GUEST POST: KICKTV
A “wonderful” fall evening in 2012 changed everything. No way would Dr. Bill McGuire let soccer die in Minnesota. He stood out in a suburb of Minneapolis, where the Stars were hosting a semi-final in the new North American Soccer League. He watched the fans erupt as the team won, moving on to the finals. And that’s when it hit him. There was something here.
“It was the intimacy, it was the nature of the sport …” McGuire said. “It just said, ‘How could we let this go away,’ because the team was about to be folded.” McGuire had little interest in the sport until he made contact with this struggling franchise. The game, the raw emotion – even at a lower level – was enough to convince him otherwise.
The NASL was forced to fund the Minnesota Stars, a case of a league picking up the bills for a team no one wanted to buy. So McGuire bought the club in November 2012 and turned them in Minnesota United. Now they are the 23rd club in Major League Soccer history.
Commissioner Don Garber beamed on Wednesday as he awarded the city the right to see top-flight soccer for the first time in three decades. The news conference was a celebration, attended by hundreds and watched by even more. Fox Sports telecast the whole presentation to a national audience. It was an event. Minnesota United will play in MLS starting in 2018.
This was big because local people cared. The fans were there, the supporters group waiting for this moment for so long. It was not some flick of the wrist, not something only money could buy, not the birth of a new team, not like New York City FC. It was a reward to a city that is growing in every demographic, a reward for sticking with it, a reward to a fan base that could have lost this game for good.
The tune of the supporters group Dark Clouds said it all. In the rhyme of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, they sang, scarves aloft:
The team that nobody wanted;
The team that nobody wanted;
The team that nobody wanted;
Is going to MLS.
Except McGuire had to have it. He fell in love with the game — hard and fast. He could not let the potential go away.
He immediately changed the name and the logo, adding a loon to the front — a nod to the first mascot of the Minnesota Twins, the Major League Baseball team in town. McGuire increased the staff and the budget and restored the famous north star to the crest. (The state’s official motto, L’Étoile du Nord, gives way to the nickname The North Star State.)
They needed a coach, too. Buzz Lagos, who managed Minnesota’s previous pro soccer team for 15 years, had already retired. Naturally, his son Manny was the perfect fit.
McGuire then enticed the owners of the Twins and the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves to join his ownership group. Now they were ready for MLS. That was the plan all along: to win the next expansion bid. And it was all with their own touch.
Everything about Minnesota United is Minnesota. This team was built with the community at heart, and heart is what it has. Most importantly, they have plans for a 20,000-seat outdoor stadium. With grass. The weather be damned.
“We believe, even with three inches of snow in March, we have one of the more amazing communities in the country,” coach Manny Lagos told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. “We have one of the more amazing places to live, whether it’s a place to raise a family or for a young guy who wants to absorb a culture.”
If Toronto and Montreal can do it in the winter, so can Minnesota. Minneapolis-St. Paul itself is on the rise, with a diverse and environmentally conscious population growing.
“This is a market that is young, that has more people riding their bicycles around than they do in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is a pretty hip place,” Garber said.
MLS could have agreed to accept a bid from a rival Minnesota ownership group or a warmer locale. Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have put in $1 billion to build an indoor facility for their NFL team. They have the money. But they lost, mainly because the team would have to play indoors.
“As a player — to put it bluntly — we don’t like playing on turf and we don’t like playing indoors,” Landon Donovan told reporters at the announcement. “The idea that, in Minnesota, a place that is known for being cold in the winters, they’re going to take the big step to have an outdoor stadium with grass. And by the way, if you want to attract big players, you’re not going to get big players to come play on turf. It’s very difficult.”
It’s also very difficult to put together a franchise without any history. NYCFC has been called “plastic” for precisely that reason. Minnesota United are the real article. What you see is what you get. The name, the logo, the coach: they’re all staying. Never before has that happened with an expansion team in MLS history. It’s a simple carryover, because everything they need is already there. Minnesota comes like Portland and Seattle: with the culture and the fans.
Most prominent, though, is the history. Back in 1976, when the NASL was a sports phenomenon in the U.S., the Minnesota Kicks played in an old baseball stadium that no longer exists. The crews would not bother erasing the infield lines on game day. The players kicked the ball on the dirt of the lingering baseball diamond.
The looks didn’t matter. The people came, almost 50,000 for a playoff game. That was the heyday. Eventually, that team folded along with the league. Other local soccer clubs in Minnesota popped up and left. But there was always soccer.
The Minnesota Thunder stayed the longest: a run from 1990 to 2009. That’s when Buzz coached, making them one of the biggest lower-division clubs in the country. They were good enough to beat MLS teams at the time. After the Thunder came the Stars. The name changed but the facts didn’t. Minnesota was stuck in the second tier of American soccer. And then they were stuck in purgatory.
The league had to take over the franchise in 2012. No one volunteered. It was dying. And then McGuire saved it. “I remembered the great crowds that we had here in Minnesota in the ’70s. And I thought, ‘If we were able to do that in the ’70s, imagine what we could do now’ …” Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott told MPR News. “And that really gave me a lot of confidence that soccer could be a major league sport here.”
That too gave McGuire the spirit to complete the takeover and the makeover. Now they have stability, a future and a team with internationals – six Brazilians and Miguel Ibarra, a U.S. men’s national team call-up despite playing in the second division.
MLS is finally giving Minnesota a chance back in the big time, but Minnesota could end up giving MLS even more.
Written by Anthony Lopopolo