Two groups vying for potential Twin Cities MLS team

The Minnesota Vikings' new stadium is expected to be completed by 2016. Shown here is an artist's rendering of what the stadium's soccer configuration would look like. A pair of groups are vying for a potental Twins Cities entry into Major League Soccer.

MINNEAPOLIS — The potential for Major League Soccer competition in the Twin Cities has area aficionados, business executives and legislators salivating.

In all actuality, it’s begun before an opening whistle ever blows.

One end of the positioning pitch, the big kids on the block are gathering into formation. The one with all the assets, the venue and, its brass say, the legislative backing to capitalize on what one front-office official calls "grassroots" soccer.

On the other side of the field, though, there’s a contingent that feels it’s already doing that.

Two years ago, the idea of a bidding war between the Cities’ big, bad NFL franchise and a modest, second-tier soccer organization may have seemed preposterous. And while both sides remain coy about publicly characterizing this as a direct battle of posturing and pocketbooks, the Vikings and Minnesota United FC are taking significant steps toward the same objective.

Securing the final stake in MLS’ "24 teams by 2020" expansion movement.

For the Wilf family’s American football enterprise, it’s about cashing in on the sport’s growth in America and landing another, team-controlled tenant for the Vikings’ $1 billion stadium currently being erected in downtown Minneapolis. For United, it’s a manner of remaining the market’s top soccer offering — no matter what league that entails.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has tabbed Minneapolis-St. Paul as an attractive destination, pointing to its diverse population and professional soccer history that dates back to the 1970s and the Minnesota Kicks. The 19-team league just added an Atlanta franchise that will begin play in 2017, and New York City FC and Orlando City Soccer Club are set to being playing next season. David Beckham is exercising his option to pursue a team in Miami and pushing for a stadium there.

That leaves room for one more team in Garber’s master plan to create a top-tier league that rivals those in Europe. Minneapolis-St. Paul isn’t the only municipality in the mix.

But it is a frontrunner.

"We’re certainly aware of the interest in securing an MLS expansion club for Minneapolis," MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche told FOXSportsNorth.com. "Also, it’s a market that’s appealing to us for geographic regions. It’s also an appropriate market that’s attractive to TV partners, and the same goes for sponsors due to the size of the market.

"It’s something that we continue to monitor."

The Vikings and United are giving them plenty to chew upon.

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Members of the Vikings’ ownership and management team, including president and minority owner Mark Wilf, were in Seattle last Wednesday to take in the Sounders’ match against FC Dallas. According to Vikings vice president of public affairs and stadium development Lester Bagley, the team is "having discussions internally about formalizing a bid for a franchise."

"We’re doing our homework," Bagley told FOXSportsNorth.com.

That includes tapping the knowledge of current MLS ownership — particularly groups that also run NFL teams, like Seattle, Dallas and the New England Revolution.

New stadium legislation grants the Vikings a five-year window to bring an MLS franchise into the $975 million, 65,000-seat palace, set to open for the 2016 football season. While some soccer purists find an indoor, American football-specific facility undesirable, Vikings officials say it can be.

Plans include a "house reduction mechanism" similar to that in the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium that creates a more intimate feel. The Vikings venue also includes a 60-percent clear glass roof with 85-foot pivoting glass doors that can allow air flow through the building, Bagley said — essentially creating an outside feel.

"It’s going to provide best of both worlds," Bagley said. "You’re going to have protection from elements, temperature control, and the ability to open up the doors and bring that outdoor experience."

MLS also requires committed ownership that owns and operates the venue its team calls home. Since stadium discussion began, the Vikings have expressed its desire for a top-tier soccer franchise.

Despite the costs already facing principal owner Zygi Wilf, there’s little concern from the Vikings about their ability to pay expansion fees and invest the tens of millions it takes to get an MLS organization up and running. The team is responsible for about half the construction cost of the new stadium.

If they can pony up the necessary additional tens of millions — NYCFC’s expansion fee alone was $100 million — and convince the MLS their dedication is on par with that of the Allens (Seattle) Hunts (Dallas) and Krafts (New England), the Vikings might be in business.

"That’s never really been a concern," Courtemanche said when asked about NFL co-ownership, citing the Sounders’ average attendance of about 44,000 last year. "It’s a formula that works quite well. But then we have plenty of independent owners, too. It’s kind of a case-by-case thing."

In addition to checking out Seattle’s soccer operations and planning on attending games at other stadiums in the near future, the Vikings have had discussions with Garber himself, Bagley said. No formal bid is in place yet, but the front office is dedicating resources toward making one.

Bagley said once the team’s Super Bowl bidding process — Minnesota is one of three finalists for the decision planned for Tuesday of next week — is completed, the team will turn even more attention toward the MLS.

"We’ve got solid ownership that has the resources to invest," Bagley said. "We have a stadium that is going to be the next great NFL stadium designed to host MLS. We’ve got the beginnings of a good, grassroots soccer community, and we have the leadership to support a franchise in this market."

‘The wind is at our backs’

Despite suffering its first loss of the North American Soccer League spring season, Minnesota United FC remains tied for first place in the Division 2 league’s standings. It’s got a new, indoor practice facility going up, a season-long television deal with KSCT-45, and high-profile matches against Barclays Premier League club Swansea on July 19th at the National Sports Center in Blaine and versus league foe Ottawa Fury FC on Aug. 2 at TCF Bank Stadium on the docket.

So life is good for team president Nick Rogers.

"The wind feels like it’s at our back," the son-in-law of United owner Bill McGuire told FOXSportsNorth.com.

In November 2012, McGuire bought the franchise formerly known as the Minnesota Stars, saved it from potentially folding and rebranded it into the current manifestation of Twin Cities pro soccer. The next step for the organization is to get out of Blaine and into its own, soccer-specific digs.

And with the possibility of a new stadium — yes, Minneapolis, another one — comes the possibility of wooing MLS in a direction independent of the Vikings.

That’s not United’s intent, Rogers said. At least not at the moment.  

"Frankly, the league we’re in affords us a lot of opportunities to be flexible and do our own thing and grow the way that we think makes the most sense," Rogers said. "We’re certainly aware of the MLS. We watch what’s going on with the MLS with great interest. We think, on the whole, it’s good for the game for the MLS to do well. That’s as far as I can go, really."

Rogers went to several Sporting Kansas City games last season to see that organization’s soccer-only venue, considered by many the gold standard in structure and fan experience. He, McGuire, Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter and Minnesota Ballpark Authority executive director Dan Kenney all attended the MLS Cup championship game there Dec. 7.

That sparked rumblings United and the Twins are in cahoots to make their own MLS bid by putting together a soccer-specific stadium, perhaps on land adjacent to Target Field. The organization 2020 Partners — which attempts to drive development around Target Field and the Minneapolis Farmers Market — has said it supports the construction of a soccer venue next to the nearby Farmers Market.

Any plans are strictly preliminary, though, Rogers said. A stadium the breadth of Sporting Kansas City’s Sporting Park would likely cost around $200 million, and ideas for a new venue aren’t necessarily confined to downtown Minneapolis.

McGuire, the former CEO of UnitedHealth Group, should have the financial resources. When he resigned from UnitedHealth in 2006, he was valued by Forbes at $1.2 billion.

"We’re still learning," Rogers said. "We’re still trying to figure out where that can be feasible, what the financing would look like, what kind of scale would be feasible."

Through a Twins spokesman, St. Peter declined comment for this story.

Just like the Vikings, United has established contacts within MLS. Rogers maintains a close connection with Bryant Pfeiffer, the league’s vice president for club services, who’s stationed at the MLS National Sales Center, located at the National Sports Center complex United calls home.

Garber himself praised United’s work in keeping pro soccer afloat in the Twin Cities. "That opportunity is one that we’re excited about as we believe we need more teams in the Midwest," the commissioner told MLS.com recently. "I think if Minneapolis as a market that can continue to show the support that they’ve had for the NASL club and if they continue to make progress on a number of different stadium opportunities, there’s a real opportunity there."

But unlike the Vikings, United has its own, current league toward which it wants to remain loyal. So Rogers and McGuire have tread lightly when it comes to on-the-record MLS talk.

"Our approach has always been about soccer, about how to make this a great game, how to build a great club, a very club-centric approach," Rogers said. "Frankly, the league we’re in affords us a lot of opportunities to be flexible and do our own thing and grow the way that we think makes the most sense. "Figuring out how to get our club into the MLS is not the thing that I spend a lot of my time thinking about."

The same goes for the Vikings’ public display of affection toward landing an MLS club.

"I don’t think about that much," Rogers said.

Battle for a bid

There’s a long list of specifics MLS requires in a formal expansion bid. It includes stadium plans, finances, staffing, etc. and is reviewed by league executives and must be ratified by its board of governors.

The Vikings plan to make one. United could, too, if its ownership feels that’s the best way to stay at the top of the Twin Cities’ soccer game.

But Minneapolis isn’t the only market vying for an MLS club. The league is in discussions with potential bidders from Sacramento, San Antonio and St. Louis and having "preliminary discussions" with folks in San Diego, Courtemanche said.

On the Upper Midwest side of things, the Vikings and United haven’t shared any public sentiment about uniting in Minnesota’s quest for a fifth major pro franchise — for example, McGuire buying a small share of the Vikings and owning and operating a team that plays in the new stadium.

So for now, the sides are divided. And it’s hard to say who has a leg up.

"We’re not at the point where we would say one group is ahead of the other," Courtemanche said. "They both have very impressive credentials and plans." Call it a nil-nil tie. For now.

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