Today, Wednesday, May 24 at 7 p.m. Minnesota Aurora FC will kick off their season with their 2023 home opener at TCO Stadium in Eagan. They take on new Minnesota USL W League foe Rochester FC.
The W League has expanded from 44 teams in 7 divisions in 2022 to 65 teams in 10 divisions for 2023. In the Heartland Division, gone are Kaw Valley (KS) and the St. Louis Lions. However, the 2023 Heartland Division boasts 7 teams (up from 6) due to two new Milwaukee-based teams, and Rochester FC.
“I’m just really looking forward to seeing the new competition, new level. I mean, there’s gonna be way more teams this year. It’s gonna be way more competitive — and just kind of bringing in our edge and our competitiveness. So, try and take last season and do the same thing this year with returning players and new players — and keeping our culture and just really excited for this upcoming year.”Aurora Wing Jelena Zbiljic at the Kit Reveal at Mall of America
Throughout the past month, I have had the chance to interview new players and returning players about this anticipated second season. Three themes kept coming up: community, depth, and the world’s game.
Depth – New Players and Returning Players
Makenzie Langdok – Fullback, 2022 Captain
“We [returning players] have the benefit of knowing everyone. Most of us have played together before. The new players have definitely elevated our play overall. They are super nice and fit in with us chemistry-wise. So, that’s been fun.”
Kaitlyn MacBean – Forward
“It’s a new environment. It’s gonna push me in ways that I’ve never been pushed. So I’m excited for that and I’m excited to get better and for everyone around me to get better, and I think we have a good environment here where everyone wants to push each other.”
Morgan Stone – Center Midfielder
“The returners, obviously, some of us were young. Take, for example, the Rapps: they were just straight out of high school, but now they’ve had a year of college under their belt. So, everybody’s increasing their level of play. Now, we’ve got a few more new players that have raised the level even more. So, we’re looking around, and it’s not just an 11 that’s going to play every minute. There’s going to be, probably, some good rotations, good shared minutes, keep our legs fresh because all of us are very talented, and we’re all capable of playing at this level. So it’s a good healthy competition to have.”
The World’s Game in Minnesota
Soccer is the world’s game, but each culture and team interprets the game differently. Also, separating soccer from the culture that surrounds it is difficult. How do the players see these similarities and differences?
Kennedy Faulknor – Center Back
Faulknor was born in Scarborough, Ontario in the eastern Toronto area, played for UCLA, and has just returned to the US from playing for Canberra United in Australia.
MJ: Was there anything about the Australian style of play or maybe the Australian coaches that mad you say, “This is different. This is not in the US anymore.”?
KF: In American soccer, obviously, it’s a lot more athletic. And you know, a lot of players are more like faster, stronger, aggressive. In Australia, it’s more technical, and the [players] move the ball a lot more and might not be as fast as the pace, but it’s still a different game. It was it was a lot of learning. I was able to learn from that and grow.
MJ: Awesome. And now you get to take that what you learned and bring it to Minnesota Aurora. How did you get in contact with Minnesota Aurora?
KF: The Australia off-season really is quite long. It’s about four months, and I was at home in Canada, and not really having much places to train or play at a high level. I knew this team went undefeated last year and has a great coaching staff, great environment. I think my agent reached out to Nicole [Lukic] and got that sorted. I’m just happy to be here and get games in and great training and hopefully grow more into that center back position.
Tianna Harris – Center Back
Tianna Harris is also from the eastern Toronto area, born in Whitby, Ontario. She originally struggled with the culture at Mississippi State, but has found success at Kent State in Ohio.
MJ: So, coming from Ohio to Minnesota, kind of the same thing, same vibe or really different?
TH: Yeah, I mean, coming from Ohio is pretty similar. Minnesota has the same type of vibe, but the community here is pretty insane. The Aurora Community: it’s quite amazing to see and even better to be a part of.
Vienna Behnke – Attacking Midfielder
Behnke went to UW Milwaukee, spent one year with the Red Stars, and then went overseas to play in Iceland for the past five years.
MJ: How would you compare NWSL to the Icelandic Premier League?
VB: So the style of play is really different, like I’m smaller and more skilled, not that big and strong and fast. And the NWSL really wants those kinds of players. So, when I went over to Europe, I was like, “Oh, I fit in a little bit better over here.” I was a little bit [hessitant] thinking about what it would be like to come back to the US to play but so far, … I feel like I fit in at the real Aurora. And it’s been a really good transition.
MJ: That is one thing … over there, like size and speed don’t seem to matter [as much]. It’s more tactics, visual awareness, how you read the game.
MJ: Would you say that those sorts of things are appreciated by the coaching staff here?
VB: Yeah, absolutely. And I think even now, I mean, it’s day two, I don’t know everything yet, but the style of play we’re playing is high-quality, intelligent soccer. And not just like kicking, run, and hope you’re faster than the other players. So that’s been really refreshing to me, because just kicking and running is what like little-kids soccer in America is, and it’s so cringy like, just stop doing that. It’s actually been really refreshing here to have an actual style of play that the [players] are buying into, and everybody seems to be able to understand their own decision making on the field, which is really nice.
The Aurora Community: The Club and its Fans
Jelena Zbiljic – Wing
[on what she noticed in the off-season]: “Just the overall preparation and keeping the fans engaged throughout the off-season — so that we have more followers. Everything going into this next season [seems bigger] and just the community staying engaged and super excited for this upcoming summer. Everyone is kind of eager, and I know we personally were counting down the days. [We could see] the hard work that the founders and the community was putting into the off-season to make this season even better than last year.”
Taylor Kane – Goalkeeper
“Besides winning the USL W championship, I’m really excited to just have TCO packed again and meet our fans spend time with this community because it’s really special.”
Addy Weichers – Center Midfielder
“Yeah, I think the team during the offseason has got even more awareness than they did last year. so I think the crowd is going to be even better. [The crowd at the end of last season was] really good, and I think that’s the crowd we’re going to start out for this year, which is gonna be really exciting. The fans are so fun. “
Kelsey Kaufusi – Center Back
“I’m super excited to be part of the community again, and I’m excited to see all the fans and see the kids and everything and do Autograph Alley. It’s one of my favorite things so I’m super excited to be back.”
Morgan Stone – Center Midfielder
[On training vs game day]: “Yeah, sometimes it can be hard, just being in training camp because you just want to play games, right? That’s what we’re here to do. But the anticipation has definitely been building, and I think the most exciting part is just to be in front of the community again and seeing the stadium packed. You know, we train here every day and it’s empty. But to see thousands of people here cheering for you: it’s just an incredible, exciting feeling.”
Minnesota Aurora have a busy schedule. After the season opener, Aurora have to travel this Saturday to take on Chicago Dutch Lions, a team which they beat twice last year: 3-1 at home and 3-0 away.