A season of off-field excitement, big crowds and uneven soccer for Minnesota United FC has come down to a Sunday playoff game against perhaps the hottest team in the league.
Team owner Bill McGuire was awarded a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in March, an announcement triggering rapid ticket sales and increased visibility with sponsors. Last month, McGuire, former head of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, confirmed a stadium site in St. Paul the new team will call home in 2018.
In between these historic bookends, the Loons played before announced average home crowds of 8,766 at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine, nearly double last year’s mark.
“On a personal level, it’s been surreal in terms of the excitement for soccer in Minnesota,” said United FC coach Manny Lagos, who grew up in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood about a throw-in from the new stadium site in the Midway area.
Excitement for the future is a welcome contrast for Lagos, who coached the then-Minnesota Stars to the 2012 finals under duress. Win or lose, Minnesota’s league-owned team seemed likely to fold. Instead, McGuire bought the team and a Minnesota team returned for a 24th consecutive season in 2013.
With the future of local pro soccer assured, Lagos said his focus is squarely on the field Sunday. Minnesota plays at Ottawa FC in the North American Soccer League Championship semifinals. The host Fury lost only once in 20 fall season games — 2-1 at home against Minnesota on Aug. 15.
“Success will be measured on the field this weekend,” said Lagos, whose team lost in the semifinals last season.
Minnesota, the spring season champion, overcame a slow start this season. Following a fourth-place finish in the spring, the team lost Miguel Ibarra, the league MVP in 2014, to Liga MX in Mexico.
Finding their form in the fall season, the Loons pressured red-hot Ottawa almost to the end. Minnesota posted a 9-1-4 mark down the stretch and clinched the No. 3 seed in the four-team playoffs.
“They kept it up so hats off to them,” United defender Justin Davis said of Ottawa. “They’re just a well-organized team, and their goalkeeper is phenomenal.”
The teams used contrasting styles to great effect. Minnesota led the NASL with 54 goals; Ottawa’s 23 goals allowed are the fewest. Fury goalkeeper Romuald Peiser allowed just 22 goals in 29 games, a 0.76 goals against average.
Two of those goals allowed came in the loss to Minnesota, a road victory vital for the Loons’ confidence.
“It was great for us to get that win up there because we know we’ve done it before,” Davis said.
A few United FC players, thought mindful of Ottawa’s success, did not just throw bouquets.
“Ottawa is on fire,” forward Pablo Campos said. “They probably have the best team playing together but our team has better individuals.”
Midfielder Greg Jordan concurred.
“It’s going to take our big-time talented players stepping up,” he said. “Our top, best players are better than theirs.”
A year ago, Minnesota held the No. 1 playoff seed and lost on penalty kicks in overtime against Fort Lauderdale. The upset ended a successful campaign in a disappointing fashion. Greater strides on and off the field this season have players determined to create a different outcome.
“Ottawa basically surprised everyone, maybe even themselves,” forward Christian Ramirez said. “For us, we knew we were going to be here. It was part of the process knowing we’d get a chance to fight for this again so I think we have that eagerness to us.”