If you’re feeling unprepared for water-cooler talk about Minnesota United as they participate in their opening season of Major League Soccer — their inaugural game is Friday at Portland — you’re not alone. MLS is new to all of us in Minnesota, so here’s a quick glimpse at what you need to know to be an informed fan.
A brief history of soccer in Minnesota
United may be Minnesota’s first MLS franchise, but professional soccer has a long history in the state.
Pro soccer first came to Minnesota in 1976, when the North American Soccer League’s Minnesota Kicks set up shop at Metropolitan Stadium.
They were soon replaced by the Minnesota Strikers, who folded after five seasons, but the Minnesota Thunder quickly emerged to fill the void, debuting as an amateur club in 1990. They eventually went pro, before folding in 2009 and paving the way for a successor, the club that would become Minnesota United.
Originally established by the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., following Thunder’s demise, the club that would eventually become United joined the resurrected NASL as NSC Minnesota Stars in 2010.
Former United Healthcare CEO Bill McGuire eventually stepped in after ownership of the club was transferred to the league, buying the Stars from the NASL and rebranding the team in 2013, providing the club with stable ownership and introducing the “Loons” moniker.
United continued to find success in the NASL, signing talented players like Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra, the latter eventually becoming one of the only players from an American second division team to play for the U.S. men’s national team.
Major League Soccer began in 1996 with ten teams – five each in the Western and Eastern Conferences. There are now 22 teams in the league, with the most recent additions of Minnesota United and Atlanta United FC joining the mix in 2017. MLS expects to add two more teams by 2020, with another Los Angeles team entering the fold in 2018 and Miami a likely addition at some point. Several other cities are bidding to join MLS in the future as well.
After the 34-game regular-season schedule — played from March-October — comes to a close, the top six teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs and compete for a chance to win the MLS Cup.
Teams to know
— Sporting Kansas City: Minnesota’s closest geographic rival in the Western Conference, the two squads already have something of a history. K.C. has eliminated the Loons in the fourth round two of the last three U.S. Open Cups, knocking off Minnesota 2-1 last year and 2-0 in 2014.
— Los Angeles Galaxy: Think of the Galaxy as the New England Patriots. As one of the original 10 teams, they have won a league-high five MLS Cups and have appeared in nine title games. That’s right, Los Angeles has played in almost half of the MLS Cups! They most recently hoisted the championship trophy with a 2-1 win over the New England Revolution in 2014.
— Seattle Sounders: The defending MLS champions can be compared to their partners in crime at CenturyLink Field – the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle has a passionate fan base. The Sounders averaged 42,636 fans at each game in 2016, the best in MLS by over 11,000. Look for the Sounders to rise as one of Minnesota United’s biggest rivals in the Western Conference.
— New England Revolution: The Revolution are the Minnesota Vikings. We mean, er, the Buffalo Bills! New England has appeared in five MLS Cups … and have come away with zero championships. Even worse, check out the scores of their championship appearances: 1-0, 1-0, 1-1 (lost in penalty kicks), 2-1 and 3-1. Painful, just painful.
Where will they play?
Minnesota United will play its 17 home games at TCF Bank Stadium in 2017. Their new stadium is expected to be ready during the 2018 MLS regular season. When it’s finished, the new stadium will have a total capacity of 19,916 and will be located in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul.
Minnesota United made headlines across MLS when they completed one of the most expensive trades in league history. With the intent to build around a young core, the United sent $650,000 to Orlando City SC in exchange for 26-year-old midfielder Kevin Molino. Molino, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, recorded 11 goals and eight assists for Orlando in 2016.
Several members of the old club have made the jump to MLS, including Ramirez and Ibarra. The latter’s rights were sold to Mexican side Club Leon in June 2015 following several standout seasons in the NASL. United re-signed Ibarra earlier this year, reuniting him with Ramirez and defenders Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas. Ramirez won the NASL’s Golden Boot award in 2014 after racking up 20 goals, while Ibarra was named the league MVP that season after scoring nine goals and adding five assists.
Woodbury High School alum Brent Kallman originally joined the club in 2013, representing his hometown team after playing at Creighton University. Brent’s older brother Brian Kallman played for the Thunder and eventually United. The two became teammates before Brian’s retirement in 2016, leaving Brent as the only Minnesotan on the club’s roster.