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Michael Boxall has started every game for MNUFC this season in his usual spot at right center back, but he's played next to three different left center backs – including homegrown player Devin Padelford and just-out-of-college rookie Hugo Bacharach.

The youngsters can't help but speak warmly about the veteran. Bacharach said he's "like a big brother." "Everyone looks to him," said head coach Eric Ramsay, who's more than three years younger than the 35-year-old Boxall.

Youth has come to the forefront for Minnesota United, and they're all looking up to Boxall, the oldest player on the team, the club leader in games played, and only player who's been around the club since Minnesota joined MLS.

Only don't try to tell that to Boxall. "Some days, I feel like I'm as mature as they are," he said.

It hasn't escaped anyone involved that when both Boxall and fellow veteran defender Zarek Valentin started their MLS careers in 2011, both Bacharach and Padelford were yet to turn 10 years old. "It's definitely funny when I'm talking to my parents and they're like, 'They have kids and families, and you're just 21,'" said Padelford.

Boxall's on-field demeanor exudes intensity, all angry glances and dismissive gestures. So it might be a surprise that, outside of game day, he's soft-spoken in interviews, always willing to make a joke and be self-deprecating.

Padelford said that, between Boxall and Valentin, the captain is the "good cop" of the defensive leadership team. "He's a little more quiet, more lead by example," said Padelford. "Zarek's just kind of an honest guy, but it's so good to have him."

It would have been hard to design a more difficult situation for the Loons defense this year. Ramsay didn't officially arrive until week four of the season, and when he did, he arrived with plenty of new ideas about how the Loons should play defensively – just as a rash of injuries and suspensions hit the back line.

"Normally when a new coach comes in, you have six weeks of preseason," said Boxall, who said the emphasis so far under Ramsay has been on the defensive side of the ball. "We're trying to squeeze in as much detail in as little time as possible."

Though these are very small sample sizes, when looking at the numbers for expected goals, the Loons were the fifth-worst defensive team in MLS before Ramsay arrived – and have been second-best since.

Padelford spoke about how he learns from everything Boxall does, from his demeanor on the field to how quickly he reacts, to how he's always first to the ball on defense.

Whatever example Boxall is providing, it's something the Loons desperately need amid all of this change. And despite his protests, you'd have to say that the captain seems like he enjoys it. "They keep me young," he said. "Maybe if they can pick up a habit from me, that might help them in the long run."

Halftime isn't about rants and raves from Ramsay

Minnesota earned just one point total in home games against Real Salt Lake and Houston, but in both matches, the Loons were a very different team in the second half.

In the first halves of those matches, Minnesota outshot its opponents 16-10. In the second halves, the shots were a combined 33-7 in favor of the Loons.

So what is Ramsay doing in the locker room? Is it pure motivation? Screaming? A combination of Ted Lasso and Alex Ferguson, all calculated to extract fiery second-half performances to follow slumbering first halves?

Not surprisingly for Ramsay, who tends to project calm, the truth is far more level-headed. "I think generally being constructive at halftime is my approach and the staff's approach," Ramsay said.

The 15 minutes of halftime are a whirlwind, but the coach first lets the players work things out amongst themselves, while he consults with his coaching staff and reviews analyst video, before he has few quick moments to try to impart any changes.

"You can really help the players if you're constructive enough, if you've picked up on key details that need to be passed on, but you've got a very limited window to do that," Ramsay said.

Those changes have helped MNUFC post two consecutive excellent second halves; now the test will be whether they can carry those changes forward to the first half, as well.

Oh, they aren't an expansion team?

The MLS schedule is wildly unbalanced; the Loons will play 27 of their 34 games this year against Western Conference teams.

So while Sunday is Minnesota's first-ever game against Charlotte FC, the North Carolinians aren't new to the league; they've been in MLS since 2022.

It's less a scheduling quirk than what should be a concern for the league, which increasingly looks like two leagues — one Eastern, one Western — with a scheduling arrangement.

The league tries to sell marquee teams like Inter Miami, but for fans in Minnesota, Lionel Messi might as well be in Mexico, for all they'll see him on the field against the Loons. They didn't see him last year, they won't see him this year, and odds are he won't be on their schedule next year, after which his contract is set to expire.

And when San Diego joins the Western Conference next year, MNUFC will be down to six games against the East -- unless the league finds a more balanced way to do its schedule.