On a still-wintry April 20, I filed into Minneapolis’s Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome for the second game of Minnesota United FC’s first season, kind of. Although the name is new, the team — technically speaking — is not. Technically, they were the champions of the inaugural season of the North American Soccer League in 2011, when they were known as Minnesota Stars FC. This was a year after they had been founded as NSC Minnesota Stars, named for their home base at the National Sports Center in Blaine, about half an hour’s drive north of the Twin Cities.
They are not, however, directly related to the Minnesota Thunder, who were the state’s professional soccer team from 1990 to 2009. That team’s goal of leaving the United Soccer League’s First Division for the NASL ended in bankruptcy. The team’s owner, Dean Johnson, skipped town, bought the Belgian club RFC Liège with a promise to turn it around, and then disappeared completely after a Belgian sports magazine uncovered his past financial problems.
Don’t worry; there’s more. Although in some ways spiritually connected, this new NASL is not directly connected to the NASL that existed from 1968 to 1984, a league that included the Minnesota Kicks (1976–1981), whose logo is, frankly, awesome.
A few years after the Kicks folded, the original NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers moved to Minnesota and became the Minnesota Strikers for the last year of the NASL’s run in 1984. Then they were an indoor soccer team in the Major Indoor Soccer League. In case that’s all not confusing enough, the new NASL has a new Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
It’s entirely possible that there were a dozen people in the Metrodome that Saturday who knew and understood all of this out of what felt like one thousand on hand (reported attendance was 4,135) for Minnesota United FC’s 2-0 victory over FC Edmonton. The Metrodome’s capacity is 64,111.
If the history of soccer in the state of Minnesota seems as unevenly punctuated and irregularly successful as soccer in the United States as a whole, it is. Minnesota United FC’s new president, Nick Rogers, knows this.
“The plan is for it not to go anywhere,” he said over drinks in a Minneapolis bar a few days after their first win. Their season opener had been a nil-nil draw with the San Antonio Scorpions. “Sustainability is the ultimate goal because it hasn’t been stable. We want this to be something that lasts. The plan is to stick around.”
In a market where research showed that only three percent of adults even knew there was professional soccer, that’s going to be a challenge.
The convoluted path from the Minnesota Stars to Minnesota United FC began with an e-mail. About a year ago, NASL’s then-commissioner David Downs contacted Rogers’s wife (who had been roommates at Amherst College with Downs’s daughter) about the Minnesota Stars. The team had been bought by the league after the NSC had found itself over its head, but if investors couldn’t be found, the team would be folded, ending 23 consecutive seasons of pro soccer in the Twin Cities.
Rogers, a sports fan and Liverpool supporter, was working as a lawyer, but his increasing disenchantment with the job was leading him to question his career. He began talking with his father-in-law, former UnitedHealth CEO Bill McGuire, and the wheels were set in motion. The purchase was announced in November and by January it was completed.
One of the first things to deal with was the name.
“The name Stars didn’t do much for us,” he said. “The name had no connection to soccer and in this particular market, it has a very strong connection with hockey. You go places and say, ‘You know about the Minnesota Stars?’ and they would say, ‘Yeah, they skipped town 15 years ago, they’re bastards, we don’t like them.’”
So they built the name of the team on the model of clubs like MLS’s D.C. United and Premier League teams like Leeds and Manchester United, and brought in Minneapolis branding firm Zeus Jones to construct a new identity. They centered the club’s new badge around the loon, Minnesota’s state bird; a particularly nice touch is the red button on the home and away kits, which mimics the loon’s scarlet eye. The turnover, though, happened so quickly that the team won’t get to take the field in the new unis until the fall — for now they’re wearing generic dark and light kits with a badge.
The kits might be ad hoc, but the name is where the identity begins. As Rogers explained, “The name really helps us tell the story that we want tell and explain the vision that we have of where we want to go. It’s a vision about uniting a geographical area. It’s about uniting various ethnic groups that love this game to begin with. It’s about uniting a complex history of pro soccer in Minnesota. That’s the history that we get to inherit, but it’s confusing. It helps us bring it together and explain it to people. To honor it. It’s something to be proud of.”
That nascent pride was on display at the Metrodome, where a crowd of die-hard soccer supporters, who dubbed themselves the Dark Clouds when they stood with the Thunder, occupied the stands behind one of the goals. They chanted and sang, waved flags and blew horns, and did everything you expect from serious soccer fans. At the game, Rogers said they had assembled some giant, fearsome puppets for the season opener — he also admitted they mic them up a little, just to give a little boost to the vibe.
But the atmosphere was far different from a Minnesota Twins or Timberwolves game. Outside, food trucks served pasties and other European street foods. Inside, there was little interruption or direction for the crowd, which was mostly left to its own devices, free to engage or not with the events on the pitch. Only one side of the arena was open. Across the way, behind the photographers and assorted personnel, some kids casually kicked around a soccer ball. It seemed overall to be less about Americanizing the world’s game than encouraging Americans to immerse themselves in an alternative approach, to get a feel for a rich culture.
If most pro sporting events are like pyrotechnic-filled stadium rock concerts, this Minnesota United game was more like catching a promising indie band on the way to stardom in a half-full club. It seemed only fitting that United’s lineup was read by expat Brit Mark Wheat, a lifelong Manchester United fan and DJ for Minnesota Public Radio’s 89.3 the Current, a not-for-profit station that has championed acts like Bon Iver, Dawes, and Mumford & Sons early in their careers.
But of course, for every Bon Iver, there are many more bands that fail. Some of the crowd got into it but a lot of fans just seemed happy to be there, doing something novel on a Saturday afternoon. So maybe winning isn’t the only thing.
“I think it is important to win.” The Minneapolis bar was mostly empty as Rogers finished his drink. “Winning makes the other things that we have to do easier. But it’s not everything. To me, the most exciting thing about being involved in pro sports is that the product we are manufacturing is culture. It’s a complex system of meaning and values.”
The new ownership of Minnesota United has a unique chance to establish that system from scratch, and it’s maybe where its been most impressive. After seeing Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried’s video for Athlete Ally — an organization dedicated to supporting LGBT athletes — Rogers got in touch with the organization’s founder, Hudson Taylor. The result was half of the team’s roster signing on with Athlete Ally, something that Rogers points out is unprecedented in professional sports. “Here and there you have one or two guys,” he said. “But you haven’t had — en masse — 12 guys saying, ‘If you’re a gay player, this is an OK place to play, you’re fine here.’”
Rogers smiled when he explained that for him personally, working with Athlete Ally was a no-brainer, but that as the team president, he has a much more selfish reason. “I want this club to win,” he said, pointing to pro footballer Robbie Rogers’s simultaneous announcement that he was gay and retiring from professional sports. “The fact that I could lose a player because of who he is? That’s unacceptable.”
But Minnesota United FC has a long way to go.
As the bartender came over to check in, he mentioned he’d heard us talking soccer and that he was a huge fan — he was even planning to travel to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014. He brought up the rumor that the new stadium deal that recently went through for the Vikings could mean an MLS franchise coming to the Twin Cities. It would be cool, he said, for there to be pro soccer in Minnesota.
Nick Rogers pulled his card out and handed it across the bar between thumb and forefinger. There already is, he said. There actually has been, for 24 consecutive years. Rogers and Minnesota United FC are working on keeping the streak alive.