Minnesota Aurora coach reflects on his winning season

CATHY WURZER: Glad you’re with us here on Minnesota Now, from MPR News. I am Cathy Wurzer. Minnesota’s Aurora women’s soccer team wraps up its remarkable first-ever season this week. And so far they are undefeated and they are playing for the championship.

The league match is on Saturday against Georgia-based Tormenta FC. Nicole Lukic is the coach of the new team. She is joining us now. She also just won the USL Women’s League Coach of the Year award. Coach Nicole, welcome and congratulations.

NICOLE LUKIC: Thank you. Thank you very much for inviting me again.

CATHY WURZER: Let’s talk about you for a few minutes. The team gels well. What is your role in creating the atmosphere that leads to success?

NICOLE LUKIC: Honestly, it’s just about giving women the freedom to be themselves and creating a safe space, an environment where they can do that.

CATHY WURZER: To be a teacher, and a coach is definitely a teacher, to be a teacher you also have to be a student. And I’m curious, as a coach, how much self-improvement do you do to be a top coach?

NICOLE LUKIC: A lot of things go into coaching, probably more than people realize. More recently, I just finished my A football license last summer, which was about an 11 month course and probably more work than my masters degree. So coaches are always trying to improve and be the best version of themselves they can be for their players.

CATHY WURZER: Let’s talk about the team. When you and I talked– oh, gosh, when you were first– was that– before the first game, I think.

NICOLE LUKIC: Yes.

CATHY WURZER: You knew. You said you had the beginnings of this team. You thought there might be something here, that you were… Like I said, you were starting to gel. You were wondering where this was going to lead.

And really, no one expected this freshman pre-pro women’s team to raise as much money as you did to begin with. You’re constantly selling out the Vikings training ground stadium. There is fan support. How would you describe this opening season for the Aurora?

NICOLE LUKIC: It really is a dream come true. So many people have put so much time and energy into Minnesota Aurora and making it what it is today. And for us to also be able to get the results on the pitch and bring more people into the stadium to watch us play, it’s just honestly, it was a dream. And if we can finish it and win this game on Saturday, that’s really a dream come true.

CATHY WURZER: I know you’re busy as a coach, but I’m curious, how does it feel to be on the sidelines in terms of the support from the fans and the energy in the stadium?

NICOLE LUKIC: It’s amazing. It is unmatched. Since the first home game, you have to pinch yourself and remember that you are not a professional coach. You are a pre-professional coach living in such a professional environment.

Our fans are simply amazing. They have chants for our players. They really conduct energy. Our players thrive on it. We look forward to performing in front of the fans whenever we get the chance. So to be able to win this league game on home soil means so much to us, and we’re thrilled to share that with the community on Saturday.

CATHY WURZER: How are your players feeling before the last game of the season and the championship, nothing less?

NICOLE LUKIC: They are excited. We’ve been talking about July 23 since we met them in January, February and March and talking about getting to that time. So, for it to finally be here, we are ready. We are ready and we will do our best.

CATHY WURZER: So when you and I first spoke, we were talking about some of the people who were going to be the anchors of the team. Did this turn out to be the case? Or were there surprise anchors for the team, surprise leaders?

NICOLE LUKIC: You should probably remind me of what I said. But to be honest, every player on this team has played an incredible role in building us and who we are today. We have to face every player on the pitch, which cannot be said by every team. So it’s really special.

We had more than 13 goals in the team. We don’t just rely on one player to do the job. Our defense was incredible. Sarah Fuller in net got shutouts. We have four goalkeepers in the team, and all four have gained respectable minutes at different times during the season. So everyone is really doing their part, and we’re very proud of every player on this team.

CATHY WURZER: I know you’re focused on the championship game. But I’m a little curious. Do you think the team will be roughly the same next season?

NICOLE LUKIC: Probably not, to be honest. We always hope to bring back as many players as possible, especially with such an incredibly successful year. But we have a lot of players on this team who have big goals to play professional. We are therefore a springboard for them. And we hope we can help them get to the next level where they want to be.

CATHY WURZER: So the off-season will be pretty busy, I guess, huh?

NICOLE LUKIC: The work is never done. I mean, we built an incredible foundation here the first year. And now we have to go back and work even harder to try and raise the bar for year two.

CATHY WURZER: So how can the fans who are so rabid about the Aurora, when you’re off season, keep up with the team? How can they do that? Is there any other women’s football they should follow while Aurora is off season, perhaps?

NICOLE LUKIC: Oh, sure. The majority of our players play NCAA college soccer in the fall. So they could follow their favorite player and watch their matches in person. Many college games are broadcast live these days. And I’m sure our social media team will do a great job of showing where everyone is playing and what their games are and things like that.

CATHY WURZER: I have to say the Aurora games have been shown on major sports media, which is fantastic. Did you gain unexpected fans because of it?

NICOLE LUKIC: I think so. Just sports in general, anytime you have a platform your reach is so much wider. So for our games to be on TV and streamed, and for us to have community owners in 48 states, 8 different countries, I like to think Aurora is watched everywhere.

CATHY WURZER: And before you go, so you’re trying to get your team to where they need to be for this championship, to get their heads and everything in the right direction. How are you preparing for this league match as head coach?

NICOLE LUKIC: I just take it one day at a time. And we’ve done a good job of making that our mindset so far. So I’m not going to change it now, just making sure we’re doing the right things and training every day before the championship, making sure we’re doing the right things, scouting, game plan, obtaining healthy players. So to continue to stay the course for the rest of the season, and hopefully we can finish it.

CATHY WURZER: I wish you good luck. Hope you can win and bring home the championship – what an inaugural season it will be to top it all off if that happens. Good luck.

NICOLE LUKIC: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: Nicole Lukic was with us. She is the coach of the Aurora, Minnesota Aurora’s women’s pre-pro women’s soccer team. She is also the USL Women’s League Coach of the Year. Congratulations.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And while we’re talking football, you probably know that if you’re a Minnesota United fan. They are playing an exhibition game against an England team tonight. The Loons welcome Everton from the English Premier League to Saint Paul. Loons manager Adrian Heath played six seasons for Everton, helping the team win both Premier League titles. They will resume MLS play on Saturday against Houston.

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