USL-W Match Preview: MN Aurora FC host RKC Third Coast

One week into the Heartland Division’s 2024 season, MN Aurora returns to TCO Stadium on Thursday night after adding two away results to a regular season unbeaten record that dates back to their inaugural match in 2022. With plenty of new faces – including the entire coaching staff – joining stalwart returnees, Aurora has shown a continuation of the “Aurora way” on the road, but the first week of Heartland results highlights the increasing parity across the division and the W-League standard as a whole.

Aurora [at] Aurora [University in] Aurora [Illinois]

Aurora opened the season in Aurora, Ill., playing two matches at Aurora University. The opener was what everyone has come to expect from Aurora: Goals, early and often. The second match proved that there is room for growth and competition in the regular season.

On Thursday, May 23, Aurora outplayed the Chicago Dutch Lions 8-0. Given that the Dutch Lions lost to River Light FC by the same score on May 19, Aurora’s eight goals may have taught us more about the Lions than Aurora. However, the variety of play-makers, goals, and goalscorers, kept the match intriguing.

The goals:

  • 6′ Sophie French, assisted by fellow returnee Jill Zbiljic from the corner
  • 25′ Giada Zhou makes her mark in her debut
  • 50′ French bags a brace
  • 53′ Tess Werts, who entered for Zbiljic after the break, scores just 8 minutes into her debut
  • 57′ Mariah Nguyen, back for year three, assisted by Werts
  • 59′ Werts notches the brace from distance (Yes, that’s two goals and one assist less than 15 minutes into her shift)
  • 75′ Lydia Ruppert, another third-year returnee, assisted by newcomer Taylor Shell
  • 77′ Ruppert tallies Aurora’s third brace and final goal on the night

Two returnees and one debutante accounted for six of the eight goals; the ever-improving Nguyen and confident newcomer Zhou added the other two.

On Saturday Aurora returned to Aurora University, this time to face the aforementioned River Light FC. After going into halftime scoreless, Aurora was the first to concede. River Light took the lead with a goal from Mya Nugent in the 53rd minute. Minutes later, Aurora leveled with a Sophie French header (off of a freekick this time) in the 55th. After that quick succession of goals, the two sides continued to battle it out in midfield without finding the goal. The 1-1 tie was Aurora’s first since the club’s inaugural home opener in 2022.

“River Light brought a great game against us, and we’re excited to have an opponent like this in the division,” said first-year head coach Colette Montgomery. “Our players responded well to the game plan we put out there and the strategy we wanted to put in place today.”

Both clubs made the USL-W Power Rankings for the week, with Aurora coming in at 10th and River Light 11th. Judging by the standings, River Light’s performance on Saturday may have been a harbinger of a tough[er] season. Aurora has only been outscored by River Light and Chicago City SC but has a game in hand on both clubs. Aurora will get their first look at Chicago City this coming Sunday (at Chicago’s Loyola University), but will first face RKC Third Coast.

Heartland Division standings, as of May 29, 2024. Graphic courtesy of MN Aurora.

Welcoming RKC Third Coast

RKC Third Coast opened their season at home on May 19, losing to Chicago City 4-2. After a week’s rest, they traveled to Rochester FC, where they lost 3-2. Brielle Rochester scored both goals in the opening match while Haley Christianson tallied both goals against Rochester. RKC has returned 13 players from their inaugural 2023 roster but they do not have as many experienced players as Aurora.

In 2023, RKC’s inaugural season, Aurora outscored them 18-1 across two head-to-head matches. Aurora’s 2024 roster of 29 players features 12 returning players, a number of whom have already moved up a few rungs on the franchise’s all-time goals and all-time points ladders.

All-Time Goals and All-Time Points leaders for MN Aurora FC as of May 29, 2024. Players marked with a teal square are on the 2024 roster. Graphic courtesy of MN Aurora FC.

Preseason thoughts from the coaches

“We’ve got exceptional leaders in the group and I’m very thankful for the returning players,” Coach Montgomery said following at an open training session in preseason. “They know the Aurora Way and I’m learning that and bringing my pieces of that and seeing how we can collaborate.” She  reiterated later, “I’m very thankful for the veteran players that are here. This is a collaborative effort.”

Goalkeeper coach Lucca Shimanuki is genuinely thrilled about the new experience, telling NLF after that same training session, “It’s been amazing, to be honest, just working with Colette [Montgomery]. She’s a fantastic coach, I know her from the past, I learned a lot from her, and just to be here in this new environment, which – it’s where every soccer coach wants to be, at the highest level possible, and it can’t get much better than this.”

Returning goalkeeper Taylor Kane played every minute of the two matches on the road. Every indication is that she will get the nod again on Thursday at home. Shimanuki was impressed with the level she brought to training before the season started: “[Aurora] has always had solid goalkeepers and our defense was always something that we’re proud of and we want to maintain that for this year. We have Taylor, a returner, and she’s just been getting better and better every day. Every season, she’s been fantastic.”

Thursday evening will be many fans’ first opportunity to see in-person the collaboration between the first-year staff, new players, and veteran players. It is also the first match of the season to be broadcast on TV, returning to Fox 9+ (TV) and Northern Lights Football will also be there for live coverage and to recap all aspects of the event so follow along.