The one blip on an otherwise delightful opening night, Andrea Yoch didn’t see. The Minnesota Aurora president was huddling with club staffers in the TCO Stadium press box in the 89th minute when Green Bay’s Laura Linares headed a long cross past keeper Sarah Fuller, turning an apparent Aurora victory into a 1-1 draw.
Twenty minutes later, as the players from Minnesota’s newest soccer club gathered at tables to sign autographs for waiting fans, Yoch met up with disappointed Coach Nicole Lukic. The Aurora spent most of the second half on the attack but scored only once, a fluky goal at that — a long shot by halftime substitute Shelby Hopeau, a teenager from Hawaii, that bounced weirdly off a defender past Green Bay keeper Alyssa Stumbaugh.
“[Lukic] was upset,” Yoch said. “And I was like, this team didn’t exist six months ago. Our coaching staff hadn’t been hired. We hadn’t recruited a single player. We’re good. I know she wanted a victory, but it’s all right.”
That’s because almost everything else Thursday night went as well or better than expected, a minor miracle for a newly-minted organization. The club said it sold all 5,600 available tickets for the opener, and 5,219 came out on a chilly, overcast night with a threat of rain. Yoch keep looking at the clouds and checking the weather app on her smartphone, but the precipitation held off.
Television crews from WCCO, KARE-11 and FOX 9 did pregame live shots while the players loosened up and the crowd filed into the stadium, a bare-bones, concrete-and-metal-bleacher setup at the Vikings practice facility in Eagan. A DJ at the main gate provided the soundtrack. Fans waited in two long lines to purchase Aurora merchandise; the club so sold much of it that two co-owners headed back to their St. Paul headquarters to get more.
The synthetic turf field still showed football markings within the soccer lines, including an obnoxiously large Vikings head at midfield, but fans didn’t seem to care. They twirled their orange, black and teal Aurora scarves and appeared to have a grand old time, at least until Green Bay tied the game and spoiled the party. And when it was over, the fans stood and applauded the players, who approached both sets of bleachers and applauded them in return.
“It was incredible,” Lukic said. “In warmups, you could slowly kind of see everyone start trickling in. It was becoming more and more packed. You could hear the supporters groups and the chants and the drums. It was such a professional atmosphere. I know our players absolutely loved it.”
When the community-owned Aurora was first introduced, it was before the club had players, a coach, a home field or even a name. What it did have was people eager to invest. It raised just over $1 million from 3,081 shareholders, mostly everyday folk who contributed as little as $100 for a colorful scarf and piece of the club.
Aurora plays in the fledgling USL W League, a 44-club amateur circuit that hopes to feed players to the professional National Women’s Soccer League. Players aren’t paid but get free housing if they don’t live in the area. It’s like baseball’s Northwoods League for collegians, only with some high school girls and post-graduates mixed in. Aurora’s players range in age from 16 to 25.
Fuller, the Vanderbilt graduate who gained national fame place-kicking for the COVID-ravaged Commodores football team, is the club’s most recognizable name. At six-foot-two, she towers over her teammates. Twelve of Aurora’s 26 players are Minnesotans, with four starting the opener: defenders Makenzie Langdok (St. Michael/U of Minnesota) and Rachel Preston (Lakeville/South Dakota State), and forwards Maya Hansen (Savage/South Dakota State) and Morgan Turner (Maple Grove/DePaul).
Two days earlier, the club gathered at TCO on a sunny, crisp morning for a 75-minute training session. For the first time, Aurora had its complete roster on hand with the arrival of four highly-touted recent high school graduates — the Rapp triplets (Catherine, Elizabeth and Rami) from Evergreen, Col., plus Hopeau. All will play college soccer in the fall, the Rapps in Division I (Elizabeth and Rami to Oklahoma, Catherine to Florida International) and Hopeau at Division II Metropolitan State in Denver.
Aurora finished training at 8:30 a.m. so players could disperse to classes, jobs and internships. Kristelle Yewah, at 25 the club’s oldest player, stopped for a quick interview, then sprinted to the locker room to clean up before heading to class at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, where she’s entering her final year.
Until showing up unannounced at an indoor tryout camp in Vadnais Heights in January, Yewah — a standout forward at Michigan State and a co-captain as a senior — hadn’t played organized soccer since 2017. Yewah said her friend Abby Enrici, an Augsburg soccer alum, saw an Instagram post about an Aurora tryout and told Yewah about it. “I thought about it for a little bit, and then I was like, what’s the harm?” she said.
Lukic and her staff never heard of Yewah (pronounced yay-wah), but she quickly caught their attention. They signed her two weeks later, the second player to commit, one day after Fuller.
“Her athleticism really stood out to us,” Lukic said. “She’s hungry to have the ball at her feet. She really has an attacking mindset, which is the style that we’re trying to play.
“Then when we got to know her, it was even a better fit, because she’s such a great human being and she’s a great mentor to a lot of our players. We’re lucky she came to that tryout. We’re excited to have her on the roster.”
Thursday, Yewah didn’t start but subbed in the 81st minute. She had several good chances but couldn’t convert.
Yewah is the kind of skilled post-grad player the league hopes to attract. Juggling multiple responsibilities is nothing new for Yewah, who comes from a high-achieving family. Her father, Emmanuel, teaches French and chairs the Modern Languages and Cultures Department at Albion College in Michigan, while her mother, Marie-Louise, is a physician. Her brother Roy is an investment banker in Chicago, and sister Raisa just graduated from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
“I knew I always wanted to do something in the health world,” Yewah said. “I’m really into doing things with my hands as well — I can play piano and sew. This is a good way to show my creative side, which dentistry really allows. There’s no one way to do anything, which I like. There are ways to be creative but also help with the community.”
Yewah wished she could have done more to help Aurora win. Afterward, Lukic put on her best face while talking to reporters. “We have a lot to tighten up, but we certainly had some really good moments,” she said. “We certainly had our fair share [of scoring chances] and should have been up probably a lot more. It shouldn’t have come down to what it did, but it did. That’s soccer, and it isn’t always fair.”