On the eve of the World Cup in Brazil, the global obsession with soccer has again risen from excessive to massive. No other sport generates so such passion. FIFA, the game’s international governing body, expects more than 3.2 billion viewers worldwide to see at least some of the action starting in Sao Paulo this week and finishing in Rio de Janeiro on July 13.
While the spotlight shines on 64 matches, a sideshow of sorts is developing in North America, where Major League Soccer (MLS) has expanded to the point that it will soon have 23 clubs in place with hopes of closing the loop at 24. And, if you follow the online soccer chatter, you know that Minneapolis-St. Paul is the leading contender for the 24th slot.
An MLS team by, say, 2020 would be a welcome addition to the Twin Cities’ already impressive sports lineup. But, more than that, it would add international flavor to a market that’s a budding player in global business and culture. For the MLS to land here, however, several pieces would have to fall into place. First, the league might have to choose between competing bids.
• Former UnitedHealth Group executive William McGuire, who owns Minnesota United FC of the second-tier North American Soccer League, is exploring the opportunity to move his team up a notch to the MLS level.
• The Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings, has exclusive five-year rights to pursue an MLS team in the new Vikings stadium once it opens in 2016.
At this point, the stadium question seems to be driving the competition. Supporters of United have floated the idea of a 20,000-seat, open-air, natural-turf soccer pitch along the Southwest light-rail line near the Farmers Market in downtown Minneapolis. The neighboring Minnesota Twins have been mentioned as potential partners, but no formal relationship has yet been forged. The downside for United, which now plays home games at the National Sports Center in Blaine, is that a suitable stadium might cost $250 million and, given the political mood, might have to be privately financed.
MLS prefers soccer-specific, open-air venues with natural turf and seating that fits the size of its crowds; the league averaged nearly 20,000 fans per game last year, although the Seattle Sounders drew crowds twice that size. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been especially complimentary of the McGuire group’s commitment to the community.
The Wilfs’ advantage is that along with their bid comes a new Vikings stadium designed to meet MLS standards. Although indoors, the stadium’s see-through roof, glass walls and enormous pivot doors will provide an indoor-outdoor atmosphere. Hiding the upper decks in the 65,000-seat stadium to focus attention solely on the lower seating bowl is a priority, according to Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley. The stadium’s artificial turf is acceptable to the league, Bagley said, adding that the Vikings are working closely with MLS on securing a team.
Only three MLS clubs currently play in large NFL-type stadiums — in Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and Foxboro, Mass. Moves are afoot in each of those places to build smaller, soccer-specific venues. On the other hand, MLS two months ago awarded a new franchise to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, agreeing that the soccer club will share the NFL Falcons’ new 65,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium when it opens in 2017.
After decades of fits and starts, big-time soccer appears finally to be on the cusp of commercial success in the United States, placing Minnesota United President Nick Rogers in a somewhat awkward position; he cannot oppose his club’s aspiration to move up in class, yet he is committed to the Level 2 league in which his club plays. It’s unfortunate that Americans view the level of sports as all or nothing, he said, offering the British approach as an alternative to consider: each year three second-tier teams ascend to the Premier League, while three Premier clubs are relegated to the lower level.
Local fans should get a good measure on soccer levels this summer. On July 19, Minnesota United will host Swansea City, which finished 12th in the 20-team Premier League. Then, at TCF Stadium on Aug. 2, the Premier League’s top club, Manchester City, will face Greece’s most popular and successful team, Olympiacos, followed by a match between United and the Ottawa Fury.
Along with great soccer, the games will be an excellent test of this market’s appetite for an MLS team.