Fri. Dec 1st, 2023

Wednesday, June 29

“There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, to see if we could become something more.”

Nick Fury, The Avengers

From Minnesota and Beyond

  1. Of the 25 rostered players, 11 come from Minnesota
    Roughly North-to-South and West-to-East
    • St. Michael – Makenzie Langdok
    • Andover – Mariah Nguyen
    • Maple Grove – Morgan Turner
    • Brooklyn Park – Arianna Del Moral
    • Medina – Abby Brantner
    • MInneapolis – Lydia Ruppert
    • Edina – Bayliss Flynn
    • 2 from Excelsior – Jelena Zbiljic, Olivia Graupmann
    • Savage – Maya Hansen
    • Lakeville – Rachel Preston
  2. Additionally, 12 players come from 6 other states: 4 players from Colorado, 3 from Utah, 2 from Texas, as well as 1 each from Michigan, California, and Hawaii.
  3. International: Mayu Inokawa from Saitama, Japan and Sangmin Cha from Busan, South Korea.

Saitama, the capital of the prefecture with the same name, is just 15 miles north of Tokyo. It’s home to two J-League soccer teams: Urawa Red Diamonds and Omiya Ardija. It is also home to the baseball team Saitama Seibu Lions and the NJPW Dojo (New Japan Pro Wrestling).

Busan is a southeast port city with metro area population of over 7 million. It is home to K-League Busan IPark (Ee-Pahk), Lotte Giants baseball team, and Busan BNK SUM women’s basketball team.

Preferred Starting XI established their 2nd game – credit: MN Aurora

Preferred XI

Nicole Lukic definitely prefers the 4-2-3-1 formation in attack and more of a 4-4-2 in defense. To the coaches’ credit, they have used every one of Aurora’s 21 outfield players and 3 goalkeepers. After the first draw at home 1-1 versus Green Bay Glory, the coaches obviously wanted to improve tactics, but there was also a shift in their Starting XI.

Key changes from game one:

  • Moved to better position: Maya Hansen from left wing to center forward
  • Rewarded a substitute with a start: Mariah Nguyen (who played fullback at Bemidji State) to add speed and technical ability at left wing
  • Added Eli Rapp at left fullback whose quick decision making and ankle-breaking ball handling skills have helped Aurora going forward
Sarah Fuller makes a save versus Chicago Dutch Lions – credit: MN Aurora

The Goalkeepers

Vice-captain Sarah Fuller was MN Aurora’s first signing. At first glance of 8 Wins – 1 Draw – 0 Loses, it may seem that their goalkeeper doesn’t need to do much. However, Sarah Fuller’s 25 saves and 3 clean sheets tell a different story. In fact, at least 1-3 times per game, she called on to make a diving or leaping save that lesser goalkeepers would let past them.

Backup GK Taylor Kane has subbed in 3 of the 7 games and recently made her first start. Kane has logged 116 minutes and allowed 2 goals.

Olivia Graupmann was subbed on in the most recent game for the last few minutes. The youngest and 4th GK Bayliss Flynn has not played for the team.


The Center Backs

Center backs Rachel Preston and Kelsey Kaufusi, have started all 8 games and lead MN Aurora in minutes, with 783 and 723 minutes respectively out of 810 total minutes possible.

Kaufusi is a centerback that is free to roam and challenge the ball almost anywhere on the pitch. She recently has shown the ability to dribble forward on attack and make key passes.

Preston has the stay-at-home role and is sometimes the only one back when the other three backs go forward.

Mayu Inokawa has subbed in at center back for two games.

Captain Makenzie Langdok [right] wears the captain’s armband with Pride – credit: MN Aurora

The Fullbacks

Captain RFB Makenzie Langdok was recently rested for 1 game, but has 675 minutes, the 3rd most on the team. She is also tied with Ngyuen as points-leader with 3 goals and 2 assists.

Elizabeth “Eli” Rapp has the 5th most minutes on the team with 584. She possesses the technical skills to dribble out trouble and “break ankles” of opposing players trying to get the ball

Nicole Lukic has stated she wants the fullbacks involved in the attack. Elizabeth Rapp and Makenzie Langdok are two fullbacks that have the pace and soccer IQ to play these two-way roles.

Abby Ostrem, who has started in three games at fullback and subbed in five others, has shown to be a great depth addition with tenacity on defense and improvement at going forward. She has gained more confidence on the ball and almost got a goal in the game last Sunday.


The Center Midfielders

Addison Symonds and Morgan Stone are the double pivot in the center midfield.

While Symonds tends to be more of the box-to-box #8 and Stone more the defensive #6, they demonstrate the communication and chemistry to switch roles seamlessly.

Shelby Hopeau is a dynamic and versatile center mid, also rotating in at fullback and attacking midfield.

Rami Rapp has a soccer IQ well beyond most high school seniors and likes to dribble forward on the attack.

Morgan Stone recently said, “When I was playing with Shelby, we both kind of alternated who was joining into the attack, but when Rami came into the game, she’s traditionally more of an attacking player. So, you know, Nicole told me before the second half that I might have to sit in a little bit more and find my moments to join [on attack], but be more defensively sound.”

Washburn alumnus Lydia Ruppert also has subbed in 5 games, 3 times in the center midfield. Also, on Sunday she started at the #10.

CM Addison Symonds Interview and video of Symonds Goal with Cha’s leaping screen/dummy

Center Attacking Midfielders / Playmakers

At center attacking midfield and aptly wearing #10 is Sangmin Cha. Cha has 2 goals in 522 minutes, and her on-the-ball skills and field vision need to be seen in person. She also has the awareness to track back on defense.

I asked Cha how she got on this team: “I searched the USL W soccer league website, and I did find this team…. They have good organization and good coaching staff.”

Cha added that she sent an email with her highlight video, and “The coaches want me, so I chose this team.”

Nicole Lukic said, “She’s just got a lot of different movements that American players don’t have, quite frankly. She’s very good with the ball at her feet.”

After the recent home game versus Kaw Valley, Maya Hansen remarked, “It’s so fun playing with Cha. She’s so versatile, and she can just get around people in one second. She makes my job way easier. You saw her put three balls right in front of me to set me up for a great shot.”

Catherine Rapp subbed in 7 games and earned the top spot behind Cha. She can spin away from defenders and keep possession in tight spaces. She also has 2 goals and 1 assist on the year.

Morgan Stone and Eli Rapp lift goalscorer Mariah Nguyen like a fish while Rachel Preston mimes photography – credit: MN Aurora

The Outside Midfielders / Wings

Mariah Nguyen is definitely the preferred left wing, playing in 6 games, starting 5 of them. She played fullback in last year at Bemidji State, but she has only played in the attacking front for Aurora. She uses her speed to burst inside then bounce outside and turn the corner around slower fullbacks. She is tied with Langdok on the season with 3 goals and 2 assists.

Jelena Zbiljic has started 6 games at right wing. Zbilijic is creative with the ball, which can yield danger in attack but can also yield turnovers. She has 2 goals and 1 assist.

Jill Bennett has started the other 3 games at right wing. Bennett has logged only 40 fewer minutes than Zbiljic. Bennett is the better crosser with 3 assists, 2 crosses and 1 short pass off a corner kick.

Arianna Del Moral has risen ahead of the other options as the first choice behind Nguyen at left wing, subbing in 4 games and starting in 2 with 1 goal and 1 assist.

Abby Brantner has also subbed in 4 games. She has demonstrated versatility subbing at either left or right wing as well as fullback.

The Forwards

After starting at left wing, Maya Hansen has risen to the top of striker depth chart. She has started 8 games logging 481 minutes. She has 3 goals on the season, and her speed helps MN Aurora’s press.

Morgan Turner has played in 6 games and has 2 goals on the season. She likes to make well timed runs behind the defense or use her dribbling to create her own shot.

Kristelle Yewah has only played in 4 games but has demonstrated great hold up play and spatial awareness on offense and defense.

Coaches Jenn Larrick, Nicole Lukic, Jennie Clark, and Cassie Ulrich all hold up a Pride scarf at the last home game. – credit: MN Aurora

Putting It All Together

“As a coaching staff, we just continue to try to develop our players in this pre-professional league. So development is still high on our list and been happy that we’ve been able to give lots of different players experiences this year.”

Heach Coach Nicole Lukic, June 26 after the last regular season home game

Minnesota Aurora head coach Nicole Lukic is also the Director of Operations at Twins Cities Rush (youth soccer). She has a Masters in Athletic Administration and a USSF A License, which in my one-on-one interview, she explained the processes to get to that level. Previously, she has coached at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse and played for University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

After the last home game, the Star Tribune’s Lavelle E. Neal asked, “Your production comes through so many different people: is that the system or the players?”

Lukic beamed, “Both, but yeah, we’re super happy about it. I don’t know how many it is now 12 or 13 players that have points, which is really impressive. And I think that’s definitely helps build our confidence that anybody on the team can score at any time.”

In 9 games played, Aurora has 11 different goal scorers, 10 players with assists, and 15 different players with points. The coaching staff have played all 21 outfield players and 3 of their goalkeepers and still are undefeated.

Both assistant coaches Jennie Clark and Jenn Larrick have experience playing at University of Minnesota and coaching at Hamline. With Clark also having been an assistant coach at the U. of Minnesota and Larrick an assistant at Augsburg, both are familiar with Minnesota’s soccer talent. Director of Soccer’s Matt Privatsky is also familiar with Minnesota’s soccer landscape due to founding Equal Time Soccer and their coverage of Minnesota collegiate and WPSL soccer.

Jennie Clark was also most recently an assistant coach at Utah Tech (formerly Dixie State), under head coach Molly Rouse. Rouse also played for Minnesota Gophers. Both Clark and Rouse are familiar with Utah Tech’s Jill Bennett and helped recruit the two Utah State players Addison Symonds and Kelsey Kaufusi.

Goalkeeper Coach Cassie Ulrich also coaches in Utah during the school year as the head coach of Salt Lake Community College women’s soccer team. Previously, she was the women’s football and futsal coach at the University of Nottingham. With a degree in Exercise Science, she often leads the team in warm-ups and warm-downs.

Ultimately, Lukic, Clark, and Larrick put in many hours in selecting Ulrich as Goalkeeper Coach from a plethora of applicants and even more hours in recruiting, selecting, and making offers to the players.

After MN Aurora had beaten Chicago City for the second time in 3 days, Coach Lukic credited the coaching staff and front office:

“This is how we built our team: with big goals in mind, and we want to keep it moving. We put a lot of effort into the players that we recruited, getting them to play the way that we wanted to play. So it’s nice to see things coming together. We’ve got a long way to go yet, but we’re happy with our start. And we’re gonna stay focused on moving towards our goal of being the division champion.”

Nicole Lukic after beating Chicago City twice at home

One source revealed that after most games one or more opposing players give Coach Lukic their contact information and that MN Aurora’s buzz in the women’s amateur/pre-pro soccer world continues to grow. How many of the current Aurora players will be with the squad next year? Regardless, with 3 regular season games to play and a potential postseason run, this impressive inaugural Aurora squad still has work to do.

By Matthew Johnson

Matthew "MJ" Johnson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. In 2007, he discovered UEFA Champions League. His complex spreadsheets went from college football bowl season to European club soccer, and his fandom soon followed. In 2011, a friend Wes made the mistake of inviting him to an NSC Minnesota Stars game, where he fell in love with local soccer. Matthew co-hosts The Daves I Know podcast and occasionally guest hosts the MN Fútbol Show. When not playing broomball or watching soccer, he repairs bicycles and sharpens knives for money but fuses cuisines for fun. Follow Matthew on Twitter @mjmattsui

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