Two local groups headed by powerful businessmen that are vying for a Major League Soccer franchise in the Twin Cities will share the stage in a unique doubleheader Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
One group, led by the Wilf family that owns the Vikings, is helping to promote a match between powerhouses Manchester City and Olympiakos in the Guinness International Champions Cup, a tournament drawing massive crowds at stadiums across the U.S.
The other group is led by former UnitedHealth executive William McGuire, who owns the existing Minnesota United franchise — a club playing in the second-tier North American Soccer League. United will face Ottawa in a league match with the hopes of setting an NASL attendance record.
Although Saturday’s doubleheader won’t determine which group could eventually be awarded an MLS franchise, the competition is clearly intensifying.
They have both made inroads with local fans, a point underscored by dueling local outreach events during the recent World Cup. And they are both expected to have representatives next week at the MLS All-Star Game in Portland.
MLS has 19 teams and wants to expand to 24 by 2020. All but one of those expansion franchises are accounted for, pending stadium approval. The league has made no secret about wanting another Midwest franchise, and with two groups angling for a team here, the Twin Cities remains at the forefront of expansion talk.
“We’ve been doing our homework,” Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley said. “[MLS] is excited about the market and the opportunity.”
Minnesota United President Nick Rogers, talking about McGuire and his role as United owner said, “Bill is a competitive guy. If he’s going to be involved, he wants to win and do it the right way.”
With that as a backdrop, the biggest questions involve issues of stadiums, fan support and the mind-set of MLS officials. The answers help frame a picture of which group is in the lead, even if neither one considers it a competition.
The stadium question
The Vikings’ advantage is that they have a stadium under construction that meets MLS standards. Though it is indoors and has an artificial surface, Bagley said he believes the 60 percent glass roof and five pivoting doors give the stadium the best of both worlds — the ability to have an outdoor feel in the summer but also control the weather during a regular-season schedule that runs from early March through late October. Last year’s championship game was in December.
Architects are also fine-tuning plans to cover the upper bowl during soccer matches, giving the stadium a capacity of 20,000-25,000. The Vikings have shown those preliminary designs to MLS officials and local leaders, and they plan to unveil the finished product to the public this fall at their stadium preview center.
“Given our circumstances, we think we can make this stadium exciting and a great gameday experience for fans,” Bagley said.
While MLS teams have failed in the past in NFL-style stadiums, there is also precedent for success. Seattle dominates MLS attendance, averaging more than 42,000 fans per game (league average is 18,716) playing in the same stadium as the Seahawks, albeit with a reduced capacity for soccer.
But Seattle, unlike the Twin Cities, doesn’t have NBA or NHL franchises to compete for fans’ attention and dollars. MLS is similarly flourishing in other markets that lack franchises in major North American men’s pro leagues such as Portland (NBA only), Salt Lake City (NBA only) and Kansas City (MLB and NFL only). Those clubs are among the 14 MLS teams that play in soccer-specific stadiums, which many fans consider a better experience.
That’s the type of facility the McGuire-backed United group is pushing to build. Though United officials won’t acknowledge that they have renderings for a downtown Minneapolis stadium near the Farmers Market, the Star Tribune has spoken to people who have viewed the plans. It would be an open-air stadium with views of the Minneapolis skyline, similar to Target Field.
The United group would need to have a stadium plan in place before proceeding with a formal bid on an MLS franchise, and that is their biggest hurdle. They are working behind the scenes with multiple partners, though no formal deals have been announced.
Twins President Dave St. Peter said his organization “remains interested in supporting the effort to bring MLS to Minnesota. That said, the Twins have no partnership with Minnesota United FC.”
Soccer-specific stadiums in Houston, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City have opened since 2008 and were built for $120 million or less — real money in a Twin Cities market battling stadium fatigue, but also a fraction of the cost of the new Vikings stadium (roughly $1 billion), Target Field ($545 million) or even TCF Bank Stadium ($288 million).
The league and the fans
Where Minnesota United gains the upper hand is in perception from both fans and MLS itself.
In a preseason conference call in March, MLS Commissioner Don Garber acknowledged the league has had long-term talks with the Vikings group but said, “We’ve had a high level of activity with the current Minnesota United,” in remarks about expansion. An MLS spokesman this week said the league’s stance is “relatively status quo” five months later.
United was owned by the NASL and in danger of folding in 2012. The Vikings had an opportunity to buy them at the time, but they passed. McGuire stepped in to purchase the team and has since ramped up team payroll and staffing to the point that it is one of the league’s model franchises. United won the NASL spring season championship and recently drew more than 9,000 fans for a match at their current home at the National Sports Center in Blaine against English Premier League club Swansea City.
“We feel great about the relationship we have with the real die-hard soccer fans in the community,” Rogers said. “We were the ones, when it was going to go under, that saved the club, and people remember that.”
Indeed, many local fans remain loyal to United and suspicious of the Vikings now that they are trying to enter the soccer picture.
“Two years later, they come talking about grass roots and wanting to listen,” said Wes Burdine, 32, one of the founders of Major League Soccer for Minnesota, a group formed in 2012 with the goal of bringing MLS here. “My response, and I think the general response, has been, ‘You had your chance to listen.’ ”
Burdine went so far as to say that if the choice is between supporting United in the second-tier NASL or a Vikings-run team in MLS, he would prefer the former.
Bagley said he understands the fans’ perspective but said the Vikings were stretched too thin working on stadium issues to take on running another franchise. Bagley is hoping Saturday’s match will give the Vikings a chance to connect with fans.
“Let’s use this match to give us a chance to show our intentions are real and that we want to do this the right way,” Bagley said.
Bagley said as of Thursday, close to 31,000 tickets had been sold for Saturday’s event and that he is hoping the final number tops 33,000.
As well as they have done in the NASL, moving to MLS could be critical for United’s long-term existence. United officials privately believe they are the front-runners to land an MLS franchise, provided they have a viable stadium deal and can stomach an expansion fee that should be around $80 million.
But they are short on making public any specifics of their plan — or commenting about it at all, for that matter.
“There are no guarantees, there is no certainty, but we think we have a path to an ideal opportunity for MLS in this market,” Bagley said. “But ultimately it’s up to MLS. We’ll continue to do our work and see how it shakes out.”