MN Aurora Showcases Depth, Creativity in 10 Goal Rout of RKC

Minnesota Aurora FC improved to 3-0 on Wednesday night, scoring ten unanswered goals against RKC Third Coast, the expansion side from Racine-Kenosha (WI). Aurora is the second W League team to score double-digits in 2023 (but the first to not concede) and the fourth to do so since the league began in 2022.

Minnesota Aurora midfielder Mariah Nguyen (19) plays the ball during a USL W Match between Minnesota Aurora and RKC Third Coast on Wednesday, May 31, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Tim McLaughlin)

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Aurora returned home to TCO Stadium in Eagan on Wednesday night, carrying three points from the weekend's match against the Chicago Dutch Lions. Head coach Nicole Lukic made some significant changes to the lineup, sending out all three Rapp triplets and giving Ari DelMoral her first start of the season, but the attack and backline remained unchanged. This tested scoring squad faced a thin RKC lineup - due to transportation constraints they traveled with only two substitutes due, including a goalkeeper, on one of the hottest and most humid nights so far of this Minnesota summer.

Cat Rapp and Maya Hansen kept their attacking connections alive in this match, opening the scoring when Rapp found an unmarked Hansen in front of goal in the 3'. The squad celebrated by sitting on the endline to "row the boat." Rapp added her own in the 9', putting Racine's back line on notice with a 2-0 deficit inside of 10 minutes. As Aurora players put on a more subdued celebration, RKC's goalkeeper and defenders huddled, soon joined by most of their midfielders. From Aurora's first offensive press (which started from the whistle), RKC was flooding their box with defenders with the intention of bunkering against Aurora's possession and presumably to start their own attacks on the counter. However, a bunker only works if those involved are marking the opponent well, and in this instance, RKC was not successful on that front; rather every defender was repeatedly caught ball watching, perhaps expecting a teammate to step up to the ball. They came out of the huddle with a more concerted plan, beginning to go two-v-one with whoever was in possession in their attacking third. That didn't work either.

Goals Goals Goals

Captain and rightback Makenzie Langdok is not to be deterred by a double-teaming defense. Langdok led much of the offensive efforts on the wing and in the 19' she juked her two defenders and beat a couple more before finding Hansen fully unmarked in the box. 3-0 Aurora. And it continued. Cat Rapp found Hansen again in the 31' for the team's fourth goal and Hansen's third. With a hat trick and two-thirds of a game left to play, Aurora did not let up. The team celebrations, however, stopped after the third goal, reduced to high fives and hugs as they jogged to the center circle for the restart.

Ari DelMoral got her first goal with a banger from 18 yards out into the upper right corner. RKC keeper Greta Harms made a leaping effort to stop it but simply could not get there. 5-0. Morgan Stone, the squad's leading scorer in 2022, nabbed her first goal of the season with a clean finish in the 44'. Officials added two minutes to the half, simply to make up for the three-minute water break, but it felt a bit ridiculous given the scoreline. The two minutes were relatively quiet - Aurora went into the locker room up 6-0.

Both teams made wholesale changes after halftime. Lukic sent in Taylor Kane for Amanda Poorbaugh, giving Kane her first minutes of the 2023 season after keeping her out of the first two games as a precaution following a minor thumb injury suffered in preseason. Also subbing in were: Vienna Behnke for Rami Rapp, Hannah Adler for Cat Rapp, Kylie Olsen for Langdok, Lydia Ruppert for Nguyen, Sophie French for DelMoral, and Kaitlyn MacBean for Hansen. RKC also used all two of their subs, most notably replacing Harms in goal with Mia Guyton.

Guyton immediately faced Aurora's attacking gauntlet: French scored in the 49' (her first of the campaign), Tianna Harris in the 54' (her first for the club), and Adler in the 56'. MacBean, credited with the assist on Adler's goal, scored one of her own in the 63'. And to mix things up, Stone added a yellow card in the 51'. "It's nice to see a variety in goals and goal scorers," Lukic said. "It helps us as we continue through the season to make players feel good, that they can be the person to score on any given night."

On her first half hat trick, Hansen said, "I think my mentality was, if it comes, it comes, but obviously I was striving for that. That's a cool achievement and obviously wouldn't be possible without my teammates. I mean, they really put them just, like, on a platter for me. They made my job super, super easy, but yeah, that's a cool accomplishment to have for sure."

The win, and the ten goals scored in an hour of play, secured first place in the Heartland Division, a tie on points with Chicago City SC broken by Aurora's goal differential - 19GF/0GA well ahead of CCSC's impressive 10GF/1GA. RKC, already at the bottom of the table despite having played one more match than Aurora, saw their goal differential plummet further, with 1GF/23GA giving them a -22 GD.

Hansen cited squad quality, both on and off the pitch, as a key factor in Aurora's success just three matches into the season. "The new players have been extremely easy to integrate into our team from last year. You can really tell that Nicole [Lukic] and the coaching staff paid attention to who these people are as people, not just as players. So who they are off the field makes it really easy to play with them on the field and that chemistry kind of just flows super naturally." She also said that that chemistry has improved in-game communication (one of the factors Lukic said played into some sloppy play in the opening match): "I think we have good success as the year has continued to progress, just learning how each other plays so that communication kind of becomes a little less needed."

USL-W Context

While Aurora's supporters, MN Revontulet, chanted "We want 11!", some comments on twitter suggested that the home side should have let up, shifting their focus to possession rather than scoring. But what is the appropriate way to respond in a match that so clearly displays the gap in resources between two teams elevated to the same league and division? RKC has potential but did not have the same resources to build out when promoted from club soccer to USL-W as Minnesota Aurora had from their start in 2022. With an already thin squad, and without the resources to travel with more than a couple subs, RKC faces an uphill battle as they integrate into the W League. While a ten goal rout seems excessive, the club did not join the league to play soft - Aurora letting up would have been disrespectful in that sense.

But Aurora is also a regional anomaly. While the club routinely led the division in scoring in 2022, Wednesday night's performance produced double the goals of their highest-scoring match last season, a 5-1 win over Green Bay. While preseason began with talk about how Aurora might fare in a much-expanded league, the club's stats just three matches in rival those of a club Lukic cited as an illustration of the league's growth and improved quality. San Francisco Glens FC leads the Nor Cal Division with six wins from six matches played (Nor Cal began the season a couple weeks earlier than Heartland for obvious reasons) and a goal differential of 24 (27GF/3GA). In last place, eighth, is Academica SC with five losses in five games and 2GF/24GA, matching RKC's -22 goal differential. The gap in resources and the talent pool in the Nor Cal Division is similar to those in the Heartland.

It's Still Early

MN Aurora will travel to Rochester on Sunday, June 4, to face the Loons again. Rochester FC has not earned any points from their first three matches and five of their eight goals conceded thus far were scored by Aurora in the season opener. They sit one place above RKC but, unlike RKC, have yet to score a goal of their own. They also had a thin squad when they traveled to TCO Stadium, sitting a handful of players who suffered injuries in preseason, but have put up a fight in every match. Aurora's bench and adaptability will keep them on the front foot as division play continues, but there is still time for clubs like RFC to catch up.

Sunday's action kicks off at 3 P.M. EST from Rochester Community and Technical College. MN Aurora will then return home to host the Chicago Dutch Lions on Wednesday and before traveling to play Chicago City SC on Sunday.

MN Aurora Score Four on the Road, Take Three Points from Chicago Dutch Lions

In their first road match of 2023, Minnesota Aurora out classed Chicago Dutch Lions at a fitting location, Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois, shutting out their hosts 4-0 and taking the top spot in the division with a game in hand.

Head coach Nicole Lukic made only one change from Wednesday's opener, slotting Jelena Zbiljic in on the right wing for Sophie French, placing all four goalscorers from Wednesday in the XI. The Lions had one more game under their belts going into Saturday but with mixed results, opening the season with a 2-1 win over RKC and a 1-0 loss to Chicago City. Their two goalscorers from that opening match, Katrina Barthelt and Anna Stiffler, earned another start against Minnesota, but neither could overcome Aurora's stingy defense. Goalkeeper Caitlin Richards, who had conceded only two goals in two games, made some solid saves on the night but could not hold off a tested Aurora press. The Aurora Way continues in Year Two.

Saturday's goals were not as fast and furious as Wednesday's but they are just as stunning. Kennedy Faulknor got it started in the 21st minute with a rocket from 35 yards out, burying a postage stamp goal past a leaping Richards.

“Their defense was dropping off, and I had a lot of space,” said center back Kennedy Faulknor. “I thought I’d try to take the shot, and it went in!”

Following the goal, both sides spent far more time working the midfield, with Chicago becoming more physical and Aurora stretching their press a bit rather than camping out in the final third. The second goal came in the 38th when Mariah Nguyen, who was a thorn in the side of CDL's midfield, sprinted down the wing and crossed a ball into the box. Maya Hansen was there for the finish, putting Aurora up 2-0. She would do again in the 43rd, after receiving a ball picked out of CDL's midfield by Cat Rapp, and making a central run on goal and going one on one with Richards, forcing the keeper to commit well off her line before sending the ball past her. It was Hansen's third goal of the season and Aurora's third of the night.

The second half was chippy but more even in terms of possession. Aurora's back line did well to prevent Chicago from getting into shooting positions, let alone scoring positions, but they did have to work a little to keep the clean sheet. The best opportunity for the hosts came from a corner, but even that was not incredibly threatening. Mariah Nguyen, the work horse of the left wing, finally got a goal of her own in the 89th minute, putting a bow on the shutout result with a leaping half volley, ending the night 4-0.

The result sees Aurora leapfrog Chicago City SC to first place in the Heartland Division, with identical records aside from a slim margin in goals scored -- Aurora has 9, CCSC 8. Minnesota Aurora will return home to host RKC at TCO Stadium on Wednesday, May 31, at 7:00 PM CST.

MN Aurora FC Shuts Out Rochester FC In 5 Goal Opener

Minnesota Aurora FC forward Catherine Rapp (20) celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the match against Rochester FC at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minn., on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

Minnesota Aurora FC opened the 2023 season by hosting expansion side Rochester FC, welcoming the Loons to the league with a five goal shutout. Three returning players tallied four massive goals in the first half to welcome fans back to TCO Stadium, starting what is sure to be a tough season on the front foot.

"Breaking news, the conference champs are still really, really good at soccer," Rochester FC tweeted at full time. The Rochester Loons are one of the Heartland Division expansion sides, bringing some in-state competition to Aurora's calendar. A very young RFC squad put up a good fight, particularly in the second half, but ultimately could not answer the goal tally put up by the Aurora.

Minnesota earned a corner within the first minute, a freekick in the second, struck side netting in the fourth. The first goal finally (yes, finally) came in the 6', a clean finish by Cat Rapp on a cross from Makenzie Langdok. While Rochester took advantage of a few counters, their finishing was not clean or powerful enough to trouble starting goalkeeper Amanda Poorbaugh. But an Aurora offense featuring four returning players (Rapp, Mariah Nguyen, Hannah Adler, Sophie French and Maya Hansen) was no easy match. Mariah Nguyen, who found side netting early, found Hannah Adler in the six yard box in the 14'. Adler settled the ball and sent an inside-of-the-boot finish past keeper Carlota Alcade.

Alcade, who had 12 saves in RFC's 1-0 opening loss against Bavarian SC last week, looked less confident against Aurora. Down 2-0 inside of 15 minutes, it would be a long night for her. A minute after the crossbar denied a Nguyen scissor kick, Hansen found Rapp who slipped past the centerback and beat Alcade again to make it 3-0 in the 35'. Then just after the restart, Adler sent a ball to Hansen whose quick finish made it 4-0 in the 36'.

"It was fun, and I think it helped us settle down a little bit," head coach Nicole Lukic said of the four first half goals. Of Rapp's two goals, Lukic said, "Incredible and not surprising because she's been on fire the last two weeks at training so really happen to see some goals going in for her tonight."

Rapp credited preseason preparation for Wednesday's result:

"We have a mindset and a goal and a plan of what we want to do and because my teammates and all we've been working on for the past couple weeks with coaches and everybody, I was able to just do my job and finish the chances I had."

The score held through to halftime with Rochester growing into the game in those ten minutes but still feeling things out. Aurora's Nguyen tangled with Sera Speltz on the wing a few times, each attempting physical runs.

Each side made three changes to start the half with newcomer Vienna Behnke replacing Nguyen and Lydia Ruppert and Jelena Zbiljic replacing Ostrem and French for Aurora. Emma Knack entered the game for Rochester, replacing Alcade in goal, joined by Becca Cook and Ava Adams. The first half hour of the second half was much like the last ten minutes of the first half with Rochester getting a little more purpose from their possession (Mizutani's freekick attempt in the 53' was high but seemed to renew Rochester's attack) but a took a few more subs for the next goal to happen.

In the 83', after a few well-timed if not powerful shots, Aurora's Kristelle Yewah took advantage of a miscue by Knack, getting behind the keeper and flustering both centerbacks before deflecting a long ball from defender Kennedy Faulknor to Jelena Zbiljic, who tapped it home for the fifth and final goal.

"Incredible ball," Lukic reflected. "Well-weighted, left footed, just floated right into Kristelle's feet."

A five goal shutout with two key players out due to knocks suffered in preseason friendlies (Kelsey Kaufusi - hamstring; Taylor Kane - thumb) is a solid start for a team that expects to score but also concede more in their second season. The crowd of 5,187 fans made the work a little difficult for Lukic and her squad:

"To be honest, I think at times we were still pretty choppy and sloppy through the night and the ball was out of bounds a lot [...] I learned that we're a little more nervous than I thought we would be being back in this environment but that'll come with time and your know, our next game's on the road. So it'd be nice to kind of work on some things and build off of tonight and in a little bit more quiet atmosphere where we can hear each other, because I couldn't even get anything across to the other side of the field today.

Lukic found plenty of things to work on despite the 5-0 result, but this is not a bad problem to have in the first match of a compact but long season. The Aurora face a quick turnaround with match two coming Saturday at Chicago Dutch Lions. But as Lukic noted, that will be a good environment for them to work on communication and any other problems visible in the first competitive runout.

However, as promised in preseason, this 2023 Aurora squad plans to continue scoring and putting on the pressure, even if they [eventually] have to concede a few more goals along the way. They may not all be 5-0 shutouts, but this team is ready to continue the Aurora Way.

Aurora will face the Chicago Dutch Lions on the road Saturday before returning to TCO to host another new opponent, RKC (Racine, WI) in a Wednesday night prime time feature.

Photo Gallery: Minnesota Aurora vs. Rochester FC

Scenes during the Minnesota Aurora FC vs Rochester FC match at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minn., on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

MN Aurora Open Second Preseason with Positivity

The snow is gone, the kits are out, and MN Aurora FC has begun preseason training ahead of their second season in the USL-W League. Following a busy offseason of recruiting and building out the front and technical offices, the club returned to TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota, on Monday, May 8. With 17 of 28 players returning from the inaugural squad, the team already seemed to be coming together on the second day of training when players and coaches met with the media.

"They've been great. It's now about you know, getting people to just settle down a little bit," said head coach Nicole Lukic, after the open session. "There's tons of energy floating around out here in a great way but getting people to relax and shake out the nerves and just start trusting each other is what this week is going to be about."

Minnesota Aurora FC defender Makenzie Langdok (2) dribbles the ball past forward Maya Hansen (13) during a practice session on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, MN. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Players like Mariah Nguyen, Kristelle Yewah, Taylor Kane, Bayliss Flynn, and Morgan Stone, have returned from successful (both on and off the pitch) school seasons. They are joined by a number of new players who bring their own impressive resumés and experiences - Vienna Behnke, Tianna Harris, and Hannah Adler. Four more players will join by the weekend, after completing their college finals: Rami and Eli Rapp (two of the returning Rapp Trio) and newcomers Brenlin Mullaney and Paola Then. Ahead of a season that may look far different than their groundbreaking inaugural year, the focus this week is on what Lukic calls the Aurora Way.

"When you're recruiting you see film and obviously we have a lot of returners, but they all play differently with their collegiate or professional teams that they're normally a part of. So to get them out here and start teaching them the Aurora way -- it feels really good and really fun to just watch them play and start connecting with each other."

One of those returning players is midfielder Morgan Stone. After scoring a Sports Center Top 10 goal, Stone went on to start every match for Boise State in the 2022 season, contributing 4 goals and 5 assists. She is excited to return to an expanded league and an expanded team.

"It's a lot of returners but there's a lot of new people on the team and it's nice because I know some of the girls super well, they're some of my best friends. But we are a completely different team and we still have to learn each other," Stone explained. "I think the teams have grown a lot so we can't come in confident that we're gonna win every game like we did last season. We have to be confident in who we are, but respect our opponent enough to know that we have to put up a fight every day and everybody's going to be coming for us."

Asked about the league expansion, Coach Lukic pointed to growth in markets that Minnesota has struggled to match for generations: "There are two brand new divisions on the west coast and the west coast is loaded with soccer talent. A lot of those players are playing in spaces year round that people in Minnesota don't or aren't fortunate to have."

Minnesota Aurora FC forward Tianna Harris passes the ball during a practice session on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, MN. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

But that's precisely what this league was designed for: To challenge and prepare young players seeking to go to the next level. Lukic explained: "We don't want an easy environment. Our players are here they want to grow and get better every day. Us coaches as well so it's really nice to see the W League growing and making a name for itself on the women's side."

This season's roster includes a couple of players who have already made that jump. Midfielder Vienna Behnke played her collegiate career at UW-Milwaukee before joining Haukar in the Lengjudeildin league, Iceland's second division, in 2017. She scored 32 goals in 71 appearances for Haukar before joining Fylkir (Reykjavik, Iceland) in 2022. Following another impressive, impactful season, Behnke has returned to the Midwest for a competitive offseason, closer to family and friends.

Minnesota Aurora FC head coach Nicole Lukic, first assistant coach Jennie Clark, and goalkeeping coach Cassie Ulrich at a practice session on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, MN. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

"This is the first time I've been in the US playing - for the last five years I was overseas. And actually the away games that we have [in Wisconsin] are closer to where I'm from so I think I'll have some cohorts of fans at the away games," Behnke said. "I've got a couple lined up. They're excited for the opener."

Behnke and Lukic already knew each other so it was an easy move to make and early impressions of the club are all positive.

"I've been kind of in a lot of different [playing] environments and this one is extremely organized, well put together. Like the coaches know what they're doing; the board knows what they're doing. The owners are involved and that's like a really transparent way to run a club. And that's really refreshing to have everybody all on the same page."

While everyone agrees the club likely won't repeat their undefeated season and league-leading defense, players and staff alike are embracing the process. They've added a mental skills coach in Jenn Ireland to bolster a "new year, new squad" mindset. ("Last year was great but now it just has to be neutral thoughts," Lukic explained.) The front office has also grown with the arrival of the club's first Chief Operations Officer, Jessica Poole. And the 3080 community owners elected two representatives, Jamie Becker-Finn and Mai-Ahn Tran, to the board.

But most importantly, they are embracing the journey.

Minnesota Aurora FC midfielder Morgan Stone (4) passes the ball during a practice session on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, MN. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

"I think everybody here is very serious about soccer, and everybody respects the game and has the same passion and love for the game," Stone said. "It really reminds me of why I love soccer and why I'm passionate for this sport, because it can go through ups and downs in your career. But being around people that just love the game as much as you is just such a fun environment to be in."

Aurora fans will have their first opportunity to add to the environment at TCO Stadium in Eagan on Wednesday, May 24, when Aurora opens the season against W League newcomers Rochester FC.