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Loons begin new season Saturday after big changes at the top

Two days after Minnesota United's new head coach, Eric Ramsay, signed on the dotted line, interim coach Cameron Knowles will lead the Loons into their eighth MLS season.

Knowles has coached in MLS for 12 years, but never in a game as head coach like he will Saturday night at Austin FC.

The Loons are back after making changes at the top following last season's 10-13-11 MLS finish, which left them 11th in the Western Conference.

Knowles is getting his chance as the club's second interim coach since Adrian Heath was fired near the end of last season. The first interim coach, Sean McAuley, left to take a USL head job in early January. Knowles was promoted the same day, while the club waited for newly hired sporting director Khaled El-Ahmad to start the job and hire Heath's replacement.

Now, after leading the team through six weeks of training in Blaine, Tucson and Palm Springs to the brink of another season, Knowles will coach at least the first two games of the season, and perhaps more. Ramsay will finish his duty with Manchester United through next week — after three seasons as an assistant coach with the Premier League club — and pursue his U.S. work visa. That can take some time.

Until then, the man who previously coached Minnesota United's MNUFC2 reserve team for two seasons continues on with the first team.

Raised in New Zealand, Knowles coached nine seasons with the Portland Timbers and was part of their 2015 MLS Cup championship. He also coached the Timbers USL Championship reserve team for three years before he joined the Loons in 2021 as a first-team video analyst and second-team coach.

"Look, it's exciting," Knowles said. "It's exciting to get that opportunity with the players. We put a lot of work into the preseason."

The Loons open their season without their new head coach but with direction from Knowles by way of El-Ahmad. Since being hired in November, El-Ahmad has directed his teams in their own way and own time to emulate Liverpool's aggression and pressing game, farther up the field than Heath's team played.

Knowles installed a 4-3-3 formation during preseason, a departure from Heath's preferred 4-3-2-1.

"Obviously, two very different coaches in the way they approach things," said Loons veteran defender Michael Boxall, who's three years older than 32-year-old Ramsay. "Cam has done an excellent job, given the circumstances, to come in here and prepare us, especially the work defensively."

El-Ahmad has come to a new job with a style of play in mind, even if he and Ramsay inherit a roster not ready-made for such a style. The offseason moves El-Ahmad approved or made had a theme: young, athletic and cost-efficient for a roster that has many players aged about 30 or older. Major personnel moves likely won't come until the summer transfer window.

Knowles calls the 4-3-3 "a little bit different," but the formation has its benefits for a team that has such attacking pieces as forwards Teemu Pukki, Bongokuhle Hlongwane, Franco Fragapane, Sang Bin Jeong and midfielders Emanuel Reynoso, Caden Clark, Robin Lod, Hassani Dotson and others.

"It gives us the ability to press and gives us the opportunity to get some good players on the field," Knowles said. "We can be flexible. It's probably the most flexible we can be."

Players such as Pukki and Reynoso might not be your classic pressing defenders at their positions, but Reynoso said he approves.

"It's good, the team is physically capable of doing it," Reynoso said in Spanish translated by a team employee. "With us pressing higher up the field, we're able to steal the ball and have more goal-scoring situations.

"Honestly, we have a lot of options, and every day we're getting to know each other a little bit more. It's a healthy competition because we all want to help the team and be in the starting lineup."

Reynoso is out Saturday because of a knee injury that bothered him in training in Tucson, Ariz., and at the Coachella Valley Invitational in Indio, Calif. Knowles on Friday said they are targeting next week's home opener for Reynoso's return.

Hlongwane has returned from getting his green card in South Africa. Knowles said they'll have to assess Hlongwane's fitness after he was gone for much of preseason to determine when he will be game fit. It's unlikely he will be ready to play Saturday.

Knowles nonetheless called Hlongwane's return a "massive positive." Newcomer and Medina-born Clark was slowed through preseason by a muscle strain but is back healthy, Knowles said.

Knowles will lead them all Saturday, but for how much longer is not certain.

"Unless someone else shows up with the whistle at the next training, Cam's our coach," Boxall said. "I've been impressed with what he has done, just getting everyone on the same page despite all the distractions that could get in people's heads."