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MNUFC 2023 preseason preview in a changed MLS landscape

Looking forward to a new season and a full year of soccer as some things change and some things stay the same for MLS and MN United FC

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A close-up of a pair of blue Adidas cleats are in focus as their owner skips in warmups, with other cleated feet out of focus in the background.
Warmup at a Minnesota United FC practice session on Thursday, January 12, 2023 at National Sports Center in Blaine, MN.
Michael Lake / Lake Photography

It is hard to believe, but the MLS preseason has already begun. It was a soccer-full few months since LAFC beat the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Cup final to secure a domestic double, even as the cost for our sporting entertainment was quite high. But now we are back, and as we continue to wonder over what we are willing to let others pay to be entertained, we’ll try to get caught up.

MN United FC opened training camp January 6, as the team begins its 7th season of MLS play. After a number of very weird and irregular seasons, interrupted and disrupted by a global pandemic and a winter men’s World Cup, the 2023 MLS season may be, if not normal, at least a bit more regular.

Robin Lod, wearing a pink pinny over his training kit, races Ménder García toward the ball and the photographer’s camera.
Minnesota United midfielder Robin Lod (17) and Minnesota United forward Ménder García (28) scrimmage at a Minnesota United FC practice session on Thursday, January 12, 2023 at National Sports Center in Blaine, MN.
Michael Lake / Lake Photography

The only planned interruption is the Leagues Cup, a midsummer, and (for MLS) mid-season, tournament featuring all 47 teams from MLS and Liga MX playing in a group stage then single elimination format, much like the World Cup format. Hoping to capitalize on a more general US-Mexico soccer rivalry, the tournament will be a chance to see and compare the breadth and depth of the two leagues, as opposed to the Champions League, which pairs only the top teams from each league against each other. Though at this point the Leagues Cup does feel simply like another more-is-more competition to add to the media schedule.

Beyond MLS, 2023 itself looks to be a very good and full year of soccer. (You can find a rundown of the MLS year here). While we are waiting on a few more dates, here are some highlights to begin:

  • February 25: MNUFC season opener at FC Dallas
  • March 7: CONCACAF Champions League play begins, with MLS clubs Austin FC, LAFC, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC
  • March 11: MNUFC home opener against New York Red Bulls
  • March 25: NWSL season begins
  • June 24 - July 16: CONCACAF Gold Cup
  • June 28: MNUFC international friendly against 2 Bundesliga side FC Kaiserslautern
  • July 19: MLS All-Star Game presented by Target, hosted by DC United at Audi Field
  • July 20 - August 20: FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by Australia and New Zealand
  • Jul 21 - August 19: Leagues Cup
  • September 27: Lamar Hunt US Open Cup final
  • October 21: MLS Decision Day

The media landscape, and so maybe the quality (or at least the perception of quality), of American soccer is changing drastically with the announced ten-year, $2.5 billion deal between MLS and AppleTV. Six weeks before opening day there is too much we don’t know, but here are some important details (The Athletic has deeper dives here and here and here):

Beginning February 1, folks will be able to sign up for the MLS Season Pass through AppleTV. If you already have an AppleTV+ subscription, MLS Season Pass will cost $12.99 a month or $79 for the season; if you don’t have an AppleTV+ subscription, MLS Season Pass will cost $14.99 a month or $99 for the season; a subscription to MLS Season Pass will also be included with a season ticket for any MLS team.

All MLS games, including the All-Star game, MLS Cup playoffs, and the Leagues Cup, will be streamed live, with no local blackouts. Some games might be broadcast, as a simulcast, by ESPN, Fox, or Univision; some games may also be broadcast on AppleTV+ (separate from MLS Season Pass); there have been suggestions that 40% of this season’s games may be available without a MLS Season Pass subscription. All games will be broadcast in English and Spanish, some in French as well; all games, it seems, will have an option to mute the television feed to listen to the local radio commentary and play-by-play.

There will be a standardized schedule, with most games being played on Saturday or Wednesday, with a 7:30pm local home team start time. The live game broadcast will be presented around league-wide, nationally produced pre-game, half-time, and post-game shows, with a short pre-game set-up locally produced for each game. MLS will also produce a league-wide ‘whip-around’ show, covering every game. Which means that on any given Saturday, and some Wednesdays, during the season, MLS soccer will be available here in Minnesota from 6:00pm-11:30pm.

The full-broadcast team and on-air talent has not been revealed but 18 Season Pass personalities were unveiled during the league’s Media Week. AppleTV and MLS seem most excited about Taylor Twellman leading their broadcast team, while many of us are most excited that Kyndra de St. Aubin will be doing game analysis.

This is, it seems, the big national media deal that the league’s relentless expansion has always been growing towards. I doubt anyone here will miss Bally/FSN, although Callum Williams and Kyndra de St. Aubin set a league-best standard. But certainly this deal will level the broadcast quality across the league, even if that lowers the quality in some markets as it raises it elsewhere.

With this deal as it looks now it will also be easier to follow MLS in general, more comprehensively and with more regularity. One drawback is that the deal also creates a single-brand narrative for a league that continues to insist on remaining a tightly controlled single entity. On the other hand, there are no blackouts, which is what hampered MLS and ESPN subscriptions in the past. It is still an open question whether all of this, and whatever else is offered, will end up being worth the subscription costs.

It was a rather quiet off-season for MN United FC , and so it is a little early to say much about the team. The roster is again and still in flux: Abu Danladi, Oniel Fisher, Jonathan Gonzalez, Niko Hansen, Jacori Hayes, Nabilai Kibunguchy, Justin McMaster, Romain Metanire, Callum Montgomery, and Tyler Miller were all released. Most surprising, or at least most disappointing, were the departures of Metanire and Miller: there is, for many, sadness that Metanire joins that too-long list of injured Loons who were, by all appearances, simply abandoned (wishing you well, Sam Cronin and Ike Opara), and much confusion and disappointment with a front office and a club that held on to two starting goalkeepers for as long as it did without getting anything in return for Miller as he signed with DC United as a free agent. Again and again fans are left to wonder at the roster building and management at MNUFC.

So far the team has added young winger and LA Galaxy product Cameron Dunbar, veteran center back Doneil Henry, goalkeeper Clint Irwin, young defender Ryen Jiba, who impressed the club in the Loons’ US Open Cup loss to his former club Union Omaha, and veteran defender Zarek Valentin, with rumors of more to come. Although a clear count is hard to come by, with the annually promised 3-4 more quality signings this season, that will be 90+ Loons in 7 seasons of MLS play.

Action shot of Bongokuhle Hlongwane running with the ball as Cameron Dunbar steps up behind him for a physical tackle. Turf pellets kicked up by Dunbar’s neon green cleats are visible.
Minnesota United forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane (21) and Minnesota United forward Cameron Dunbar scrimmage at a Minnesota United FC practice session on Thursday, January 12, 2023 at National Sports Center in Blaine, MN.
Michael Lake / Lake Photography

Hopefully we will have a better sense of the full roster by the time the season starts, but this may again be a roster that needs to work its way into a team the first few games of the season. For now, almost everyone who should be in training with the team is:

Robin Lod is back from his California MLS media tour; after an extended layover midway through his travels, Franco Fragapane has made it to camp; Hassani Dotson is doing some light training with the team as he continues to rehab; Bakaye Dibassy is in town continuing his rehab, although after Thursday’s session coach Adrian Heath was not optimistic about his timeline (it will be “months rather than weeks” he said); and Dayne St. Clair is back with the team, after an extended World Cup break; Kemar Lawrence will be joining the team soon, and Emanuel Reynoso still has some “paperwork to clear up” in Argentina but has been cleared to train amid his ongoing legal matter and will be joining the team soon as well.

Dotson, wearing a grey training shirt, and DSC, wearing the dark blue GK training kit, smile on the sidelines of the NSC Sports Dome.
Minnesota United midfielder Hassani Dotson (31) and Minnesota United goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair (97) at a Minnesota United FC practice session on Thursday, January 12, 2023 at National Sports Center in Blaine, MN.
Michael Lake / Lake Photography

After a week in Blaine the team, with a handful of academy and MNUFC2 players in tow, flew to Florida on Sunday for a few weeks of warm weather training before passing back through Minnesota on their way out to California for the second edition of the Coachella Valley Invitational. The preseason tournament, open to spectators, runs February 1-18 at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, CA. This year’s tournament features the LA Galaxy, Toronto FC, NYCFC, Charlotte FC, the Portland Timbers, San Jose Quakes, LAFC, DC United, NY Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps, and league newcomers, St. Louis City.

MNUFC kicks off the 2023 season on February 25 at FC Dallas. After a Week 2 bye, the Loons will reopen Allianz Field on Saturday, March 11, against New York Red Bulls.