest coordinated choreography of the COVID-influenced custom: fist-bumping the referees. The visitors start bumping fists from left to right in front while the home team go behind the referees in the opposite direction. By the time Aurora had circled around to fist bump the referees, the Glory are circling behind the referees in the opposite direction.

Starting Lineups pre-Referee-Fistbump, Credit: GB Glory

In Taoism, the yin and yang represent opposing forces that move in harmony — cue The Lion King soundtrack and Elton John belting out “The Circle of Life!” My brain can hear Dani Rojas exclaim, “Fútbol is LIFE!” With my ballet, Eastern philosophy, and “pop culture reference rush” expectations surpassed, I wondered: what about the fútbol?

First Half: “Stop It Girl” — goalkeepers called on early

Green Bay set the tone as a team with half of their 2021 WPSL roster returning. After some back-and-forth turnovers in the midfield, still in the 1′, a Glory player settles the ball between the 18-yard box and midfield and commences a 9-pass attack resulting in CM Carolina Gomes dribbling down the left side and crossing to LF Christine Kitaru.

As MN Aurora CB Kelsey Kaufusi taps the ball away from Kitaru, Glory CAM Laura Linares takes a quick shot. Aurora GK Sarah Fuller must make a diving save.

In the 10′ Aurora forward Morgan Turner gets enough space on the left to get her shot off, which is saved by Glory GK Alyssa Stumbaugh, who helped Bemidji State win a conference championship last fall.

Minnesota Aurora FC players and coaches huddle. Credit: Matthew Johnson

“Step By Step” — progressing the ball,

In the 18′ Aurora has 2 chances to score as they bring plenty of numbers forward. LW Maya Hansen rips a low shot from about 20 yards out. The ball hit the right post and bounces out to RW Jill Bennett who shoots just wide left.

Less than a minute later, Green Bay forwards Christine Kitaru and Skylar Prentice counter going the other way. Kitaru beats RFB Makenzie Langdok to the ball and turns the corner to angle in on goal. Aurora RCB Rachel Preston defends the 2-on-1 while LCB Kelsey Kaufusi tracks back to mark Prentice. Preston steps up to close down Kitaru, and Kitaru’s shot goes wide.

“Hangin’ Tough” — malfunctions, fouls, and no-calls.

In the 20′ Green Bay CAM Laura Linares has a wardrobe malfunction and leaves the pitch. Shoelaces? shinguard? Something needs adjustment. While her 23′ return to the pitch gets her an immediate touch on the ball, Aurora CM Addison Symonds dispossess her.

In the 24′ RW Jill Bennett jersey-tugs Glory LB Abbey Gemza down to the pitch. Gemza takes the ensuing free kick. Laura Linares’ header lobs toward the far corner. Sarah Fuller makes a leaping save to get her right mitt on the ball. On the subsequent Glory corner kick, Hanna Lech’s inswinger goes off Fuller’s finger tips. Unfortunately Kaufusi’s clearance drives into teammate Cha Sang-min’s face. Green Bay’s Abbey Gemza shoots from the weak side, but Symonds comes up with a block and Langdok clears the ball from danger. Cha gets up wincing but shakes it off, shakes it off like Taylor Swift.

Kaufusi joins the Cobra Kai club in the 33′. Linares with the ball turns her back to shield the ball from Kaufusi. Kaufusi does her best Johnny Lawrence: a right shoulder to the back with a left-footed leg sweep. Green Bay’s free kick is well-defended. Off the recycled ball-in from the deep left, Abbey Gemza channels James Brown and “got to got to payback” by shoving Kaufusi down. Is this for Gemza getting jersey tugged 10 minutes ago? Is this for Kaufusi tripping her teammate? Why not both?

There were several no-call throughout the game. The referees let these teams play. This is not youth soccer.

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“Don’t Give Up on Me” — even though we’re not scoring

Maya Hansen in the 34′ dribble-splits two Green Bay players, turns a third but is eventually marvel-agents-of shielded from attacking further by center back Brianna Messner.

Christine Kitaru In the 43′ drifts from left to right to receive a pass from Linares. Kitaru takes on both Aurora center backs; she shoulder-feints Kaufusi to gain space to dribble left. Rachel Preston slides over to help but over-pursues. Despite a brief moment where Kitaru has both CBs in her wake, a tireless Kaufusi tracks over forcing Kitaru to spin, dribble back away from the net. Kitaru squares the ball to Linares but Cha dispossesses and goes the other way.

Towards the end of the first half, Morgan Turner shows teammate Jill Bennett that no one loves her like she loves her. Turner, with a better-than-Beyoncé hold up, fends off a defender and passes into the space between four other Green Bay players. Jill Bennett runs on to the ball, leaves the front two players behind and takes on the back two by herself. Abbey Gemza steps in and pokes the ball back to GK Stumbaugh, and Jill Bennett’s pursuit is agents-of-shielded, again by Brianna Messner.

At half time, the score is 0-0. Green Bay was better at bringing more attacking pieces to the table: Kitaru, Linares, Prentice, and their midfielders. Many of Aurora’s attacks frequently consisted of a single player: Morgan Taylor, Cha Sang-min, Maya Hansen, or Jill Bennett. While Cha and Hansen’s technical skills were bright spots, the attacks often were halted not because of a bad dribble or first pass, but no one cutting for the second or third passes.

Cha Sang-min signs autographs. Credit: MN Aurora FC

Second Half: “Let’s Try It Again”

Both teams make changes at the start of the second half. Aurora substitute Shelby Hopeau for LFB Abby Ostrem, which shift the formation to more of a 3-4-3 at times. The Glory substitute McKayla Kertscher for Lauren Singstock and keep their 3-4-1-2.

“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”

In the 53′ Mackenzie Langdok intercepts a pass, dribble-splits two Glory players, passes between two other Glory players to hit Morgan Turner up the middle. Glory CB Brianna Messner extends her right leg and knee and trips Turner to the turf. Messner would earn a yellow card for her efforts. Just outside and right of the center circle, Kaufusi takes the short free kick diagonally left to Symonds, who continues the ball to Shelby Hopeau on the left sideline. Hopeau dribbles diagonally towards the middle and from 25 yards sends a ball into the box. Was it a shot? A pass? A shass? Whatever it was, it goes off defender Abby Gemza for MN Aurora’s first goal. The stadium erupts — minds blown!

MN Aurora Players celebrate first goal in history. Credit: MN Aurora FC

“Cover Girl”

In the 63′ RW Jill Bennett on the left side steals the ball from Glory RB Alyssa Mericle. Bennett dribbles diagonally right then slips a nice pass left to Morgan Turner. Unfortunately, Maya Hansen and Turner end up both occupying the LW spot in this attack. Turner shoots hard to the far post. GK Alyssa Stumbaugh makes a diving save to her left, and Bennett ready to pounce. Seemingly out of nowhere, Alyssa Mericle appears miraculously, to cover Bennett and poke the ball away. In reality, after she got beat, Mericle tracked back and never gave up.

After the 78′ Green Bay earns several attacking chances. Fresh off the bench, Maddie Cruz would make a steal but Rachel Preston beat her to the ball on a heavy touch. Makayla Kertscher would get a steal and feed Kitaru, but the ball was cleared away. Minutes later, Cruz would get a 2nd steal but is well-defended by Turner.

“Dirty Dawg”

In the 81′ Minnesota Aurora subs on Kristelle Yewah for Maya Hansen and Mariah Nguyen for Morgan Turner. Yahweh creates some shots for herself and tries to set up teammates. Dirtiest play? 87′ Nguyen backheels the ball towards the right corner. MF Morgan Stone runs onto the ball and crosses it high into the box. Jill Bennett from the left makes a jumping header, but the ball goes high.

“You Got It (The Right Stuff)” — love the way you turn it on, at the end — or not

In the 89′ Green Bay MF Ally Cruz takes a throw-in on the right sideline. She throws to Kertscher who passes back to Skylar Prentice. Prentice squares the ball to the RB Alyssa Mericle, who passes up the right sideline to sub Shea-Lynn Gerred. From 30-35 yards out, Gerred sends a long ball into the box. Laura Linares makes a near-post run and heads the ball over an outstretched Sarah Fuller. This exemplifies more coordination and aesthetic beauty than the ballet of fistbumps pregame. After a couple of attacking chances by Bennett and Nguyen in stoppage, the game ends in a 1-1 draw.

“I Can’t Believe It’s Over”

The first half looked like two teams in a new league with first-game nerves — and all the inaccurate passes, long balls driven with too much power were typical of any season opener. Both teams improved in the second half: MN improved more on offense, GB looked better on defense than their first half.

In my interview with Nicole Lukic this past Tuesday, she mentioned focusing on defensive structures for this first game. This seemed especially the case with the spine of the team: central midfielders Addison Symonds and Morgan Stone, center backs Kelsey Kaufusi and Rachel Preston, and of course GK Sarah Fuller. All handled their role in the core of the defense. While MN Aurora had some impressive passing combinations to progress the ball in the midfield, the coaching staff and players will need to improve the progression further up the field.

Rachel Preston signing autographs, Credit: MN Aurora FC

Green Bay attacked fluidly until Aurora made some adjustments. The Glory back 3 held their own. The team played out the back, even under press. Certainly their front 3 in Linares, Kitaru, and Prentice are fun to watch. GK Alyssa Stumbaugh was spectacular.

“Keep on Similin’ ” — All the Quotes

Nicole Lukic — Aurora Head Coach

On their first goal in club history:
“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it. Especially with Shelby just — she just got here three days ago from Hawaii. So big moment for her to get subbed into the game and then even bigger moment for her to score the . . . first goal in franchise history.”

On having “the first game under you”:
“It feels good, a little gut wrenching giving up the lead with five minutes left there, but it was a very exciting night. We’re very fortunate to be here at TCO Stadium with the community behind us, and we will mature a little bit more and close that game in the next one.”

On Kristelle Yewah:
“Yeah, we were hoping that she could definitely put that second one in for us. She did have a lot of nice chances. Her and Mariah [Nguyen] were able to link up a couple times and get to go. She has some great maturity to her and a big physical presence with a lot of speed, and she was able to create some chances for us for sure.”

On the Central Midfielders:
“Yeah, Addy [Symonds] was phenomenal. She was moving the ball everywhere. Defensively, she was really tuned-in, she dominated in the air — really happy with Addy’s performance. Stone was a big physical presence for us, and the two of them work together really well.”

Addison Symonds with 2 fans from a youth club, Credit: MN Aurora FC

On the TCO Stadium atmosphere:
“It was incredible. During warmups, you could just slowly kind of see everybody started trickling in, and it was becoming more and more packed. And then to hear the supporters groups and the chants and the drums — it was just such a professional atmosphere, and I know our players just absolutely loved it.”

Shelby Hopeau — MN Aurora wing-back

On that goal:
“Yes, I actually did shoot the ball, and you know what? keeper mistake — but you know what? I’m going to take anyway. It was my goal.” She later added, “I was like, please go in, please go in. God help me!”

On flying in from Hawaii this week:
“So basically, I knew that I had to fight for my spot when I first came. I know it wasn’t just going to be given to me. So when I flew in, me and my mom was talking, saying ‘You need to come out swinging. Even though we’re from a small island. People don’t know how passionate we are.’ So I just came out swinging. And Coach offered me a spot, and I said I have to take it.”

Was the result disappointing?
“I wouldn’t say disappointing: I would say a more ‘lesson learned.’ We just have to learn off of our mistakes and get better.” She later explained, “How did they just take it in? Watch footage, see what I did wrong. Fix it in the next game, hopefully.”

Shelby Hopeau and Coach Nicole Lukic on walk to media area, Credit: MN Aurora FC

Alyssa Mericle — Green Bay right back

On the game overall:
“I thought we played well for our inaugural game. We came out; we played strong. We were confident, and we ended up with a tie, so pretty happy with how we played.”

Defensive responsibilities in the back 3:
“I thought we played pretty well. We, you know, made sure we had a lot of communication working together. And we were able to keep them to only one goal, so I thought we played really well tonight.”

On the tying goal:
“We kicked it out wide, had an awesome feed in by Shea-Lynn [Gerred]. And Laura [Linares] came in and just headed it in and the 89th minute. So, it was awesome to finish strong.”

[Writer’s note: Mericle is being modest here: she omitted the fact that she received the ball out wide and passed to Gerred.]

Aurora President Andrea Yoch applauds the team, briefly glances away to take in her support staff and all the press. Credit: Matthew Johnson

Brittany – local Aurora fan

On the first game:
“Well first off, I’m super proud of Minnesota Aurora. I’m proud of the foundation the people who brought this together. They’re amazing people. My best friend is one of the co-founders [Andréa Carroll-Franck]. So very proud and very thankful to have been able to be a part of the first home opener. The women played extremely well.” 

Any “this is really happening” moments?
“Actually, from the minute I walked into the arena, I said to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that this is actually happening.’ Yeah, that’s when it first went off. And I was like, ‘wow,’ and I looked at my best friend and I was like, ‘You all did this. Like this is amazing.’”

On the fact that MN Aurora and Green Bay are women led and women coached:
“I mean, I feel like that’s the future. That’s what strength is. That’s what dignity is. That’s what wisdom is. That’s where, you know, empowerment is. That’s what that means. When you have things that are women lead, that means that the future is forward.”

“I’ll Be Waitin’ ” — Next Games

Green Bay Glory’s next game is May 29, away against Chicago Dutch Lions. Their home opener is June 3 versus Chicago City SC.

MN Aurora FC’s next 2 games are away: June 2 at Kaw Valley FC and June 5 at St. Louis Lions. Their next home games are Friday, June 10 and Sunday June 12, both versus Chicago City SC.

The announced attendance of 5,219 at TCO Stadium tonight rivals several NWSL teams’ average attendance. We can speculate: will the “newness” wear off by the next home game? Or, will the sophomore release be just as popular as the debut? After the fun, tactics, athleticism, technical skills, and excitement of this opener, I Hopeau the latter.

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