Bloomington Lincoln was the champion of Minnesota’s first boys’ soccer tournament in 1974. Bloomington Jefferson was the champion of the first girls’ tournament in 1980.
It remained a foreign game from a foreign land for a vast majority of Minnesotans. As a competitive activity, it was mostly confined to the Twin Cities and its suburbs.
Jim Lonetti gave up on hockey in junior high and started playing soccer during this period. He made an all-state team for Tartan High School.
“People are impressed when I tell them that,’’ Lonetti said. “I don’t mention the number of schools that had soccer in those years.
“There was such a low level of knowledge about soccer that the athletic director wasn’t sure what to order for uniforms. We played one year in jerseys that were actually for girls’ softball, or something.’’
Anecdotes such as that make it even more amazing to recall what occurred at Met Stadium on May 9, 1976, and over the course of four Minnesota summers.
It was a warm and sun-filled Sunday, and the Minnesota Kicks, a new entry in the 9-year-old North American Soccer League, were playing their first home game.
Jack Crocker, the CEO of Supervalu, had convinced a group of other successful people in the grocery business to purchase the Denver Dynamos, an NASL team in distressed condition after two years in Colorado.
The grocers tossed in a total of $750,000 to get the franchise started, although roughly 30 percent of that went into buying the Dynamos.
The Kicks hired Freddie Goodwin, a soccer player and cricketer of some note in England, as the coach and procurer of talent. They had opened that first season on the road with losses to San Jose and San Antonio.
Team employees expressed the hope for a crowd of 12,000 to witness the first game with Bloomington. The opponent was San Jose, which was completely irrelevant.
Most of us on the prairie had heard of this Pele fellow with the New York Cosmos. That was about it.
Forty years later, if you want to know the key to the Kicks’ immediate success, it was this: free parking.
For the youth of the ’70s, free parking was a runner-up (although distant) to free love. By many accounts, there was a smattering of the latter available in Met Stadium’s parking lot, also.
Minnesotans had discovered a fondness for partying on the Met’s asphalt before and after Vikings games starting in 1961. This was passed along by parents and older siblings to the 16-to-26 crowd that turned the Kicks into a phenomenon.
“I’m counting on the statute of limitations,’’ said Steve Walsh, not the quarterback, but a White Bear Lake guy. “My high school buddies and I would score some beer and end up at the Met for several reasons: Parking was free, there was little supervision and there were girls that may have lowered their inhibitions enough to talk to us.’’
The first crowd was announced at 17,054 tickets sold. But that wasn’t the real story:
Kicks management added to the PR bonanza by letting in 2,000 fans for free when the game was starting and there still were long ticket lines.
This was 1976, the Twins had been floundering, attendance was putrid and owner Calvin Griffith’s reputation for frugality was peaking.
And now here was a new summer tenant at the Met letting in cash-strapped, party-appreciating youth into the parking lot — and then the stadium — for free?
“I have to tell my friends about this,’’ said the young men and young women, and they did.
The intrigue factor grew so rapidly that, in June, that Pele fellow came to town and the crowd was announced at 45,000.
Brandon Miller was 16 and working in a grocery store in West St. Paul. He would go to games on weekends with older co-workers with access to, well, beverages,
“The cops and security would roam through the parking lot and tell us to head into the game,’’ Miller said. “We wanted to stay in the lot and keep partying. They were easy to avoid until they started using mounted police.
“One time we couldn’t avoid the Mounties and actually bought tickets. I think it was the Pele game. The most important thing was to always find out the score, so you could tell your parents.
“We had to convince them we were there for the soccer games. Something I learned later: You were supposed to call them matches.’’
Not all the youth were dodging security to stay in that parking lot on Minnesota’s first futbol Sunday. Several sun-worshipping attendees were quoted in the next day’s Morning Tribune on how much they enjoyed the action.
One young man was fully taken (almost). He was overheard saying, “This is a heck of game, but there should be more baskets.’’
The Kicks made it to the NASL’s Soccer Bowl championship that first year. Alan Willey, the “Artful Dodger,’’ and Ace Ntsoelengoe rapidly became heroes. There were four wondrous summers, before the too-early soccer boom ran its course in Minnesota and nationally. The Kicks dissolved in 1981 and the original NASL folded in 1984.
Forty years after Day 1 at the Met, Dave Colwell’s observation when introducing a Kicks owner to a Minnesota service club still rings true:
“Here’s the man who helped turn Metropolitan Stadium into the Woodstock of professional sports.’’
I would only add that it was better than Woodstock, since our youth were partying on asphalt and not in mud.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.