Shortly after praising Minnesota United FC owner Dr. Bill McGuire and his North American Soccer League’s vision, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber issued a serious warning that resonated around an otherwise-anticipatory fan community.
Build it, and we’ll be there. Don’t, and we won’t.
"No league can play if they don’t have a stadium that they believe in," Garber said Wednesday after a news conference — more of a pep rally, really — at Target Field announcing United as MLS’ 23rd franchise. "We would then as an ownership group take a step back and decide whether we wanted to come to Minnesota. We have other options around the country, some . . . with very detailed soccer stadium plans, and we’d have to make that decision at that time."
McGuire and an ownership group that includes Twins owners Jim and Robert Pohlad, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Carlson Companies executive Wendy Carlson Nelson have until July 1 to finalize their Minneapolis Farmers Market venue plan. If that deadline is met, the club could begin MLS play as early as 2017, Garber said.
Former UnitedHealth Partners CEO Bill McGuire isn’t ready to divulge what his plans will entail, but if there’s any amount of government subsidies involved, he can count on some immediate backlash.
Five other stadiums have been constructed or are under construction in Minneapolis or St. Paul since 2000, when the Xcel Energy Center opened its doors for the Minnesota Wild. Another, the Wolves’ Target Center, is set to undergo renovations which just went up in cost, from $97 million to nearly $129 million, this week.
Every single venture relied — or is relying — on public money. And no one cheering and singing at Wednesday’s presser held a sign saying "We Want 7." The state of Minnesota helped pay for the Wild’s home ice. It’s taken on a considerable percentage of funding for the new Vikings stadium, TCF Bank Stadium and the St. Paul Saints’ CHS Field.
Governor Mark Dayton says he strongly opposes a similar taxpayer burden when it comes to the soccer pitch. So does Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. Minneapolis, meanwhile, is on the hook for a good chunk of the Vikings and Target Center endeavors. Its leaders are on a similar wavelength to Dayton and Bakk.
"We know MLS is interested in a new soccer stadium in downtown Minneapolis," Mayor Betsy Hodges and City Council President Barbara Johnson said in a joint statement. "We appreciate their willingness to invest in our city. As we have previously stated, we believe a new stadium would be best financed with private resources."
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat’s on board with McGuire’s plan, even though the county is already helping pay for Target Field via a sales-tax increase approved back in 2006.
"I think it would just build on what’s already the most exciting neighborhood in Hennepin County," Opat said in December.
McGuire emphasized the word "partnership" among his repeated declinations to divulge any stadium plan specifics. It’s an open-ended term, but some sort of accord with the local government was more than implied.
"You can’t put something in a community, plop it down in the middle of downtown and just say, ‘OK, we’re here. We’re doing it,’" said McGuire, who already owns an option on the land expected to host . "I think we’ll have a good vision, and it’s not . . . just about soccer. We think there are important things for that community over there, and we have some ideas about how to tie all that in and help spur what many would call transportation-enhanced development in an important part of town."
That includes a possible mass-transit hub near the site and an enhanced Farmers Market with more eateries. The organization 2020 Partners — which attempts to drive development around Target Field and the Farmers Market — has said it supports the construction of a soccer venue in the neighborhood.
Government aide doesn’t necessarily constitute direct stadium dollars. The state or city could provide infrastructure improvements in the area just west of Target Field and, according to multiple local outlets, Dayton didn’t rule that out.
There are questions beyond financing, too. The MLS season starts in March and concludes in December, which makes an alternative, indoor spot for games played in March, April, October or November ideal.
The natural choice, of course, would be the Vikings stadium. But United just beat them out for the city’s MLS bid.
"In every market where we are located in northern climates and there has been an MLS team and an NFL team, we’ve been able to work together to play some games in the football stadium," Garber said. "That requires a relationship between the two groups, and it requires the desire of football’s ownership groups to do that."
If an agreement isn’t reached, Garber said, the league would be willing to schedule around the cold seasons like it does with Toronto FC, which plays most of its March and late-season games on the road.
One other potential hangup: if United’s stadium proposal passes but isn’t completed in time for it to make the jump, the club would need a place to play until it does. Options there include the National Sports Center in Blaine (United’s current NASL home), Target Field, CHS Field, TCF Bank Stadium or the Vikings’ $1 billion multipurpose stadium.
MLS currently has 15 soccer-specific stadiums. Three of them were built using only private funds (that number includes renovations).
The last thing United and MLS want is a Miami-type situation. Former soccer star David Beckham’s ownership group has been granted an MLS franchise but has struggled to secure the necessary funds for a stadium.
That includes reluctance from the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County to sign off on Beckham’s stadium proposals.
But although he issued a stern ultimatum Wednesday, Garber remains convinced this will all get done in Minneapolis. If he wasn’t, he said, he wouldn’t have been standing in Target Field’s club level with McGuire, the two of them holding up a "Minnesota United FC MLS" scarf and celebrating the franchise’s planned league entry.
"This is an ownership group that’s embedded in the community, that has done this before, both on the sports side and the civic and community side," Garber said. "They own the land. They’ve got a grand vision, and a good strategy to get it done. We’ve got confidence that they will."