A swarm of 100 soccer fans, draped in traditional scarves, took over Major League Soccer’s announcement Wednesday and beat the league commissioner to the day’s big news with their joyous songs: Minnesota is going to the MLS.
After the chanting and cheering, MLS Commissioner Don Garber officially announced that Minnesota United FC will be the league’s 24th franchise.
“It’s hard to be anything but humble, I think,” team owner Dr. Bill McGuire said in opening comments, his voice cracking with emotion after an 18-month fight for expansion rights. “There’s too many people here to thank. … It’s a great day.”
United FC, Minnesota’s lower-tier pro team, will be promoted into MLS’ big-league circuit as early as 2017. The team’s proud fans, known as the Dark Clouds from their early days as Minnesota Thunder supporters, finished with a serenade set to the melody of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” telling the large audience in the Target Field atrium: “The team that nobody wanted … is going to MLS.”
McGuire, the former UnitedHealth Group chief executive, has investment partners in Robert and Jim Pohlad, Wendy Carlson Nelson and Glen Taylor. The Pohlads own the Twins, while Taylor owns the Timberwolves and the Star Tribune.
“This is a very strong ownership group, deeply embedded in the community,” Garber said. “They have fallen in love with the sport and with that passion and that commitment, we’re convinced it will help our league achieve what we need to here in the north. We have a need to geographically expand and doing it here in Minnesota is very important to us.”
United FC plays in the North American Soccer League and at the National Sports Center in Blaine, a site considered too far from the urban core to attract a young and diverse crowd. United FC is set to become Minnesota’s first pro-sports expansion franchise since the Wild began NHL play in 2000. As for the inaugural season, Garber said, “the target is no later than , but it could be as early as ’17.”
How soon depends on when a soccer-specific stadium can be built.
While Garber and McGuire specifically mentioned land on the west end of downtown Minneapolis near the Farmers Market, the financing plan for their hopes is uncertain. The proposed site could be seen from the Carew Atrium inside Target Field where Wednesday’s announcement was made.
“If we didn’t have the full confidence in their ability to [get a stadium], we wouldn’t have had this event today,” said Garber, who referred to new soccer stadiums as “cathedrals” that form the “cornerstone” for MLS success. He later told reporters if a stadium agreement is unattainable, “then we’ll have to take a step back, mutually, and assess whether or not it makes sense.”
McGuire expressed only confidence. “We’ll be here in a great facility real soon,” he said.
That same optimism and excitement swept United FC coaches and players in attendance.
“Soccer should be part of the fabric of this community,” said United FC coach Manny Lagos, a former St. Paul Academy standout who played in MLS and for the U.S. Olympic team. “There is a special feeling we have for this place, and to have Major League Soccer be a part of it is so exciting.”
Woodbury native Brian Kallman, a nine-year veteran of local professional soccer, felt encouraged by the broad interest.
“People I haven’t talked to in years have sent text messages or Facebook messages, saying, ‘Dude! I heard we’re getting an MLS team! That’s so cool!’ ” Kallman said. “And not even just from our community, but people from all over the Midwest are excited to have another team they can support.”
The coming of MLS to the Twin Cities seemed impossible six years ago. The Minnesota Thunder, mired in financial difficulties, ended a 20-year run by releasing all players and losing its front office personnel in the months following the 2009 season. The National Sports Center in Blaine assumed ownership for the 2010 season, changing the team name to the Minnesota Stars. Then the NASL took over, giving Minnesota three years to secure private ownership.
The Stars won the league championship in 2011 but still failed to lure an owner. McGuire stepped forward late in the 2012 season.
“The main thing was Bill McGuire,” said Buzz Lagos, founder of the Thunder (and Manny’s father). “He infused new energy and cash into the operation and that brought it to another level. Up until now, it always had the potential to get there but we were always trying to keep our heads above water. He said, ‘Let’s go for this big time.’ ”
Bruce McGuire (no relation to Bill) has followed MLS since its first season in 1996. An active blogger and respected voice in the local soccer community, McGuire felt awe-struck by Wednesday’s news.
“This is in our city,” Bruce McGuire said. “That’s kind of the shocking thing that I didn’t expect. … The fact that it’s happening is kind of crazy.”
United FC team president Nick Rogers said the process was difficult but rewarding.
“I think when you look at the group that Dr. McGuire has put together, the vision we have for a facility, the fan support that we’ve been able to demonstrate the past couple years and the soccer expertise that our front office and coaching staff has shown, I think people will look back one day and say this was a really easy decision for MLS,” Rogers said.