How Cameron Knowles has built up Loons — and how it contrasts to Adrian Heath’s approach

MLS Cup-winning head coach Wilfried Nancy knew it was coming and still had trouble stopping it.

Minnesota United’s high-pressing tactic was employed in the season-opening win over Austin FC two weeks ago, and it was again rolled out versus Nancy’s Columbus Crew in the Loons’ home opener last Saturday. With a week to prepare, it still posed problems for the 2023 trophy winners.

“The opposition (MNUFC) did a good job to press us, and we didn’t want to start slow, but they put a lot of pressure,” Nancy told reporters after a 1-1 draw with Minnesota. “… We could have done better, but it was because of the opposition, they pressed us really well.”

The Loons have been working on their new front-foot tactic since the beginning of preseason in early January. The directive from new Chief Soccer Officer Khaled El-Ahmad has been implemented by interim head coach Cameron Knowles.

Knowles will lead the Loons (1-0-1) for the last time at Orlando City (0-1-1) at Inter & Co Stadium at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

New permanent head coach Eric Ramsay takes over next week, including an introductory news conference at Allianz Field on Wednesday. Knowles, meanwhile, appears in line to take an assistant coaching role under Ramsay.

Knowles has shown himself in a good light during his caretaker stint. He has done so with the help of a clear weekly plan.

“As players, we crave habits and we crave consistency,” defensive midfielder and team captain Wil Trapp said. “And when you have consistent ways of doing things through the week, it’s really nice for us to know what to expect.”

One day at a time

Knowles was asked by the Pioneer Press to described the weekly routine:

— Monday morning is a recovery sessions for the previous game’s starters, while supplemental work is put into players who didn’t see the bulk of the match’s minutes.

— Monday afternoon holds a video review session of the game — key moments, things done well and areas for improvement.

— Tuesday morning is a classroom session with video focused on how the upcoming opponent plays with the ball, meaning how MNUFC will set up a plan to press them and find counter-attacking moments.

— Tuesdays on the field have been the longest training sessions of each week to start the season. They work on what they just went over inside. “High volume, physical day for us,” Knowles said.

— Wednesday is a new off day for first-team players.

— Thursday mornings include another video session focused on how the opponent will set up out of possession, meaning how the Loons can try to exploit their opponent. The Loons then train this lesson on the field.

— Friday is a refresher course on the key points for the week and an activation of players’ bodies in a lighter practice the day before the game.

“We try to layer those things throughout the week, so it’s not just one dump of information at one time,” Knowles explained. “They are getting little bites of it and just topping it up as needed throughout the week.”

Knowles explained why it has been defense-first to start each week.

“I just think the way that we want to defend and the physical toll on it,” he said. “If we can get the guys recovered from the game, and we are far enough away from the next game to put that physical load into them, that’s the way we have been building up the week so far.”

Trapp has appreciated Knowles’ classroom-to-field approach.

“For me, I don’t want to say it’s coaching 101, but it’s a way that players respond and I’ve always responded to extremely well,” Trapp said. “For us that really enjoy being visual learners and be able to walk it all through, it’s perfect. I think that is a reason why the team has adapted so well, because it’s super clear. Here are the moments where we can hunt the ball when we want to create those pressing moments and then we are going to go do it.”

That doesn’t mean it will be perfect in each game. After the opening 20 minutes Saturday, Columbus got its footing and created the better scoring chances. Loons goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair kept the Crew off the scoreboard until the 59th minute when Cucho Hernandez scored.

The Loons didn’t quit, bringing on five substitutes and continuing to press until Tani Oluwaseyi scored the equalizing goal in the 95th minute of the 1-1 draw.

Comparison to Heath

The elephant in the (class)room is how the first team approached the week’s buildup under former manager Adrian Heath.

“I love Adrian,” Trapp continued. “Everyone has their own way of doing things, right? You are seeing the younger generation of coaches that have gone through the pro license and have done all this stuff recently, or more recently like Cam has. This is more of the model they are taking up.”

Trapp, who was with the Columbus Crew from 2013-19 and Inter Miami in 2020, said his first year with MNUFC in 2021 was the least amount of group video sessions he watched as a pro.

The Loons brought in David Handgraff as a video analyst in 2022 and the amount of video sessions increased for MNUFC into last season. Knowles has laid out clear communication and responsibilities for players, while Heath was not as scripted with his counter-attacking style.

References checked

When news of Ramsay’s hire by MNUFC spread two weeks ago, Trapp received text messages from two assistant coaches he previously worked under in Miami: Anthony Pulis, a current MLS assistant at Real Salt Lake, and Brett Uttley, now the head coach of Austin FC II.

Pulis and Uttley know Ramsay. They earned their UEFA pro license with Ramsay as a sort of mentor.

“They said first and foremost as a person, incredible,” Trapp relayed. “Still trying to figure out what the style of play will be, but I think Cam is distilling that down for us anyway.

“But more importantly just the way (Ramsay) is. How driven he is, how determined he is,” Trapp added. “Everything I’ve heard, read and talked to people about is quality.”

The Loons are completing a final step in a transition from an old-school manager in Adrian Heath, 63, to a new-school approaches from Knowles, 41, and then Ramsay, who will be the youngest coach in MLS at age 32.

“It’s a total pendulum swing away from where we were,” Trapp said. “I’ve taken this stance that I’m not going to judge anything until you get your eyes on it and you can formulate your own opinions. Having those assumptions (of Ramsay) ahead of time makes us feel better, but it doesn’t really matter until you are on the field with the guy.”

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