MINNEAPOLIS — How simple it seems on its glass-covered surface.
Community constructs state-of-the-art stadium. Said stadium is fully able to house high-profile soccer matches. Highest level of American professional soccer comes to play in stadium.
Oh, if only it were that easy.
While plans for the new Vikings stadium do indeed provide a viable pitch, an overabundance of fan seating and elite-level facilities and amenities, the web of challenges associated with bringing Major League Soccer to Minneapolis has grown more vast — and sticky — than ever.
“About as complicated as a ‘Game of Thrones,'” one aficionado characterized it.
Catch a U.S. National Team World Cup qualifier at the Sweetwater Bar and Grille in St. Paul with the local American Outlaws support group chapter, and you’ll likely hear it put in more direct terms: a cluster-you-know-what.
There are many who believe MLS’ currently burgeoning growth model would work in the Twin Cities, where professional men’s soccer has existed the past 23 years and dates back to the 1970s. Just Wednesday, MLS commissioner announced the league plans to expand to 24 teams by 2020.
The movement in Minnesota only accumulated steam in the past year as plans for the Vikings’ new digs were finalized.
But the construction of the stadium, slated to begin in October, along with the current sports landscape in a busy metropolitan area lend to a dizzying array of moving parts in a passionate and complicated conversation.
The architectural renderings and legislation for the Metrodome’s replacement were specifically crafted to include the possibility of a full-time, professional soccer tenant setting up shop there. According to Vikings corporate communications director Jeff Anderson, the stadium’s football field can be easily converted into a 120.8-yard long, 72-yard wide soccer pitch that’s right on par with typical MLS playing fields.
The stadium bill includes a specific MLS provision stating that anyone with three percent or more ownership of the Vikings may obtain full or partial ownership of an MLS team within five years after the first home football game is played. This guarantees the NFL franchise a stake in any MLS organization that comes to town between 2016 and 2021.
“Certainly, it’s something our ownership group is very interested in and has been for some time” Anderson said. “That’s the reason for including in the legislation that we want to have that opportunity to bring an MLS team into Minnesota. We think there could be success here with a franchise, and we also think the state would benefit greatly … from having an MLS team here.”
No arguments from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which the state and city formed to oversee construction and operation of the new Vikings Stadium.
“We hope they do,” MSFA chair Michele Kelm-Helgen said when asked about MLS coming to Minneapolis. “Soccer is such a popular sport that I think the community would really embrace an MLS team. We’re hoping. We think it’s possible.”
Owner and chairman Zygi Wilf hasn’t spoken publicly on the subject in some time — the Vikings’ focus, of course, remains almost exclusively on football — but vice president Lester Bagley reiterated Anderson’s notions back in May when the stadium plans were unveiled. The team and America’s top soccer league, including Garber, have had preliminary discussions.
It’s a possibility, Anderson said, that won’t be fully explored until a year or two down the road when the Vikings have settled into their new abode.
“That issue has been put on the backburner for right now,” Anderson said. “Everybody’s attention is on the design process.”
And that, in fact, could be the very thing that prevents the new stadium from harboring an MLS team.
To the rapidly expanding casual soccer observer pool, it appears a picture-perfect scenario to keep the facility occupied during the football offseason. To the idealist, it’s everything a soccer venue shouldn’t be — cavernous and non-intimate, with artificial turf to boot.
Some world-class players, including New York Red Bulls megastar Thierry Henry, pretty much refuse to play on most synthetic surfaces. The U.S. National Team generally avoids it, too. And local soccer fans pine for the packed, menacing environments at soccer-specific stadiums like Sporting Kansas City’s Sporting Park and the Portland Timbers’ JELD-WEN Field.
Such atmospheres are more difficult to create with 20,000 people inside a structure meant to seat 73,000.
And although it’s hungry to grow its brand, the MLS will take its time to seek out highly dedicated, passionate ownership. For a member of the Wilf family or one of the Vikings’ limited partners, achieving that would require a giant investment of time and money — somewhere in the $30 million to $70 million range.
Joe Leyba helped start what’s referred to as the “MLS4MN” movement and wrote on the organization’s website the new stadium “doesn’t mean much for soccer in Minnesota.”
Yet he admits it may be the only way to get an MLS squad here.
“It’s an interesting dilemma for us soccer fans,” said Leyba, who had Los Angeles Galaxy tickets for years before moving to Minnesota.
“The purists want to watch soccer at the highest level but don’t want a football team running a soccer team, because the soccer team is always going to play second fiddle.
“I think if the pure goal is MLS, if you just want to get the MLS, I would probably hitch my wagon to the Vikings. … But that’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
But the Minnesota Hypotheticals wouldn’t be the first MLS team to play on turf or operate under NFL ownership. Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt also helms FC Dallas (and just sold his family’s stake in the Columbus Crew the other day), and Patriots CEO Robert Kraft owns the New England Revolution, too.
MLS franchises Seattle and New England both play on synthetic turf inside stadiums built predominantly for NFL use. JELD-WEN Field also contains artificial grass, though it uses a different, more soccer-friendly blend that players like Henry have said they prefer.
The idea likely makes taxpayers and some politicians cringe, but erecting yet another new stadium is another possible course of action. With the financial burden the state and city are assuming with the Vikings’ new building, it would virtually require all-private funding.
But that’d be a tough sell in a sports market already immersed with NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL supporters. The very same environment renders attracting enough soccer fans an unmistakable chore, too.
The tug-of-war between ideal and realistic creates several potential scenarios. The Wilfs could choose to undertake a team within the next five years. So could one of the NFL organization’s minority owners, concentrating their resources there. Or someone in the Vikings camp could enter into an agreement with an outside primary investor, maintaining the football team’s stake while delegating a lot of control and responsibility elsewhere.
And all that is contingent upon whether the MLS even grants the Twin Cities an expansion franchise.
The league plans to move to 20 teams with the addition of a second one in New York that will begin play in 2015. Garber announced during halftime of Wednesday’s All-Star broadcast it would be adding four more within the next six years — within the time frame for the Vikings to establish a soccer franchise if they so choose.
“The strength, passion and vision of the MLS ownership group is the foundation behind the success of our league,” Garber said. “We look forward to adding new partners with the same commitment to the sport and love of the game.”
A rise in attendance and popularity — a 2012 ESPN poll found that soccer is the second-most popular sport in America among 12-24-year-olds — has helped MLS land staunch television contracts with ESPN and NBC Sports Network.
The sport is growing in Minnesota, too. According to United States Youth Soccer data, more than 70,000 children registered for leagues in the state last year.
But the Land of 10,000 Lakes isn’t the only locale vying for a piece of the pie. Orlando City of the USL-Pro league has made a strong push to move up to the MLS, and Atlanta, Sacramento and St. Louis have been mentioned as possibilities.
Yet another wrench in the equation: the Twin Cities already have a pro soccer team.
An average of 5,338 people showed up for Minnesota United FC games during the spring half of the North American Soccer League’s season. That number is good for second in the Division 2 league and fifth among lower-division professional squads in the United States.
By comparison, a good draw for a regular-season MLS game is 19,000. Seattle Sounders FC, which shares CenturyLink Field with the Seattle Seahawks, attracted more than 43,000 per game last year.
Bill McGuire, former CEO of UnitedHealth Care, purchased the financially floundering Minnesota Stars FC and oversaw the franchise’s offseason rebranding. The team plays at the National Sports Center in Blaine and features all the trappings of a pro soccer subculture: a ravenous support group called the Dark Clouds, talent from around the world and aggressively involved ownership.
But the league’s other owners kept the team afloat for two seasons in order for the NASL to stay at eight teams and remain under the FIFA umbrella. If McGuire hadn’t swept in, the Stars would’ve been the next on a list of pro teams in the Minneapolis area that thrived for a time before folding.
Provided United FC can continue to grow its fan base, a natural progression would be an eventual move to the MLS. Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal all began as lower division organizations.
There’s one problem: McGuire has expressed zero interest, at least publicly, in doing so.
“That’s not something we spend a lot of energy about,” McGuire said Tuesday. “Our attention is really on professional soccer without worrying too much right now about what league it is played in.”
That creates a dubious state of fandom around here. The addition of an outside MLS team would spell doom for United FC, but there’s no other avenue for showing the larger league this can be a soccer city than by showing up at NSC Stadium in droves.
Leyba’s made it one of his primary goals to drum up that interest.
“If you can’t support what you’ve got,” Leyba mused, “why would you get more?”
At the moment, it’s all a giant catch-22. But after panning through all the minutiae, it’s clear that without establishing a soccer-zealous ownership group and a rabid fan base for it to serve, the MLS won’t be coming to the Twin Cities anytime soon, beautiful new stadium or no beautiful new stadium.