MN Aurora FC dances into third postseason appearance

Minnesota Aurora FC sporting director and head coach Colette Montgomery talks to the media at a Minnesota Aurora FC training session on Wednesday, July 3, 2024 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Minnesota Aurora FC danced into their third consecutive postseason berth last week with a pair of road wins that clinched the Heartland Division and added to the franchise’s records. Aurora will have to get through a rematch with Indy Eleven on Friday to advance to the Conference final on Sunday but, both players and coaches like their chances, especially if they hold to their one-match mentality.

Rewind: Path to Playoffs

June 27 (Milwaukee, Wis.): Bavarian United FC 0-7 MN Aurora FC

Aurora clinched their playoff spot with a shutout against Bavarian but they had a slow start, not finding the net until the 27th minute. Saige Wimes’ goal, which came from a Bavarian turnover, opened the floodgates. A Katie Duong penalty kick and a strike from Mariah Nguyen to finish a box-to-box team goal (Kelis Barton to Wimes to Nguyen) sent Aurora into the break with a 3-0 lead.

Wimes scored a brace in the 52nd minute (4-0). Substitute Sophie French scored in the 56th (5-0) with a strike from distance after another turnover and again in the 72nd on a cornerkick served by Katie Duong (6-0). Giada Zhou added yet another banger in the 86th to end Aurora’s night with a 7-0 win.

June 29 (Racine, Wis.): RKC Third Coast 0-14 MN Aurora FC

On Saturday, it took a heavily rotated Aurora only six minutes to find their first goal. Once again, Katie Duong sent a beautiful ball into the box, finding Tess Werts who chipped it over the shoulder of RKC goalkeeper Ella Kratochvil (1-0). Kratochvil made five saves before Giada Zhou doubled Aurora’s lead in the 33rd minute following a poor clearance. French and Duong each added a goal before the break. The second half escalated more quickly.

Cat Rapp tallied four goals in 19 minutes (51’Klecezewski. “Two games, as we continue to prepare for the playoffs. We came focused on our attacking objectives and prepared ourselves for some great opponents coming up.”, 53′, 62′, 70′), book-ending three more goals from Wimes (57′), Lydia Ruppert (57′), and Kaylie Chambers (67′) which put Aurora up 11-0 with twenty minutes still on the clock. But it didn’t end there. Morgan Stone, a Chambers brace, and Sofia Bush, made it 14-0 on the night. If not for ‘keeper Kratochvil the final tally could have been well above 20, but 14 marked a new franchise record goals-per-game for Aurora. Cat Rapp’s haul (4 goals – a hat trick plus one) was also a franchise first.

Depth In Action: 21-0 Weekend

While players like Cat Rapp, a three-year Aurora vet, and Katie Duong, a 2024 signing (who has now scored in seven straight matches) continue to put on standout performances match after match, the 21-0 weekend showed the depth and creativity of the squad. The final weekend of the regular season saw veterans and newcomers climb the franchise leader boards:

And, while the score may be excessive, it is also preparation. Assistant Coach Tom Klecezewski said, “We came [to Wisconsin] focused on our attacking objectives and prepared ourselves for some great opponents coming up.”

Central Conference Playoffs

USL-W 2024 Playoff Bracket (Graphic courtesy of USL-W)

Detroit City FC won their bid to host the Central Conference playoffs at Keyworth Stadium. On Friday, July 5, Aurora (1st seed) will play Indy Eleven (3rd seed) while host Detroit City (2nd) will play wild card River Light (4th). No, this is not a seeding error: USL-W’s 2024 playoff structure states that inter division match-ups will be avoided in the first round whenever possible. Thus, the Heartland Division’s 2nd place finisher, River Light, will not face 1st place MN Aurora, despite being assigned the 4th and 1st seeds, respectively.

After training on Wednesday, a portion of which was open to the media, coach Colette Montgomery was asked about having to travel for the first playoff game despite Aurora earning the first seed. She gave a well thought out response about the league’s goal to expand the various marketplaces within the league and to give clubs with the means to host a chance to do so. Montgomery added that clubs like Aurora have a role to play in other markets, not just their own, and she hopes they can “maybe influence some young boys and girls in Detroit to play soccer and love the game.”

A change of scenery brings new excitement – and challenges – to the game for players. Defender Lillie French told NLF, “It’s also exciting to play out in a different stadium. I can’t wait. I love playing at different places. Obviously I wish we were home but, it’s nice to see something new. It’s like a challenge.” As for their opponent, the squad is not caught up on past results. “I’m excited to get outside of our division and play a team outside just to see what that competition is like and I know that Aurora has faced this team in the past, but you know, every year it’s different so I’m excited to see that.”

Minnesota Aurora FC defender Lillie French (15) talks to Bridget McDowell from Northern Lights Football at a Minnesota Aurora FC training session on Wednesday, July 3, 2024 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Indy Eleven isn’t a completely new opponent for Aurora. The Valley Division side beat Aurora on their way to winning the championship trophy in 2023. While some standout players remain (most notably goalkeeper Nona Reason and forward Katie Soderstrom), Indy’s 2024 division title was followed by the departure of head coach Paul Dolinsky.

Still, Aurora’s staff has done their homework. “We’ve scouted them well. We know what they do well. We lock into what we want to do and we take our game to them,” Montgomery said. “Hopefully we get that finished.”

“Returning players have really brought that kind of unfinished business perspective to this. And I think that really drives the squad as a whole. We know that we’re grateful for what’s been done. And we’re not content to leave it where it is. And so we’re going to do our best to put out the best performance this weekend.” – Colette Montgomery, Aurora Head Coach/Sporting Director

Unfinished Business & the Aurora Way

Lillie French, who joined Aurora’s roster in June following a season with Heidelberg United FC (Melbourne, Aus.), has a unique perspective on the match-up. She watched her twin sister, Sophie, play in the match against Indy last season. She watched the ‘unfinished business’ mindset in action as she joined the squad for training under Montgomery in 2024. Now, after playing in a handful of games herself, Lillie is confident in the mixed team of veterans and newcomers who bring the intensity day after day:

“I think we have such a strong crew and all the girls on the team are so, so strong and so skillful that I think, going into playoffs, it’s just another game for us. I mean there’s high stakes, but we’re just going into it like it’s just another opponent. Like we got this, focusing on us – not really on the [opposing] team, just focusing on what we do and then trying to execute that. So we’re really excited.”

Aurora worked hard to match in 2024 the successes of their first two seasons. A whole new coaching staff and a nearly even mix of new players and returning/third-year players, had to work together to bring another undefeated season to fruition.

“Coach Lukic and her staff have built that tradition of the high press and being relentless and going after lots of goals and scoring,” said Montgomery. “We all know that in sports really, the difference between being at a good level and being at the highest level comes down to mentality. I’m really proud of this group. The way that they really build that tenacity and resilience, the willingness to do the work off the ball and on the ball, play with freedom and creativity and ,as easy as it is to say that, it’s very hard to create an environment where players have ownership over that. So disciplined defense can lead to creativity in the attack. It’s hard to do that. But I believe that together we’ve created that environment and are really thriving.”

Minnesota Aurora FC players cool-down following practice at the Minnesota Aurora FC training session match on Wednesday, July 3, 2024 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

On Friday, Aurora will have to find a way to carry that tenacity forward into the postseason. The club entered their third season with two division titles, one conference title, and a championship runners-up finish to their name. So far in 2024, they have added a third division title. Winning out this weekend to add another conference title would be a balm on the sting of 2023. Winning it all would remove chips from a few shoulders. But first, Friday…

Up Next

Conference semifinal: Minnesota Aurora FC v. Indy Eleven (match info courtesy of MNAFC):

Date: July 5, 2024
Time: 3 p.m. CT/4 p.m. ET
Location: Detroit, Mich.
Venue: Keyworth Stadium
Stream: Detroit City FC YouTube Channel
Live Updates on ‘X’: @MNAuroraFC
Miniature soccer balls signed by Minnesota Aurora FC players at a Minnesota Aurora FC training session on Wednesday, July 3, 2024 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)