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Boxall at forefront of New Zealand's increasing influence in booming MLS

An early own goal helped Atlanta United hold on for the win against Minnesota United after being reduced to 10 men before halftime.

MINNEAPOLIS -- In its 23 years of existence, Major League Soccer has been home to just 18 players from New Zealand. Of those 18, eight are plying their trade in MLS right now. Not since 2011, when five Kiwis played in the U.S. and Canada, has the league been home to so many players from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Michael Boxall captained the All Whites in their friendly against Canada last month, and the Minnesota United defender has witnessed both of MLS' New Zealand high-water marks firsthand.

The 29-year-old came to the U.S. in 2007, playing college soccer for the University of California Santa Barbara, before being selected by the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2011 Supplemental Draft ahead of the club's expansion season. And it's that path, from the U.S. collegiate system into MLS, that Boxall says is so attractive to New Zealanders.

"Because New Zealand doesn't have its own professional league, it's tough for New Zealand footballers to make that step up," Boxall told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview.

"Ryan Nelsen started the trend when [he] went through the collegiate system, which is like a nice natural progression from the New Zealand leagues.

"You get an education [as well], which every parent likes when their kids do that - I know mine definitely did."

Since his arrival in MLS seven years ago, the league has grown considerably -- literally and figuratively. Boxall's Vancouver was one of two expansion teams [along with the Portland Timbers] to join the league in 2011. Since then, one club folded, but six more have sprung up in its place - including the Kiwi captain's new club, Minnesota.

Not only has the size of the league grown, so too has its popularity, its infrastructure and the quality of the product on the pitch.

Since Boxall joined the league in 2011, six new soccer-specific stadiums have been built or renovated to house MLS clubs, with two more set to open this season and a further three scheduled to be completed in the next three seasons.

Michael Boxall collects the ball during Minnesota United's home opener against Chicago.
Michael Boxall's arrival in Minnesota has coincided with the Loons' upturn in fortunes.

And while MLS struggles to shed its "retirement league" label earned by the signings of the likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, the average age of new signings joining the league this past offseason was 24.72 -- and that number drops to 22.55 when only accounting for the league's nine new designated players.

"It's been massive," Boxall said of the transformation of MLS in the five seasons between his last in Vancouver (2012) and first in Minnesota (2017). "First and foremost, the fans. There's not too many stadiums you go to where it's less than three-quarters filled, so that's been massive; the buy-in from the public is fantastic.

"The standard on the field has obviously stepped up massively. I think you just see the quality of players that are coming here and turning down potential moves to proper European leagues, that they'd rather come here than go to Portugal or Belgium or even England or Spain or something like that.

"It just speaks massively for where this league has come from and where I think is still massive room to grow, which is evident with all the expansion teams that'll be coming in in the next couple of years."

Boxall himself has been a key contributor to Minnesota's growth. Prior to the center-back's arrival, the Loons had accumulated 19 points in 21 matches with a goal differential of minus-24. After his introduction midway through last season, they earned 17 points in 14 matches with a goal differential of minus-six.

When asked about the timing of Minnesota's turnaround, Boxall laughed and quipped that it was a "coincidence."

Despite his new club's turnaround in the second half of its inaugural season, its 70 goals allowed -- 42 of which were scored prior to his arrival -- was the most in MLS history. That's why he and the club have placed such emphasis on defense in their second campaign.

And while the season is still young, they've shown signs of delivering. Minnesota sits in sixth in the 12-team Western Conference -- the last playoff place -- after five games. And, last month, the club signed its first ever designated player in forward Darwin Quintero from Liga MX giant Club America.

"We've shown that we can beat a lot of high-quality teams in this league and I think if we have a base to build on, I think this year we can be a bit more exciting than maybe people expect from us," Boxall said. "I think the very minimum has got to be playoffs and be a team that other teams do not want to play in the playoffs."

Michael Boxall acknowledges the crowd during New Zealand's World Cup qualifying playoff vs. Peru.
Michael Boxall captained New Zealand in their March friendly against Canada.

However, postseason play is something that will elude another club close to Boxall's heart -- the Wellington Phoenix. The New Zealand club will miss the A-League finals for the third straight season and are in danger of finishing in last place if they do not win their final game of the season this weekend.

Such poor results, combined with the fact that in 2015 the Phoenix were nearly removed from the league to make way for a third Sydney expansion team, has led to renewed questions of the viability of a New Zealand side playing in Australia's first division. "I think everyone like John Kosmina and all those people ... they have agendas for just wanting Australian teams," Boxall said.

"[It] would be nice if all the Australian teams could fund themselves and stay in the league but too many drop out, too many have to be supported by the football federation.

"The Wellington Phoenix is probably one of the strongest group of owners within the league and one of the more stable clubs.

"I don't know if there's a quick fix but when they were doing well, there was a big core of players -- and when you look at any club, there's a core of stable players that really drive the ethos or the spirit of the club, and carry that through -- but it's natural that within sport that players come and go, but there always needs to be that core group that drives the group forward.

"I think probably four or five years ago they started losing that, and then you get bit-part players who see the Phoenix as a quick stop hopefully onto something better -- an opportunity to play in the A-League and get noticed by the other teams.

"That doesn't help when you want to keep the group together moving forward."

Could Boxall himself return to the club he featured for between 2013 and 2015 to help return a bit of stability to the porous Phoenix defense?

"In football you never know, but I'm very happy [in Minnesota]. I think some way down the future, if there's any way I could help them out, we'll see what happens."

Austin Lindberg is a general editor for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter at @LindbergESPN.

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