Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Wednesday, May 29, 2024

MNUFCII 2-1 FMFC: Finding Fitness, Togetherness

Happy Sunday all, Andrew here, back from the Twin Cities after a short and sweet trip filled with football, friends, late night blockchain proselytizing, giving away homemade burritos in St. Paul’s oldest bar, and eating one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had out of a polystyrene container outside the Hard Times Cafe. The boys played well and the while the squad’s still working up to full fitness, there were plenty of positives to take from the match. Generally I find that when you’re with good people on away days (even if it’s mostly to cover the game for NDZ) that the football usually ends up being a smaller piece of the trip, even if in this case it was the primary reason for our visit.

On the Hunt

Grant told me before this trip that I’d return to Madison with way too many records, as the shop scene in these sister cities isn’t nearly as picked-through as our usual Madison haunts. It turns out Grant was correct; I’d find an absolute treasure trove of selections from my wantlist, many of which were still sealed in shrinkwrap from the 1980s. I always have high hopes of finding records of a certain genre or style when visiting places where that type of music was born or made popular, and usually have my hopes dashed when I arrive only to find lots of others had the same idea long before me. In the case of Minneapolis/St. Paul, the shops there do not disappoint. A bit of a lesser-known gem in St. Paul is Urban Lights Music, filled with a seeming never-ending supply of 12 inch singles, new jack swing, Minneapolis sound, and even rarer modern hip hop finds (I snagged a copy of Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap, which has been out of stock everywhere for months at a time). I found probably a third of the stack I brought home at that shop, owned and operated by the incredibly knowledgable Tim Wilson. If you’re in the Cities and on the hunt for good music, add them to your list.


Rewinding back to the start of our short stint in Minnesota, we begin north of MSP proper in Blaine at the National Sports Center. The NSC or “Nessie” is the old stomping grounds for many Twin Cities soccer fans; the former home of USL era Thunder, NASL era Stars, and pre-MLS Minnesota United. Friday’s game took place in a big inflatable dome, similar to Marquette’s setup at Valley Fields in Milwaukee. While not exactly warm (my feet didn’t fully thaw until hours later), it separates the players from the elements in the middle of winter and offers a full pitch experience largely unavailable in Madison.

While some might be a bit disappointed at the prospect of a preseason loss, the scoreline of the game doesn’t tell the full story of the game’s takeways. Cassini looked even better than he did vs NIU and Marquette, vocal and animated in the final third, twisting and turning through opposition players to find space, a connecting ball out to the wing, or drawing out defenders before delivering a key pass in front of goal. It was his interplay with Rojay off the wing that set up the goal for the same trialist who scored against Marquette.

Speaking of this particular trialist, we heard on Friday that he’s been signed and is awaiting league approval. We can’t say much more than he’s quality (his goals thus far have been quite good), he has MLS pedigree, and has played internationally. Also has a surname that will be quite easy to riff on as far as banners/imagery goes. Anyway, speaking of Cassini, we had an interesting chat about him with Keith Tiemeyer, FMFC’s new Director of Soccer Operations & Development. Keith directly compared Matheus to 2019 FMFC midfielder Josiel Nunez, in both players’ technical ability to chip away at opposition weaknesses.

“I’ve watched this team a lot over the past three seasons, partially just as a fan, and the past two seasons it was clear that the team missed a player like [Josiel]. And while everyone talks about Brazilian players specifically having that flair and style, one thing many of them do incredibly well is playing efficiently – they’re able to make slight tweaks during games to unlock movement and passes and help others around them do the same. Matheus is that type of player for us.”

– FMFC Director of Soccer Operations & Development,
Keith Tiemeyer

Keith also talked about Abdou, and the role they see him playing this season. Tiemeyer was quick to show appreciation for the past coaching staff and players, but noted last year you could see what Carl was trying to do pairing a hold-up, back-to-goal style player like Sierakowski with Jake Keegan. Keith described Abdou as a more technical, quicker player than Keegan, who frequently looked a half step behind what Sierakowski was trying to accomplish in 2021. Abdou was muscled off the ball a few times on Friday by MNUFCII’s center halves, but after about 5 minutes on the pitch started tracking back to the middle third for passes and begun floating wide, allowing Derek to make runs into the area. Pushed wide, Abdou dribbled around defenders and was able to put in some dangerous crosses. While playing wide doesn’t seem to necessarily play to his strengths, it was encouraging to see him changing up his approach when Plan A (playing through the middle) wasn’t working. Keith’s words beg another question: will we see another taller, bigger striker come in that Abdou, Cassini, wingers can play off of? KT strikes me as someone who picks his words wisely, and the next three weeks will be crucial to putting some of those final pieces of the team together.

Another bright spot in the game was the defending we saw from the wingers. Rojay spent his time on the pitch roaming up and down the right flank, tracking back to defend and constantly pressing to win back possession. Heath Martin played on the left most of the game, and while still a very raw talent, he made a good account for himself on the day. You can tell he’s still learning how to listen to his teammates on the pitch, and the confidence needed to pick his head up to find open teammates is starting to come, and he could play a serviceable backup to Derek Gebhard (who, by the way, only played about 15 minutes in the second half before coming off). Mele Temguia has not yet joined up with the rest of the squad, though we’re told that will happen shortly. Mitch Osmond and Drew Conner sat out this game, and one has to think they’re either carrying knocks or not fully match-fit. With three weeks before the season’s start, it’s a bit too much of a risk to play guys who might exacerbate an injury and there really isn’t a good reason right now to take that gamble.

Eric Leonard on Preseason Thus Far

Grant and I caught up with Eric Leonard after the game, and he was generous with his time after what was a gritty, chippy game.

NDZ: Eric Leonard, How’s preseason going, how was today?

Eric Leonard: I think today in the eyes of the players and coaching staff is a positive. We went up early against an MLS reserve team, I thought they were quality but more importantly, I thought our guys were quality. We’ve been working hard and I think you can tell going from Marquette, to NIU, to today – there’s a difference in our play, there’s a sharper focus on being able to do what Matt wants, it’s a marked improvement. You’re starting to see a togetherness form, you’re starting to see us getting used to playing with each other.

We still have another two, three weeks – and yeah, today when we made our subs we gave up a late goal, but we still had chances after that. I think that’s what’s different about this team; there’s a lot of depth. We’re still missing a couple pieces, too. Part of what these next few weeks will give us is a chance to get our fitness up. I think you saw going into the second half the fatigue starting to set in, and that fitness will come with more time. We have one more test against the Fire, and today I’m happy with how the first half went – we kept a clean sheet and were up 1-0 and that’s where our fitness was, and now this next game we have to go for a clean sheet for 65-75 minutes, building up until the beginning of the season. 

NDZ: You started again today, middle of a back three. Do you think that’s the role you’ll play, to anchor that back line this season?

EL: We have Mitch Osmond, who is an absolute animal. I think he’ll probably be back there too and I might transition playing on the right side of that back 3. Until he gets fully fit and healthy I’m glad to move around in that back line but we have a bunch of fantastic defenders who can come in and fill a role. But when it comes to defense, I’ll play just about anywhere.

NDZ: Is there more of a focus on the mental side of things this preseason?

EL: Night and day. And it comes from the preparation. I’ve enjoyed playing for all the coaches here, but Matt has a sense of professionalism and makes sure you know your job before you walk onto the pitch. That sets the tone for your mentality playing, but also we can see the organization and planning behind his coaching. He puts the work in and it makes us want to work for him, too.

NDZ: The amount of back and forth trash talk between teams was noticeable today, more than previous Madison teams, is that a more pronounced part of the mental side of this team this season?

EL: You know what, at Breese it’s always really loud so I’m not sure if you hear it but I do a fair amount of my own chirping just to get in guys’ heads (smiles). But no, I try to focus on my play but sometimes if someones’s tugging at me or yelling at me, I’m definitely going to yell something back. I’m never going to change the way I play, I like playing with a bit of a grudge, a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and when you’re playing an MLS team you want to stand out. I mean ultimately we all want to play first division, it’s a dream to play at a the top level and there are people here watching who make decisions for those teams.

NDZ: The improvement in some of the returning players’ game has been noticeable even in preseason; Sukow, Rad, Enriquez, they look vastly improved already.

EL: The level of fitness alone from those guys, and look – there’s a reason we brought those guys back, because they’re quality – and now we’re adding to that. Abdou is a great example, he only got 20 minutes at the end but you can tell immediately watching him play that he’s technical and can score goals. We have a stacked midfield, a stacked back line – and I mean, we’re still adding pieces, but there’s depth here and it’s different than before. We’re not relying on 14 guys, it’s going to be all 23 that are critical.

NDZ: What can we expect going into the next week and the game against Chicago?

EL: Hopefully we’ll be getting guys even more minutes and building on this sense of cohesion. The biggest thing I saw today was a bit of our attacking identity. And that is something we have struggled with in Madison for years. You saw it today not just in the final third but our goal today came from the back line all the way up – we had possession for maybe 90 seconds and were positive, and aggressive. We’ve been working on that link-up play a lot in practice, it’s not just something that happens randomly. We’ve kinda always had a plan for defending and protecting the goal but this season I think you’re going to see we’re going to be just as aggressive going forward.

We’re also trying to build on keeping our line higher because if we can win the ball in their half, we’re closer to goal and we’ve got guys with talent who can counter quickly. We’re also not trying to be like the NY Red Bulls, with that back and forth box-to-box play. We want quick counter-attacks without having to reset, possessing the ball, making quick first passes when defenders win the ball back, and staying in their half as much as possible. It’s all positioning, angles; geometry. It starts with Phil: if he’s not on his line then Cyrus can’t find an angle for Mikey, he can’t can’t find a pass for Rojay, and then Abdou isn’t getting service. This is a team sport and everyone is integral, whether they have the ball or not.

Thanks for reading, we’ll be back this next weekend with a recap of the week’s goings-on and a preview of Saturday’s closed-door game vs Chicago Fire II. While the game is at Breese, most NDZ contributors will be up in the Northwoods with the Flock End drum crew at a preseason retreat of sorts (fire pit, hot tub, cabin in the valley, it’s going to be glorious). Have a wonderful week ✌️.


  • Andrew Schmidt

    Eclecticist, FMFC supporter, Flock co-founder, designer of things, and taker of photos. Writer, wrench, motorcyclist. Pro-intellectualist, anti-pedant. Drinker of coffee and greeter of dogs.


  • Grant Pieters

    Father, deep thinker, lover of life...and falafel.


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