Loons call on a fountain of youth to help in season-opening victory

A few Minnesota United players were winded on Saturday, and Cameron Knowles provided a breath of fresh air.

The Loons were holding on to a 1-0 lead in the season opener at Austin FC when the interim head coach not only used all five available substitutes but brought in four players under 24 years old.

“We’ve got to trust them,” Knowles said after the Loons’ 2-1 victory. “I think they’ve earned a lot of trust (Saturday) with the way they came into the game. … To come into a game that young but fearless in the way they played, it’s really exciting and sort of bodes well for the future.”

It’s also a stark contrast from former manager Adrian Heath’s nearly seven-year tenure.

Across Heath’s four seasons with five subs possible, he never averaged more than 3.4 per game. The last two years MNUFC set league lows for substitutions. And when Heath did call on subs, veterans were often his picks.

Some of the subs used Saturday were based on circumstance: Three first-team players were unavailable to play — Emanuel Reynoso, Bongi Hlongwane and Kervin Arriaga.

But part of the abundance of youth on Saturday comes via a directive from new Chief Soccer Officer Khaled El-Ahmad. He wants to see young players regularly in the mix. It might be as specific as: the goal is Player X totals 700 minutes in 2024.

El-Ahmad believes if a team struggles with one young player in its lineup, that’s a reflection of a deeper problem than just that one player’s adolescence.

On Saturday, Knowles also knew the available players and the stage of the season. He told the team Friday night in Texas about the need he saw for subs in the first match.

“It’s still early season: very few people are going to be really 90-minutes match fit, and the substitutions are going to be really important,” Knowles told reporters post game about his message to players.

In the 68th minute, Knowles gave Costa Rican midfielder Alejandro Bran, 22, his MLS debut and also brought in forward Tani Oluawseyi, 23.

In the 77th, a pair of Minnesotans entered the match: wingers Loic Mesanvi of Lakeville and Caden Clark of Medina. Both are only 20 years old.

Clark joined his home-state team after a stint at RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga.

Mesanvi is a MNUFC2 player brought up on a short-term loan to play in MLS. Players from the club’s developmental team have four loan spells to use each season. Mesanvi now has three left.

In the 91st minute, Clark and Oluwaseyi contributed to Bran’s goal. It was an insurance goal that became a buffer as Austin scored in the 94th minute.

Clark made a long-distance dribble down the right sideline and split the Verde defense to find Olusaweyi inside the 18-yard box. Instead of shooting, Oluwaseyi made the extra pass for Bran to score more easily.

The goal came from a fountain of youth.

Loons midfielder Hassani Dotson played all 90 minutes Saturday, but he was in a similar spot to those young bucks in 2019. In that season debut against Vancouver, he came off the bench to play a paltry minute but became a regular later on that season.

“When you are young and you get subbed in and try to close out a game, it’s a big opportunity,” Dotson said Saturday. “Your job is to follow instruction and do the best you can. … We have a pretty young team this year, and they all had a good preseason. I couldn’t be happier, especially having had that type of opportunity my first year.”

Stay seated

Minnesota United’s substitutions since joining MLS:

Year — Average subs per game (league rank)

2023 — 3.4 (29th of 29)

2022 — 3.1 (28th of 28)

2021 — 3.2 (26th of 27)

2020 * — 3.2 (25th of 26)

2019 — 2.7 (14th of 24)

2018 — 2.7 (18th of 23)

2017 — 2.5 (19th of 22)

* First year MLS went from three to five subs per game

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