Minnesota United staff and scouts evaluated 85 prospects last week in Blaine for their new MNUFC2 team set to enter the new MLS NEXT Pro development league.
Teenagers and 20-somethings alike seek their place on a "player pathway" to the big league. But perhaps as important for a club adding a reserve team is who the Loons already have, not who they might add.
Last season, the Loons loaned some of their young first-team players to teams such as Sacramento, North Carolina and Phoenix in the USL Championship and League One divisions so they could get much-needed playing time they couldn't get on a MLS team fighting for the playoffs.
Goalkeeper Fred Emmings, midfielder Aziel Jackson, 2021 first-round picks Justin McMaster and Nabi Kibunguchy and perhaps their 17th overall pick in Tuesday's MLS SuperDraft all could play for MNUFC2 rather than loaned elsewhere.
MNUFC2 coach Cameron Knowles calls this new second team's "first and foremost" objective to support those first-team players who have been loaned out to lower-division teams so they can play games and grow.
"Now we can keep those guys here and get them games and keep a closer eye on them," Knowles said. "We can have more direct influence over their development."
Emmings signed as the club's first homegrown player, in January 2020 when he was just 15. He has seen little game action since then for a Loons team that also has veteran starter Tyler Miller, first-round pick/Canadian national team member Dayne St. Clair and newly acquired Eric Dick at his position.
"Fred Emmings is a kid who outside a few academy games at the end of last season hasn't played in a long time," Knowles said. "He needed a run of games. He needs a pathway to come back in. There's a lot of guys who fit in that category."
Those 85 prospects participating in last week's combine included players from the two USL divisions and top NCAA Division I players, some of whom will be drafted Tuesday. There also were teenagers who decided a pathway to the MLS doesn't go through college for them.
A precious few will be invited back to preseason training or possibly be signed to pro contracts for a second team that doesn't yet know its schedule or where it will play its home games. Knowles spitballed a 24-game season that likely will start in late March.
The Loons' first team starts training for its sixth MLS season next Monday at their Blaine facility.
They are one of the new league's 21 founding teams — 20 are affiliated with MLS clubs — in an inaugural season that will include playoffs and a league cup final. Eight more MLS-affiliated and other independent teams are expected to join in 2023.
Hired before last season as senior video analyst, Knowles coached nine years in the Portland Timbers' system. Included were three as an assistant coach for a team that won the 2015 MLS Cup and three years as head coach for the Timbers 2 reserve team in the USL Championship.
Knowles said those few players chosen for a roster constructed from scratch will "connect the dots" to the Loons' first team.
"Otherwise, the jump from academy to first team is huge," Knowles said. "We don't just want to fill a roster. We want to have the balance of experience, the balance of exciting young talent, the balance of an environment that helps develop the players already here on a first-team contract but haven't had the games to play."
Their new MNUFC2 team will allow the Loons to implement the same training drills, playing system and terminology that head coach Adrian Heath and his staff use with the first team.
"The style and system will be very much the same, but the reality is we have very different players," Knowles said. "I don't know if we're going to have a [Emanuel] Reynoso on the second team that mirrors the first team. We have to be mindful of that … The daunting and exciting part of it is, we're flexible.
"Sometimes you see a player who's really good, but might not fit your team at his position. We need all positions."