USL-W | MN Aurora Enters Playoffs with A Fresh Slate, Despite Opening with A Rematch

The W League's second season has come to a close but playoffs are coming, fast and furious. Kettering University and its Atwood Stadium, in Flint, Michigan, will host the Central Conference semifinals on Thursday, July 6. The Heartland Division's wild cards will play first (at 2pm CST), in a meeting of familiar foes: Minnesota Aurora FC and Chicago City FC. Then (at 6 pm CST) Flint City AFC of the Great Lakes Division will face Indy Eleven of the Valley Division. The winners will face off in a quarterfinal match on Saturday, again at Atwood Stadium.

2023 USL-W Playoffs bracket (USL W-League)

MN Aurora head coach Nicole Lukic and some players spoke with the media following the team's last practice before taking off* for Flint. Tuesday's open training followed a rare two-day break, a necessity ahead of what will hopefully be a continuing compact playoff schedule. "We've been mentally kind of grinded for fifty days or so with just, you know, a day off here and there," Lukic told NLF. "So I think the two days did everybody pretty well for their bodies and just mental energy. We had a good session today and we're excited to get over to Flint."

Minnesota Aurora bolstered their roster ahead of the trip, adding training player Ava Bjorkman Tracy to the squad. The UNC-Ashville player will be a depth option as Hannah Adler is on beach soccer national team duty this weekend and Kennedy Faulknor remains out with injury.

Thursday's opponent is the same squad Aurora faced in their home finale this past Saturday. Lineup tweaks throughout the match against Chicago City SC resulted in a 7-0 win, with six of those goals scored in the second half, but Lukic said not to look at that match as a preview of Thursday's game plan: "We were guessing that it would be back to back Chicago City games so we kept that in mind when we created our lineup on July 1, because we didn't want to do the exact same thing twice. So I would expect it [Thursday's lineup] to be a little different than it was on Saturday."

Midfielder Vienna Behnke, a Wisconsin native with pro experience in Iceland, says playoffs will be a fresh start. "It's just kind of a mindset shift of a whole new season starting, so the regular season means nothing. Now, even though we did really well and we do have a lot of good results [12-0, 60 goals], the slate is clean and we have to start over and prove ourselves right away."

After that near-fifty day grind, two days off felt strange to Behnke, in large part due to the team chemistry built through an intensive, compact season. For a pro (who will be available in the upcoming transfer window, by the way) to speak so highly of the experience with a squad - and league - largely composed of college players getting ready for the fall season and considering pro careers, speaks volumes of Aurora's program.

"I'm looking to play overseas again in this transfer window - hopefully I'll sign contracts now. So it's been a good preparation for me, as well. Just not going back to college, but to go back to another team," said Behnke. "[It's] just a really high level all around, even as we split up into our functional groups and stuff. Even that's a really high level. So it's been - I think everybody's gotten to improve and no matter where you're going afterward, I think it's been really good."

While Aurora has received a lot of attention for both the quality of their goals (with two SportsCenter Top 10 appearances in 2023) and the quantity (Behnke frequently wakes up to texts from teammates overseas asking if the other team got a touch on the ball), their coach remains balanced, still on those "neutral thoughts" from preseason:

"We've played them really well on Saturday, obviously, but we can't take any opponent for granted at this point. Everybody's earned their playoff spot. They worked, Chicago worked super hard to get here so I'm sure we're going to get their best from them."

Minnesota Aurora FC vs. Chicago City SC kicks off at 2 pm CST on Thursday, July 6. Aurora's broadcasting partner Fox9+ will carry the game.

* Notably, we mean "taking off" literally in this case. This is the first time the club has travelled by air for a match. Unfortunately, NLF was told that bus driver/cheerleader Stephen Barry of Jefferson Lines is not able to make the trip.

MN Aurora Closes Out 2023 with Shutout Against Chicago City SC

Minnesota Aurora FC closed out the 2023 regular season on Saturday night with a 7-0 shutout against second place Chicago City SC. With the win, Aurora secured a few big accomplishments: One of only two teams in the W League to go a perfect 12-0-0 (Tampa Bay United of the Southeast Division); the only team to score 60 goals on the season; the highest goal differential (56); and set a new W League attendance record.

Eagan's TCO Stadium was packed with 6,987 fans for the highly anticipated matchup between the Heartland Division's top two teams. The last matchup with Chicago City SC took place on a rainy day in Chicago and ended with a 3-1 win for Aurora. All four of those goals were made in the first half. "Chicago City played a good match and forced us to be better," head coach Nicole Lukic said after that match.

Chicago City SC player Sophia Jamie (10) moves to clear the ball away from Minnesota Aurora midfielder Mariah Nguyen (19) during the Minnesota Aurora FC vs Chicago City SC match on Saturday, July 1, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Saturday's meeting started off a bit differently. The fans had to wait over a half hour to sing for a goal. After a lot of time spent in the middle third, with both sides focused on dispossessing the other and cutting off breakaways, Minnesota eventually earned a corner kick in the 37th minute. Addy Weichers, as usual, sent in a picture-perfect ball, finding the head of Morgan Stone whose flick-on caught City goalkeeper, Lauren Keiser, off guard. The corner kick setup looked a little different from those in the previous 11 matches, in which half of the squad typically camped out in the box awaiting service, often with centerback Tianna Harris squared up for any kick taken by Weichers. This time a few more players held back, perhaps expecting a need to quell a City counterattack.

"It just took us a little bit to break them down," said Lukic. "Credit to Chicago - I thought they had a really good first half. They're a physical team that gave us a good matchup."

Chicago City SC goalkeeper Lauren Keiser (41) blocks a shot by Minnesota Aurora midfielder Sophie French (3) during the Minnesota Aurora FC vs Chicago City SC match on Saturday, July 1, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

But that opening goal seemed to take an edge off of the squad's nerves. Aurora went into the break with a 1-0 lead. Lukic made some changes and the team came out stronger in the second half: "I think we made a tactical adjustment in the midfield that really helped organize our press a little bit better, which helped us win balls back after we lost them," Lukic explained. "So I'd say that was a key moment and then the other players that came into the second half did a really good job of giving us a spark."

And what a spark that was. Minnesota scored a total of six unanswered goals in a span of 24 minutes. They were all far too good not to highlight (You can watch them all HERE) but due to limited space, here are our highlights of the highlights:

Cat Rapp and Sophie French each bagged a brace


Maya Hansen added her twelfth goal of the season (a new team record) in stunning fashion.

Hannah Adler scored on the second touch of her shift.

"I think we were a little frantic kind of [in the first half]," explained Cat Rapp, Saturday's Star Tribune Star of the Match. "I think in the first half the heat and other stuff was just making us more tired. But we'll make adjustments to play our game better, which is why we're here."

Lukic credited passion and chemistry for such consistent results, as well as their coachability . She was also quick to credit the fans, tying them into many of her comments when asked about certain moments of the match.

"Credit to the players who really just show up day in and day out, put in the work. They love this game more than most I know, and they come to train and just show up every single day so that when we get the opportunity to play in front of out amazing fan base, we're able to put seven goals in the net. And obviously people love seeing goals being scored."

Autograph Alley following the Minnesota Aurora FC vs Chicago City SC match on Saturday, July 1, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Aurora moves on to the postseason, joined by Chicago City in Flint, Mich., for conference playoffs next week. The players (and staff) will get a couple days of much need rest but then they return to training and, Lukic says, the focus is the same: "As long as we continue doing the little things that we need to be doing right, it shouldn't matter where we play."

With any luck, Kettering University's Atwood Stadium will have the streaming capabilities to host 7,000-plus Aurora fans watching from Minnesota.

Aurora Thrive On Adversity, Add 5-1 Win Over Bavarian United

As a club more accustomed to creating adversity than facing it, the pitch was switched on MN Aurora this week but they emerged stronger, outscoring two Wisconsin opponents ten to one, despite a late venue change midweek and an early conceded goal that silenced TCO Stadium on Saturday night.

Poor air quality in the MSP area and throughout the state due to Canadian wildfires moved Wednesday night's home match against Green Bay Glory to an indoor venue, with no fans and no media. However, MN Aurora FC partners Eagan TV and Fox9 rallied to make the streaming show go on. Aurora won 5-0 with two goals from Cat Rapp and one each from Hannah Adler, Kylie Olsen, and Sophie French.

"I think overall, I mean the staff was probably the most stressed out because, myself included, we were the ones managing a lot of the changes and we tried to keep that off the players on Wednesday and I think we did a good job of that so they were able to just adjust to the location," head coach Nicole Lukic said on Saturday. "I think we gave them enought heads up, at four o'clock like - hey, something might happen, it might be different - like getting in that mindset and I thought that worked really well."

While Aurora proved they can do it under the dome of Stillwater's St. Croix Valley Rec Center on a pitch lined with youth soccer goals and lacrosse creases, the squad was eager to return to their true home on Saturday, celebrating Pride at a sold-out TCO Stadium. Aurora repeatedly tested the spectator limits of the Minnesota Vikings practice facility in 2022 and their sophomore year has been no different, despite all the Wednesday evening matchups. Saturday's match drew a season high 6,423 fans. Alas, the adversity continued under a nearly smoke-free sky.

Rather than scoring an early goal to get the crowd going, Aurora conceded one to Bavarian United SC. The Milwaukee-based expansion side sits in third in the Heartland Division, behind Aurora and Chicago City. Everyone watching this match quickly saw why. A high press, a quick defense, and an unshakable midfield, rattled Aurora early, forcing the hosts to defend against tactics much like their own for the first time this season.

Bavarian United SC celebrates their early goal during the Minnesota Aurora FC vs Bavarian United FC match on Saturday, June 17, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Bavarian took control of possession early, testing Aurora's back line and looking for space. In only the 2nd minute they capitalized on a poorly-timed clearance by Abby Ostrem in Aurora's 18, catching centerback Tianna Harris and goalkeeper Amanda Poorbaugh on the back foot. Haley Johnson came through with a cool, calm finish to put Bavarian United up 1-0 and silencing a crowd more accustomed to seeing early goals from the home team.

"Obviously not the best way to start a game, two minutes in to give up a goal and let them kind of run through you," Lukic said. "And then I thought we abandoned our game plan a little bit there for 25 minutes. That rattled us a little bit more than we would have liked."

"They tested us, honestly, the first ten minutes. We had to settle ourselves in I think. I never doubted our team one bit," said centerback Tianna Harris. "We just knew to pick our heads up [after the goal] and let's freaking go."

Harris had a lot of one-v-one defensive opportunities against Haley Johnson, both strong and persistent players. Johnson got through with one but Harris was the one to hold her off through the rest of the match. "I love a challenge," she said. "I think just being a bigger body, I was trying to get something on her and just tried my best to be physical with her because she's a physical girl as well. "

The visitors continued to disrupt Aurora's midfield and managed to raise some tension. Morgan Stone made a few uncharacteristically stiff challenges, getting away with one, but earning a yellow card for another in the 24'. Hannah Adler had a great chance in the 26' but Bavarian goalkeeper Chloe Olson was up for the challenge. In the 29', Cat Rapp finally found the net following a flurry of blocked shots in a crowded box.

The equalizer woke the crowd and Aurora's offense. Maya Hansen, credited with the assist to Rapp, found the go-ahead goal in the 33'. She made collecting and settling a long ball from leftback Abby Ostrem look easy, and added a clinical finish.

Minnesota Aurora forward Maya Hansen (13) celebrates her goal during the Minnesota Aurora FC vs Bavarian United FC match on Saturday, June 17, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Hannah Adler added the insurance goal before the halftime whistle, following up her own scuffed first touch on a pass from Mariah Nguyen to tap it past Olson. The 3-1 lead was a result of a formation change after the poor start. Lukic reverted to the four-player back line  after starting the night with three: "It gave us more confidence," Lukic explained. "We felt this made us feel a little bit more protected whether we needed that or not. Whether it was false confidence or real confidence, I'm not sure but it definitely worked." The switch led to three unanswered goals in 20 minutes.

"It gave us another number in the wide spaces which is where we kept finding the ball without a lot of support and ability to move forward. So overall I think it really helped us, just to settle down and get back into our settings."

Both teams came out fighting in the second half, Bavarian continuing to press while Aurora probed for shots. However, just  a couple minutes in, everyone had another chance to regroup. A collision in Aurora's half in the 47' between Addison Weichers and Bavarians' Hannah Kroupa resulted in a five minute stoppage of play. Kroupa took the worst of the aerial head-to-head impact, suffering a laceration on her forehead that took a few minutes to control. Weichers was checked out and returned to the pitch as the stadium crew and athletic trainers managed the blood spilled on the turf and on Kroupa, who did not return to the game.

Aurora scored two more in the second half but Bavarian continued to make them work for it. Nguyen's goal in the 62', assisted by a long range cross in from Eli Rapp, may have secured the game as momentum, both on the pitch an finally shifted fully in Aurora's favor.

Minnesota Aurora defender Elizabeth Rapp (7) crosses the ball to assist a goal by Minnesota Aurora midfielder Mariah Nguyen (19) during the Minnesota Aurora FC vs Bavarian United FC match on Saturday, June 17, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Aurora continued to display their depth and versatility putting a fifth goal from a fifth goalscorer in the 76' Harris got her head on a corner served in by Weichers and notched her fourth such goal of the season. Harris earned Star of the Game honors for the finish but credited the service for the opportunity.

"I love defending but attacking, that's my thing. I love it. So when I get the chance in the box and honestly, great service is provided -- me and Addy [Weichers] have kind of developed a little bit of a bond and she basically just puts it right on my head. I don't have to do too much. She's amazing."

It all came together on Saturday night, just as it all came together on Wednesday, and Aurora FC is embracing the circumstances thrown at them this season. Harris explained: "All those types of adversity are prepping us for playoffs. So we kind of look at it like, listen, this is what they gave us. We're gonna take it, make the best out of it. And I think we're just getting ready for playoffs and all of this is just part of the plot, I'm telling you."

Aurora's next chapter will be on the road. They will travel to Racine on Wednesday for a second meeting with RKC Third Coast and then to Milwaukee on Saturday for a rematch with Bavarian United. Saturday's win puts more distance between first place Aurora (24 points) and second place Chicago City (16 points), but Bavarian is still in a close third (13 points).

Minnesota Aurora FC and Bavarian United play in a USL W match on Saturday, June 17 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, MN

MN Aurora Emphasizes Effort Over Goals - Even For Their Opponents

Minnesota Aurora FC closed out the month of May with three wins from three games, having outscored their opponents 19-0. Ten of those goals came from a home match against expansion side RKC Third Coast on May 31 so they rolled into an away fixture at Rochester FC on June 4 with confidence in their depth and creativity. In Aurora's home opener against Rochester FC, the squad put up five unanswered goals on an injury-depleted squad. As hosts, Rochester bettered that performance in the second leg and proved that despite the lopsided resources seen across USL-W conferences, even the bottom ranked teams can play level with the leaders.

Sunday, June 4 at RCTC Stadium: Rochester FC 0 - 1 MN Aurora FC

The Sunday matinee at RCTC Stadium felt more like a home game for Aurora with at least half of the crowd sporting teal, as captured by our friends at Equal Time Soccer, but both squads heard cheers for some stellar efforts through the match. Both starting goalkeepers, Aurora's Olivia Graupman and Rochester's Emma Knack, played lights out. While RFC went into the match outscored 8-0 on the season, Knack held off Aurora's chances from open play and tested Aurora's shot selection. The Isanti native and NDSU-commit allowed only one goal in this game, a header by Tianna Harris from one of Aurora's many corner kicks.

Graupman, starting over Taylor Kane as a precaution at this stage of the season, has not faced too many shots but was tested by Rochester. Lissa Mizutani, who was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in her freshman year at University of St Thomas, nearly snagged the equalizing [and Rochester's first] goal in the 89th minute, but the crossbar and perhaps Graupman's fingertips, kept her off the board.

One might think that continuing to concede goals while not scoring any of their own would be detrimental to a squad's confidence. However, Mizutani and teammate Jayda Brown relish the opportunity. When asked about their goals as players on an expansion team, amidst the gaps in the standings and playing experience between teams, Mizutani told NLF, "It's good learning and you're not always gonna win, but you're getting better every game and we're all on the same page."

The goal [*ahem*] of the W League is to develop players and give them a pathway to higher levels of play. For Brown, match results are not the most important part of that development: "Well, I guess for everyone on our team it's just like, getting better. That's one of our main goals from here. Hopefully, if we get the opportunity to go pro then that's something that we're looking forward to but our goal right now is to focus on getting better first before we can move forward." It is also an opportunity to learn from each other, maturing as players in a new environment with new people. "I mean, I think like being such a new team, we are working really on team bonding and chemistry and just being able to connect passes and work on the simple stuff and get to know each other better," Mizutani explained. For Brown, the proof was in the 1-0 loss:

Yeah, that's one of the hard things about being a new team. Like we don't know each other. So we're just trying to build that chemistry as you can see. Like, today I felt like we did an awesome job. Coming after this we're going to do so good - like I can see great things happening. I'm not sure about anybody else but I think we're getting there and we're working extremely hard to become better. So playing against a team like that [Aurora] is like teaching us, you know, how to make better passes and you know, just transitioning and how to make better moves. So yeah, we're extremely proud of our team and what we did today, for sure.

For Aurora head coach Nicole Lukic, the lesson was in a rotated lineup getting the job done against an improved team: "We learned a lot today from trying different players in new positions. It was a good reminder for us that we are going to get our opponents' best game the second time we play them."

Speaking of second times...

Minnesota Aurora FC players run back to restart play after their first goal during the Minnesota Aurora v. Chicago Dutch Lions match on Wednesday, June 7, 2023 at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

(View our full MN Aurora v. Chicago Dutch Lions photo gallery here)

Wednesday, June 7: MN Aurora FC 6 - 1 Chicago Dutch Lions

Aurora returned home on Wednesday night to host the Chicago Dutch Lions after beating them 4-0 on the road (at Aurora University, in Aurora, Ill.). The Dutch Lions did indeed bring their best game, scoring in the 73rd minute to end Aurora's clean sheet streak. Unfortunately for the Lions, Katelyn Nardulli's tally was merely a consolation goal, as Aurora had already put up five of their own and would add one more before the final whistle to win 6-1.

Three of Aurora's six goals came in the first half -- all credited to Hannah Adler, who capped off a hat trick in the 44th minute with a beautiful assist from Cat Rapp. After two penalty kick goals, the open play goal was all the more sweet. "Hannah created a lot for us,"  Lukic said. "She is good at moving into spaces. It was a different game, there was less space behind today. But she still was able to find different moments to link up with players."

Adler is one of the second-year additions still gaining familiarity with the squad but the Star Tribune Star of the Game said, "It's been a really easy adjustment to come into this team. They've made it really easy for me and yeah, I think just as we continue to grow, our confidence as a group will continue to grow."

According to Lukic, they still have a lot of growing to do. To say she was not thrilled with the team's performance on Wednesday may be an understatement.

"I think we just lacked energy and passion overall at moments and were complacent with the 6-1, at one time 5-0, win. So yeah, I would like to see us stay mentally sharp for 90 minutes and that's something that we've already talked about since the game ended and feel the group agreeing which is a good thing but something we have to be better at going forward."

She went on to describe it as "a mindset problem" -- "It's just one of those things that you can't really put your thumb on but you know something was off" and that is a problem that will need to be fixed as the team moves on to the second half of the season to face teams they haven't yet seen.

"We still have the best opponents in the division left, according to the table right now. Second, third, and fourth place teams, Green Bay and Milwaukee Bavarians, who we haven't seen at all. We'll see City on Sunday so, right away, we should have a good challenge right in front of us, but we're definitely gonna have to play a lot better than we did today to make the payoffs."

While Mariah Nguyen's late goal made SportsCenter's Top Ten at No. 6, it was perhaps a poor decision. Lukic cited over-dribbling multiple times in her critique of the 90-minute performance. Aurora will need to be more purposeful with the ball in upcoming games to continue to earn the accolades they have in the first five weeks of the season. We may see some more shots from distance and quick decisions, like Morgan Stone's goal against RKC last weekend, which was named the league's Goal of the Week. And last Sunday's Star of the Game, Tianna Harris, who was also named Captain of the Team of the Month, will need to pull out all the centerback stops moving forward.

Second-Best Is Up Next (Sunday, June 11: Chicago City SC v. MN Aurora FC)

Chicago City SC is in second place, two points behind Aurora following a draw with Bavarians (the only tie in the Heartland Division thus far). City has only conceded four goals in five games while scoring 14, half of which came against RKC Third Coast just days before Aurora shutout that side 10-0. Sunday's matchup will likely be Aurora's toughest test on the season and it will be a true away environment given the distance from the Twin Cities. Goals are nice, but three points on the road would be a great boost ahead of a two-match home stand this coming week and would put a little distance between Aurora and City as we move into the latter half of the season.

Sunday's action will be streamed live on Eleven Sports.

**Author's notes: This article was first published with Brown's quotes attributed to her teammate Jennifer Reyna -- I had copy/pasted my quote sheet to the roster and did not catch the error until after publishing. We have also corrected an error naming Poorbaugh as the MNA keeper on Sunday - Olivia Graupman played the full match. My sincere apologies for the errors.

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)

View our full photo gallery here

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.