Breaking out: Aziel Jackson thriving in MLS NEXT Pro with MNUFC2 

Minnesota United FC homegrown product, 20-year-old Aziel Jackson, is lighting up the attack across MLS NEXT Pro. The versatile attacker joined Minnesota United 2, the MLS NEXT Pro affiliate of MNUFC, in March 2022 on a season-long loan and has since broken out as one of the top young attackers across the league.

Jackson, who can play anywhere in a front-four – and even drop into central midfield – has started eight out of a possible 10 matches for the Loons, and has featured in every contest this season racking up 788 minutes. MNUFC 2’s leading scorer, Jackson sits with five goals to his name while boasting a trio of assists along the way, averaging 0.57 G/90min with four out of his five strikes coming from inside the 18-yard-box. The top chance creator across MLS NEXT Pro, he has 30-total attacking assists in the final third while registering 13 shots on target across 29 total shot attempts.

Jackson’s versatility has turned him into a go-to name on the teamsheet head coach Cam Knowles, but no matter where he stands on the pitch, Jackson knows his role and knows how dangerous he can be.

“I feel like if you can play multiple positions, it's always helpful for the manager or for their team as well. You know, you're always able to help the team in many different ways,” Jackson said. “I feel like being on the right or left, at the 10 or nine is so essential for an attacking player to be able to go behind the back line and see the weaknesses and exploit them.”

Jackson’s performances during the month of May saw him nominated for MLS NEXT Pro Player of the Month, where he helped MNUFC 2 to four-straight matches unbeaten in that time frame, but in total, helped establish an eight-match unbeaten streak.

“I feel like I just want to go into the game and just help the team. I feel like we have a really special group with the MNUFC 2 staff, Cam Knowles and Jeremy Hall, they really bring the group together and I feel like we're creating something special.”

As humble as they come, Jackson wasn’t even aware of his prestigious nomination when asked about it. Instead, the New York native mentioned he’s more focused on success as a group rather than looking at his personal statistics.

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Jackson is just heating up, but things are about to get hotter as starting MNUFC 2 attacker and second-leading goal-scorer Justin McMaster returns after a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to injury. The connection between Jackson and McMaster dates back to the duo both arriving at the club in 2021, but also on the pitch with MNUFC 2 where they combined for two goals together early in the campaign.

“I feel like with Justin me, we have some chemistry because you know, this is our second year with Minnesota united. So I feel like just knowing someone on the team just creates some cadence and others follow… and I feel like with the rest of the guys, they're really strong and they connect well and it translates in the field.”

McMaster shares Jackson's point of view, adding that when the duo are on the pitch together with MNUFC 2, things just seem to “click.”

“He’s very talented, you know, we play really really well together because we’re both quick players, so when we play well together, the whole team does. Once we’re clicking, the whole team is playing well and we’re very dangerous together. It’s just a really good partnership.”

The partnership between Jackson and McMaster is one puzzle piece of the big picture. MLS NEXT Pro was developed as a pathway for young talent like the MNUFC 2 duo to strengthen their link and develop in a sustainable and competitive environment. For Jackson, that’s exactly how he sees it.

“I feel like this MLS NEXT Pro league is very important for young players like myself to get minutes and get some experience and just get some confidence as well. It's hard for a young player coming from, say, college or the academy, to transform into the first team and it's hard to get minutes. You know, it's a tough, tough business, but I feel like with this league, it's just so important for young players and it's just gonna help a player grow into something big.”

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Describing MLS NEXT Pro as a league that has helped him mature, develop and enjoy the biggest passion in his life, Jackson is proud to play center-stage to share the beautiful game with family, friends and supporters.

“For me, it's just helped me enjoy what I love to do. Just play football. I love playing the game, anywhere I can play… with the second team, first team, with the Academy… I just love to play the game. I love to just show the people what I can do.”

At the wrap of week 12, the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro season officially reached its halfway point. Looking back on it, Jackson expressed that he’s seen immense growth in himself and squad overall.

“The first 11 Games have been impactful on us. You know, we've learned a lot so far. The first game against Texas (North Texas SC), I think everyone was really a little on edge because we lost the first-ever game for MNUFC 2… but you can see (how) we bounced back and we've improved as a group over the past couple of weeks and I feel like it's just made us stronger.”

Jackson’s performances this season have earned three first-team call-ups. Appearing twice in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and most recently, in a club friendly against SC Paderborn 07 of the Bundesliga 2 during the June international break, Jackson scored the match-winner for the Loons, smashing home a memorable direct free-kick into the top corner of the net.

The MNUFC 2 talisman and his squad now have a two-week layoff before they return to the pitch on June 26th, but when they do, it will be a showdown between two of the top Western Conference sides as they host the No. 1 ranked North Texas SC.