MNUFC2 and Cameron Knowles are still building something

Cameron Knowles doesn’t look tired yet.

He is wearing long sleeves and a sweater, after MNUFC2’s 2-1 loss against MLS NEXT Pro-leading St. Louis CITY2, on a sometimes-sunny, always-humid evening in Blaine. The MNUFC2 head coach wore the sweater during the game, he was on his feet and coaching, and yet he doesn’t appear to be dying of heat exhaustion, or even sweating all that much.

Knowles coaches at Allianz Field earlier this season. (Courtesy MNUFC)

If you’ve ever been around male athletes in football or basketball, you’ll know how confusing it can be to be up close to players that are considered small, in the context of their sport. Stand next to a diminutive NBA point guard or a speedy, undersized NFL running back, and you will discover that in fact this supposedly-tiny player is almost impossibly enormous, a gargantuan man made smaller only by the hulking reference points he’s surrounded with.

Soccer players are exactly the opposite. Observe them from a distance – say, the press box – and, by reference, even slight players appear huge. Anyone over six feet tall might as well be a seven-footer; anyone whose shoulders are noticeably broader than his hips appears ready to play outside linebacker for the Vikings. And then when you stand next to them, you remember that the average soccer player is about 5’9” and 150 pounds.

Knowles, on the other hand, actually is as tall as he looks from the distant remove of the press box. He’s 39 and looks like he’s ready to play again tomorrow; if MLS ever starts an MLS LAST Pro alumni league, Knowles looks like he could slot in at center back on the first day.

From a coaching standpoint, I’m expecting a certain amount of exhaustion from him, in the post-game interviews. I’ve been jaded by too much listening to big-name European coaches complaining about the poor squads they’ve been saddled with, or by coaches everywhere noting that injuries or absences mean that expectations must be lowered.

If he wanted, Knowles has plenty to complain about. He’s just faced St. Louis, one of the better teams in the league, with a 16-man squad. His five-man bench included a keeper from the team’s academy, a player that was signed on loan three days earlier, another academy product making his first appearance on the team’s bench, and a semi-injured regular.

Two of his defenders were with the first team on Friday in Vancouver, so tonight, he’s starting 19-year-old left back Devin Padelford at center back, and regular left winger Emmanuel Iwe at left back, a position that he admits that Iwe only “might have played a little bit, in one game earlier this year.”

Yet I’ve given him too little credit, because Knowles is still positive. “We still have to pick a team, and maybe with less (players), those decisions make themselves,” he said, finding the ultimate silver lining. “I’m proud of what the group did and their effort and what they put into that game.”

That’s Knowles’s response to everything, seemingly: looking on the bright side. Despite the loss. Despite the short-handed squad. Despite battling uphill all season. Despite being dressed like Mr. Autumn Man in the summertime. He feels like his group, however it’s constituted, is building something.

“If you look at our team, this is what we talked about, the difference from where we were at the beginning of the year to now,” he said. “Some of the individual performances and some of the collective performances are night and day.”

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It’s a different world, MLS NEXT Pro. I was back at the National Sports Center for the first time since the MNUFC first team had moved on to the brighter lights of MLS, but even in the familiar environment, things were different.

There’s no scoreboard at the NSC anymore, not even the digital wagon that used to sit in the corner of the field, so those writers who might be too forgetful to start their own clock (me) had to depend on the kindness of others to tell them what minute it was.

There is no scoreboard or TV for replays, and no one in the press box could get the league website to work, so there was no hope of even rewatching big moments on the league’s live-stream broadcast. I’m told that the broadcast crashed midway through the second half anyway, so maybe it was a moot point.

Anytime something happened in the game, the whole press box – team PR and a couple of writers – had to work as a team to piece together what had happened. Who scored? What minute was it? Who launched that ball into the area? Who got that yellow card? In the world of MLS NEXT Pro writing, it’s not every man for himself.

Thanks to this team effort, I can tell you that MNUFC2 fell behind midway through the first half thanks to a classy finish from St. Louis striker Josh Dolling, one of the aforementioned six-foot-plus giants, who got on the end of a perfect ball from defender Ezra Armstrong and just had to touch it past Doubloons keeper Alec Smir.

Smir had already been under pressure, having saved a penalty just ten minutes into the game after Iwe had given a PK away with a foul in the box, a baptism by fire to the newly-minuted defender. And with MNUFC2 starting to press, he gave up a second goal with 20 minutes to go in the game, this time to Sergio Rivas.

The Doubloons didn’t give up, though. Center back Jason Ramos pulled back a goal eight minutes later, getting on the end of an Aziel Jackson free-kick chip, chesting it down, and hooking into the back of the net, his first goal for MNUFC2. But while they had more chances, ultimately the final score was 2-1.

“For us to go two-nil down and then to claw our way back into the game and have chances to equalize towards the end, I was really proud of the guys for that,” said Knowles. “I think a lot of teams, conceding that second goal, fold in that moment and see the score go to three and four. The guys that came into the game made a difference and we had a lot of chances.”

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For me, the key standout (among the non first-team guys) was forward David Garcia, a MNUFC academy product who required some research to find his story. He’s 20 years old, grew up in Mexico but played a year for Chaska High School (living with his brother), where he scored piles of goals and got the attention of MNUFC.

This was his second start of the season, and his sixth appearance.

Garcia was on the end of any number of excellent chances. In the first five minutes, he intercepted a wayward back-pass but shot straight at the keeper, and then had a header that grazed the crossbar. Just before halftime, Diogo Pacheco played him into such space in the penalty area that he had time to take a touch to control the ball, then two more to round the keeper on his left foot, only to see his shot cleared off the line by a defender.

In the second half, he had another long-range effort that fizzed just wide of the far post.

Said Knowles, “Great kid, great attitude. He’d been playing with our U-19s and then has been with us now for a couple of months. He works really hard, had some good moments, maybe one of those chances falls for him. But, to get in those positions and create those chances, hat off to him, he’s done well.”

Frankly, this is still the best reason to come to MLS NEXT Pro games – to see the potential future. Garcia was one of two Academy players to start – right back Carlos Leatherman, who’s started nine consecutive games and was singled out for praise by Knowles, was the other.

Ignacio Gutíerrez looks for goal while Carlos Leatherman looks on. (Courtesy MNUFC)

Do the Doubloons want to win? This was one of my key questions, before MLS NEXT Pro launched. Would it be competitive, or would it feel like spring training in baseball?

After seeing a few games, it’s pretty clear that the team wants to win, something Knowles keeps repeating. But they’re doing that in a positive, iterative, building way, not in the “produce or get shipped out of town” way we’re all familiar with from MLS first teams.

It feels more scholastic and less cutthroat. Talking to Knowles feels like talking to a college football coach. I should ask him how he feels about rowing and boats.

MNUFC2 has ten games remaining this year, and playoffs could be a stretch. They’re nine points behind Frontier Division-leading St. Louis CITY2, and six points out of a Western Conference wild card (with a game in hand).

It’ll take lots more good moments – Knowles’ favorite phrase to describe the best play of almost any player – to get above that line.

But Cameron Knowles isn’t tired yet. And for all the players that are trying to develop into solid professionals – academy players like Garcia and Leatherman, former collegians like Pacheco or Iwe, or homegrown-contracted first-teamers like Padelford and Jackson – that has to feel like a good thing.

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