Minnesota United FC aims to bring top-level soccer to Twin Cities

BLAINE, Minn. — It’s a far from an ideal evening at the National Sports Center.

A cold, steady drizzle saturated the main stadium’s grass all day and continues to fall as black-clad fans pace toward this concrete jungle’s entrance. The temperature is dropping; an official reminder that summer in Minnesota is over. A near-aqueous pitch hampers scoring chances for the state’s professional soccer team and its history-filled foe.

Yet there’s a level of comfort here. A year ago, local folks invested — financially and emotionally — in professional soccer feared their days of shivering through October matches in support of their team were coming to an end.

But here they are.

Through financial mismanagement, league turmoil and every kind of organizational issue imaginable, pro soccer in these parts has stuck around for 24 years. The latest resurrection came before this season when local health care mogul Dr. Bill McGuire and his son-in-law took over a Minnesota Stars FC organization wallowing on the fringe of bankruptcy that had been North American Soccer League-owned for the past two seasons.

Some rebranding, restructuring and revamping kept this venture, which now goes by the name of Minnesota United FC, afloat.

But the decision makers around here are out for much more than that.

***

Nick Rogers stands resolute in the NSC Stadium press box, his left hand enclosed around a clear, plastic cup of beer.

Wearing a team scarf and beanie over an executive-style suit, he proudly discusses the new direction of United between sips. A law man by trade, Rogers is a diehard soccer fan and a dues-paying member of the Dark Clouds, Minnesota’s long-running supporters’ group.

He’s also the team’s president of less than a year.

It was Rogers that first introduced the idea of buying the Stars, whom the NSC founded in 2009 but discontinued funding two years later, to McGuire, the former CEO of UnitedHealth Care. NASL commissioner David Downs reached out to Rogers’ wife, Marissa,  while scouring the earth for a new Minnesota owner.

Without the Stars, the league would’ve dropped to seven members and lost its FIFA affiliation. It took some convincing from Rogers while sitting through games at NSC Stadium, but McGuire eventually warmed to the notion. Last November, he assumed ownership of the team.

The good doctor essentially bailed out an organization that had played for the past two NASL championships and the league in which it plays.

“He said to himself, ‘there’s something we’re saving here,'” said Rogers, who spurned his job as a lawyer to assume president duties. “It would be a real shame if this went away, because there’s obviously a lot of people that care about it. We want to grow that number, because it’s not enough right now.”

Indeed, this wasn’t intended as some philanthropic gesture. This is a long-term marriage to America’s most rapidly-growing sport.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Rogers said.

So McGuire has shoved a substantial pool of money toward United in hopes of making it thrive rather than survive. That means renaming the team and redesigning its uniforms, insignia and signage; expanding an operations staff from four fulltime members to close to 25; pooling resources to generate a league-required video webcast of every home game; and, of course, offering players competitive salaries.

It’s something McGuire could afford to do, even if it means life in the red for at least a few years.

“We’re investing in something we believe in,” Rogers said. “We’re trying to build it. Eventually, of course, we want to get to a point where we are a sustainable operation financially, but look: you can’t run a professional sports team without spending money. You just can’t do it.”

When Rogers and McGuire took over, two players were working part-time in the front office. In addition to hiring far more fulltime staff, they’ve negotiated a deal with the city of Woodbury, Minn., to include an exclusive training facility in the expanded Bielenberg Sports Center.

The new practice digs will include a 120,000-square-foot indoor field house and an outdoor field.

But the biggest key to growing the product is the most blatant one: attracting fans.

During the NASL’s spring season — starting this year, the league began a split-season slate in which the spring and fall victors meet for the championship — Minnesota ranked second in attendance with 5,338 spectators per game (includes five matches played at the Metrodome). While that’s a start, Rogers said, it’s not enough.

“There’s a ton more soccer fans than we’ve got here tonight,” Rogers said during Saturday’s game against the New York Cosmos, pointing to a 3/5-full NSC Stadium. “I don’t think there’s any secret sauce; I think it’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of pounding shoe leather and getting out there and getting in front of them and explaining what we’re doing.”

One way to do that: television. The team hired two full-time video workers and streams every game free of charge on its website. Rogers hopes those efforts are the beginning stages of a local television contract.He got a good sign when FOX Sports North decided to air the team’s home matchup with the Carolina RailHawks at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19.

But there’s a cornucopia of sports options in the Twin Cities market, and there could be even more direct competition on the horizon.

Legislation in the Vikings’ new football stadium pact grants the NFL team a right of first refusal for five years regarding any Major League Soccer team that decides to set up shop there. While not ideal from the soccer purists’ standpoint, the glass-enclosed indoor structure currently represents the most MLS-friendly possibility in the community.

The Vikings have expressed interest in bringing in a team, and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority has encouraged them to do so.

But Rogers says it’s a non-issue.

“That right of first refusal language is a dead letter,” he said. “It means nothing.”

It’s up to the MLS to grant a community a franchise, and Rogers isn’t convinced it would in Minnesota’s new multipurpose stadium. The best abodes are outdoor, soccer-specific, feature natural-grass turf and promote an intimate fan environment — certainly not the case in the Vikings’ 65,000-seat facility.

MLS commissioner Don Garber announced this summer he plans to expand the league to 24 teams by 2020. Atlanta, Orlando and Miami are all vying for clubs.

Rogers didn’t rule out interest in making United the fourth — three MLS teams have moved up from lower-division leagues in the past — but said “that’s not something we’re even necessarily interested in.”

Instead, the focus is to remain Minnesota’s one and only professional soccer offering, whatever level of play that entails.

So far, so good, coach Manny Lagos said.

“I think the biggest thing is that they give us a vision,” said Lagos, whose father, Buzz Lagos, helped form the Minnesota Thunder, the state’s longest-running professional team that folded in 2004. “I think (McGuire and Rogers) are the only two guys who could give that vision, and I think that’s incredibly exciting, because I really believe there’s so many good things to come.”

***

A trace of Scottish brogue still surfaces in Calum Mallace’s northern accent. The United midfielder, currently on loan from the MLS’ Montreal Impact, spent the first decade of his life in Scotland before his father’s job with 3M relocated the family to West St. Paul.

Mallace starred at Henry Sibley High School and Marquette University before the Impact drafted him 20th overall in 2012. He’s trained with the likes of Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio yet says NASL talent isn’t so different from what you’ll see when observing the Division 2 league’s big brother.

“I got that question a lot: How big of a difference is it?” said Mallace, whose brother, Craig, played for the Thunder several years ago. “And it’s really not that much of a difference. These guys are pros, and the guys in Montreal are pros.”

A product of Lagos and assistant coaches Carl Craig and Kevin Friedland’s scouting efforts, the United roster features a mix of domestic and international players. NASL rules allow no more than seven foreigners at any time, so building a team becomes a mix of attracting guys from other countries and identifying the best homegrown talent.

Lagos has done a pretty good job of it in four years at the helm.

The Minnesota native took over in 2010 after a storied playing career that brought stints with five different MLS clubs, a trip to the 1992 Olympics with the U.S. National Team and event some time with the Minnesota Thunder. His 2011 Stars team earned the NASL playoffs’ sixth and final playoff spot before a remarkable run to the championship, and last year’s squad fell on penalty kicks in the title match.

This year’s bunch fell, 1-0, to the New York Cosmos — a reincarnation of the old-time NASL team Pelé used to play for — Saturday and sits in fourth place in the league’s fall standings with three games left on its schedule.

League crowns aren’t an every-year occurrence, but a successful team sure is a lot easier to sell.

“That’s the other thing, is you’ve got to put a quality product on the field and show people that there’s something to care about, something that’s permanent,” Rogers said.

And that means bringing in upper-echelon athletes, whether they’re young up-and-comers like Mallace, former MSL contributors like leading goal scorer Pablo Campos or professional veterans like forward Mike Ambersley.

Honing his skills on the club fields of Woodbury, Mallace saw firsthand the sport’s grassroots growth in this state. Just last year, according to United States Youth Soccer data, more than 70,000 children registered for leagues in Minnesota.

That reflects a well-publicized national trend. A 2012 ESPN poll found that soccer is the second-most popular sport among Americans ages 12-24.

It’s what they’re all hoping to cash in on around here.

“I know that there’s a huge demand for soccer here, and I know that these guys here and the management with Minnesota United is doing it right,” Mallace said after Saturday’s defeat. “They have a goal, and they’re building towards it. You can see it every single game.”

Said Lagos: “Our market deserves high-level soccer, no matter what, and it’s gonna get there whether we’re MLS, whether we’re NASL.”

***

Wes Burdine stands in the bleachers across the way from NSC Stadium’s main grandstand, singing and screaming at the top of his lungs while brandishing an oversized cutout of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s face.

Behind him, fellow fans hold similar representations of Campos and Craig. Another pounds upon Ludwig, the large bass drum that’s rumored to have been present at every Minnesota pro soccer match since 2004. A handful of folks with trumpets guide the spectators in a stream of song and chant the likes of which can only be found around the pitches of professional soccer.

This is Dark Clouds country.

Burdine is one of their leaders, penning the “Jackass Times-Heckler” —  the official yet secretive book of tunes belted out during Minnesota United FC games — and co-hosting a podcast dubbed the du Nord Futbol Show.

He’s new to the party, having moved to Minnesota in 2009 and jumped on the Minnesota pro soccer bandwagon then. But the supporters’ group dates back to the late ’90s when a group of men who called themselves “the Thunderheads” would sit high in the stands at Thunder games while refusing to wear shirts.

A couple spectators followed their off-the-wall lead and began waving a flag picturing a two-toned, black cloud. The younger, more rowdy fans began gravitating toward it, and the Dark Clouds were born.

Today, they’re a smaller, not-quite-as-unified version of members’ stands at MLS games. There were about 200 of them out to support United on Saturday.

They’re loud, vulgar and not usually sober — all staples of professional soccer fan clubs.

“If you look around NASL USL teams, there aren’t too many groups like the Dark Clouds,” Burdine said. “In terms of the type of weird, bizarre personality that comes with the Dark Clouds, it creates a distinct, unique Minnesota personality. It’s a rare gem in American soccer, especially in the second division.”

Said Ambersley, who was traded from Tampa Bay to Minnesota this summer: “The fans are very boisterous here.”

Their choruses range in involvement from a knockoff of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” to a simple repetition of “Score, dammit!” Most participants are in their 20s and 30s, while the family crowd tends to remain on the near side of the stadium.

Such a setup mimics that of most pro clubs, from Sporting Kansas City to Manchester United.

“There’s not a lot of manufactured hype,” Rogers said. “We’re not blasting noise in between pitches or in between timeouts, because we don’t have those things. It’s an organic kind of thing that happens here. There’s a lot of passion for this game. People that really get into this game are passionate about it. I think that passion is contagious. You come out here and you see these guys blowing horns and beating drums and singing songs, you kind of start saying, ‘Wait, there’s something special here. These guys care deeply about this. What is it?’ People start sort of investigating.”

It was that passion that first caught McGuire’s eye when Rogers started bringing him out to Stars matches. It’s these people, first and foremost, the United higher-ups must serve and attract more of.

Burdine and his mates have been pleased so far.

“There’s maybe two moments I recall about being really proud of this team in recent history: winning the NASL trophy in 2011 and then last year, when we’re going through the playoff run and thinking ‘If we lose this game, this could be the last game in Minnesotan professional soccer for a long time,'” Burdine said. “And so with the new ownership coming in, I think many of us are still excited that Bill McGuire said ‘I think this is something I want to invest money in and I think I have a long-term plan.'”

The future, like the past, is uncertain. After throwing oodles of cash at this latest reclamation project — the new practice facility alone cost a reported $1.5 million — there’s a lot of financial ground to gain. The Vikings’ plans to try and bring in a soccer team could completely foil whatever momentum United stands to amass in the next few years.

But there are no questions about whether there will be a professional soccer team in Minnesota to support next year. The NASL is growing, too, and plans to add an expansion franchise in Indianapolis starting next season and bring in teams in Jacksonville, Fla., and Oklahoma City, Okla., in 2015.

The present is stable, and that’s about all anybody walking out of NSC Stadium on Saturday night could ask for.

“When you have an ownership group that gives a group and a club and an office direction and vision, it’s exciting, because that’s what your fans want,” Lagos said. “They want something to grow. They want something to believe in.”

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