Guinness Cup game could have long-lasting soccer implications for Minneapolis
JUN 11, 2014 5:55p ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- With its maroon and gold field paint fading and one lone worker combing its artificial turf Wednesday afternoon, TCF Bank Stadium sat dormant -- the lonely, anticipatory state of all major college football venues this time of year.
But before Jerry Kill leads the Gophers onto the synthetic surface for another trot through the Big Ten, it'll be covered with natural sod and invite two of Europe's most renowned soccer clubs to try it on for size.
When Manchester City FC and Olympiacos FC clash here at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2 and conclude pool play in the Guinness International Champions Cup, they'll present more than a showcase of the 2014 English Premier League and Superleague Greece champions.
It'll provide a barometer of where the game is headed in the Twin Cities market.
Slapping their name on the Champions Cup game is the Vikings' latest grab at landing the final franchise in Major League Soccer's "24 by 2020" expansion pursuit. The rival contingent featuring Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire and possibly the Minnesota Twins lurks quietly, keeping whatever MLS plans they may have mostly private. Minneapolis and St. Paul bars and eateries, meanwhile, are gearing up for the increased patronage expected to accompany World Cup fever.
And shortly after the beautiful game's greatest achievement is recognized, Manchester City and Olympiacos, along with six other renowned foreign clubs, will tour the United States in a tuneup tournament before the fall.
Their stop at the Bank could feature as many as 13 World Cup players -- 10 from Manchester City -- though some of them will likely be resting, depending how far their nations advance. Manchester's roster includes Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho, Spanish forward David Silva, English midfielder James Milner and Argentinian trio Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis and Sergiou Augeuro, while Greek stars Jose Holebas and Andreas Samaris lead Olympiakos.
But will the many ravenous soccer fans of the Twin Cities show up? Is there even such an assemblage?
Tournament official Charlie Stillitano thinks so.
"I'm one of the few people that remember the Minnesota Kicks (now-defunct North American Soccer League member from 1976-81) playing in front of more than 40,000 people," Stillitano, CEO of Champions Cup organizer Relevent Sports, told FOXSportsNorth.com., also citing the Twin Cities' diverse ethnic population and a youth soccer participation that was up to 70,000 children in 2012.
A 1994 United States World Cup organizer and former general manager of MLS' New York/New Jersey Metro Stars, Stillitano was in town Wednesday along with Vikings and Gophers officials to discuss the Aug. 2 soccer showcase. He said about 20,000 tickets have been sold and he expects a sellout crowd of 48,000 to walk through the gates that day.
If that's the case, the Cities' campaign for a permanent MLS franchise could receive a significant boost.
It's why the Vikings chose to be a principal sponsor of the event, Vikings vice president of public affairs Lester Bagley said. After helping Minneapolis secure Super Bowl 52 in 2018, he's leading the charge for an MLS club to play in the team's new stadium set for 2016 completion.
Venue legislation gives the Vikings sole control over any MLS club that plays there for five years after the stadium doors open.
"It helps us get our feet wet," Bagley told FOXSportsNorth.com. "It helps us with relationships.
"We know there's passionate fans and great grassroots soccer organizations and leaders. We've talked to a number of them over the last several weeks . . . and (are) starting to now coalesce and try to focus them on the Aug. 2 game, turn people out for Aug. 2, but then for the longer term to focus on delivering an MLS franchise to the market."
Bagley, Vikings chief financial officer Steve Poppen and chief marketing officer Steve LaCroix attended Sporting Kansas City's game against the New York Red Bulls on May 27 at Sporting Park and met with Kansas City ownership, management and fan experience personnel. Vikings officials also have been to a Seattle Sounders FC match and have had direct discussions with MLS higher-ups, Bagley said.
Recently, the NFL team presented MLS with data saying 10,000 of its fans have shown interest in purchasing soccer ticket packages, too.
But wooing an MLS club is about more than just the average sports fan and the soccer mom. It's about mobilizing the masses that will pack places like Nomad's World Pub and Brit's Pub to cheer on the USA and other countries as they collide in Brazil -- the kind of folks willing to pony up $40 or more for a Champions Cup ticket.
"We feel like this market, more than anything, likes to support local, likes to shop local and likes to connect to local," said Clint Roberts, president of One Simple Plan, a marketing firm that's partnered with the Vikings in their MLS quest. "People expect more, they expect something special with that experience, and I think Major League Soccer could certainly offer that as well."
There is, of course, a professional soccer club in town already offering it, albeit on a much smaller scale. It will play in the Aug. 2 event itself.
Minnesota United FC just wrapped up the North American Soccer League's spring championship and, through its own partnership with Relevent, will take on NASL foe Ottawa Fury FC once Manchester City and Olympiacos wrap up at TCF. McGuire has yet to publicly state he'd chase a jump to MLS but has made it clear he intends to keep the organization as the market's top soccer offering.
Exposure like the Aug. 2 doubleheader ought to help, provided fans stick around for two contests.
"It's going be one of the biggest events in professional soccer in Minnesota history," United president Nick Rogers said recently. "I think it'll give us a chance to get in front of thousands of fans that maybe otherwise wouldn't get to see us play."
MLS commissioner Don Garber likely will be watching, too. He's tabbed Minneapolis as a prime target market for the league's final franchise but hasn't indicated publicly whether the Vikings or United have a better shot at obtaining it.
But at least he'll know for sure after Aug. 2 whether a premier professional soccer match can attract tens of thousands of Minnesotans or not.
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