Minnesota Aurora FC forward Morgan Turner called playing before a throng of more than 5,000 fans at home in the season opener intimidating.
Members of the state’s new pre-professional women’s soccer team got used to big crowds throughout an unbeaten season. Now players’ thoughts turn to rewarding those instantly devoted fans by delivering a championship.
Minnesota (13-0-1) faces South Georgia Tormenta FC (9-1-4) for the USL W League title game at 7 p.m. Saturday at TCO Stadium on the Vikings campus in Eagan. Aurora’s crowds swelled to 6,200 for their first two playoff games, and they sold out the championship game in less than 24 hours.
“There’s definitely a little pressure because we want to do well for all our fans,” said Taylor Kane, the Aurora’s backup goalkeeper. “But at the same time, I know they are proud of us and to be part of something so special.”
Turner, who played at Wayzata High School, said, “Playing for this team is something bigger than all of us on the field. Growing women’s soccer in Minnesota has been an incredible experience. So winning that trophy would be an incredible thing for everybody involved.”
The Aurora are women-led and community-owned. Many players aspire to the National Women’s Soccer League, this country’s top professional soccer league for women.
For now, however, players are focused on finishing an unbeaten season in style.
“It’s exciting; we’re ready,” defender Makenzie Langdok said. “I think we’re peaking at the right time, individually and as a group. Everybody feels sharp and ready to go, and you can tell in training. We’re just itching for Saturday.”
Langdok cited Turner, who has scored seven goals in the past five matches, for having “a heck of a two weeks” leading into Saturday’s match. But Aurora’s strength is in numbers.
“We’re not relying on one person to have an incredible game,” said Nicole Lukic, recently named the USL W League Coach of the Year. “That makes the team feel good, that anybody on any day could have a great day for us. But as long as the team has a good game, we’re going to be just fine.”
Lukic isn’t the only person on the field to earn league-issued platitudes. Tormenta’s Amy Andrews won the Golden Boot award, which goes to the top goal scorer, and league player of the year. Teammate Sydney Martinez received the Golden Glove as the league’s stingiest goalkeeper.
Question is, how quickly will the dynamic players get to their game in an environment unlike they’ve faced during the season? Tormenta coach Jim Robbins, self-described “as low-pulse as they come,” is trying to model a similar approach for his players.
“We’ll ask our ladies to tune everything out as best they can,” said Robbins, a former local men’s soccer coach with the Dakota Fusion. “Once the whistle blows, it’s up to them. They need to rally among themselves to cut through the noise and focus on the game they need to play. I don’t anticipate it being a factor.”
Which isn’t to say Robbins is missing the big picture.
“For most of these ladies, at some of the colleges where they play, if they get 100 people watching their games, that’s a lot,” he said. “So to have 6,000 people coming to watch this game, I think it’s great for these ladies, it’s great for the game in general.”
Several times this season, Kane said she has been asked, ” ‘Wait, you have 6,000 people? How did that happen?’ “
The formula isn’t easy to define. Turner gave it a shot.
“I don’t really know what the secret sauce is,” Turner said. “We’ve had so many awesome people who have really invested so much time and energy into this team and have tried new things to help us be successful.
“And I think people are really excited to support women’s soccer in Minnesota. A combination of the players, the coaching staff and everyone who has invested in us has helped to create an incredible experience.”