Big names backing big-time soccer for Minnesota

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2014 - 11:40 PM
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Bill McGuire, owner of the Minnesota United FC soccer team, in March.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Minnesota has not had a big-time professional soccer team since 1984, but professional soccer’s return to the Twin Cities has suddenly become a hot commodity, as two newsmaking families with deep pockets have positioned themselves for a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise.

When the Vikings won approval for a new $1 billion football stadium, team owner Zygi Wilf was considered the front-runner to bring a big-time soccer team to Minnesota.

Not necessarily anymore.

While the Vikings have a five-year exclusive right to try to bring a Major League Soccer team to the new stadium, former UnitedHealth Group head Bill McGuire is trying to build support for a separate soccer-only stadium in downtown Minneapolis.

Already, McGuire is getting help from the Minnesota Twins — McGuire has eyed a site near the Twins’ Target Field — and Twins president David St. Peter said he would “never say never” to having Twins officials invest financially in McGuire’s plans.

Both the Vikings and McGuire have sidestepped whether a competition is brewing between the two men over major league soccer. But McGuire has upped the ante since 2012 when he purchased Minnesota United FC, the state’s only existing professional soccer team that plays in a league considered a step below MLS in terms of players and drawing power.

With MLS seeking to expand its 19-team league, and with soccer superstar David Beckham trying to put a team in Miami, the push is on to capitalize on the growing popularity of soccer in Minnesota and recapture the days when large crowds tailgated in the late 1970s when the Minnesota Kicks played at Met Stadium.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever get into a fight with the Wilfs about MLS,” said Nick Rogers, the president of McGuire’s Minnesota United FC, who downplayed any friction. “Is it possible, theoretically? Sure.”

Rogers, who is McGuire’s son-in-law, however wanted to make one point clear: The Wilf family’s exclusive five-year right to bring a MLS team to the Vikings’ new stadium extends only to the stadium, and does not mean the Wilfs have exclusive rights anywhere else in Minnesota.

Plans brewing

For now, both sides are moving in different directions.

The Vikings have said that, with construction on the team’s stadium underway, the Wilfs will make bringing in a soccer team a higher priority and are “very directly connected” to top MLS executives in New York. McGuire, meanwhile, has outlined plans for a 15,000- to 25,000-seat soccer stadium to be built near the Minneapolis Farmers Market, a project that will likely need public money.

Only last month, the Twins’ St. Peter attended an MLS Cup game with Rogers and McGuire at Kansas City’s new $200 million soccer stadium. Rogers also said he has suggested that McGuire’s Minnesota United play some of its upcoming games at Target Field.

Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said the Wilfs spoke with McGuire before McGuire bought Minnesota United, which plays in the North American Soccer League. Bagley added he has also spoken with St. Peter since his trip to Kansas City, and that “we talk all the time about a variety of issues.”

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said the league would not comment on negotiations — or any competition — to bring a team to Minnesota, but said the market was strong for soccer. “Major League Soccer certainly believes that Minneapolis could be an outstanding market — actually has been.”

While Bagley was not critical of McGuire’s soccer stadium plan, he said MLS officials have told the Vikings the new football stadium “will [also] work for their league.” Bagley added: “I’m not sure our community has the appetite for another stadium discussion” regarding McGuire’s plan.

New stadium too big?

With the public funding of the Vikings stadium still a sore point for many Minnesotans, Bagley’s comments drew some immediate criticism. One critic was Wes Burdine, who co-founded MLS4MN, a local soccer fan group that on Tuesday endorsed a separate soccer-only stadium, and not the Vikings’ plan.

“That’s kind of a rich comment [from] the people who were part of the big stadium debate,” he said of the Bagley’s remarks regarding the Twin Cities’ stadium “appetite.”

“We’re not talking about Vikings stadium money” for a new soccer stadium, Burdine said. He added that the Vikings new stadium and its 65,400 seats will be too large for professional soccer.

Though she said she has not seen details, Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson said she might support a downtown soccer stadium — “if it’s privately funded.” But Johnson added that she would not rule out some type of public financing, and added that “what public involvement means can be a lot of different things.”

Of 14 stadiums built or renovated for MLS teams, two opened in 2012 — in Houston and Montreal. The BBVA Compass Stadium, the new home of the MLS’ Houston Dynamo, seats 22,000 and cost $95 million. While the stadium was privately financed, the city and county purchased the land for the project.

The 20,341-seat Saputo Stadium in Montreal, the home of the Montreal Impact, cost $50 million and included renovation financing from the province of Quebec.

Potential obstacles

There is plenty meanwhile that could dispel a heated competition between McGuire and the Wilfs.

Rogers said the MLS and the North American Soccer League were both expanding, and he said that other major sports — including the National Football League — took final shape only after mergers. Rogers added that some MLS rules, including a complicated $3 million team salary cap, were “challenging.”

Bagley also said that the Vikings agree that the team’s exclusive right to land a MLS franchise exists only at the Vikings’ new stadium. The language, which was inserted in the state’s stadium financing legislation, says that the exclusive right exists for five years after the stadium opens and extends only to anyone whose family owns at least 3 percent of the Vikings and then buys a full or partial share of a major league soccer franchise.

And for now, according to the Twins’ St. Peter, the Twins’ help being given to McGuire consists of only “some level of counsel” regarding playing in a large outdoor stadium. “I think we know a little bit something about marketing, and a little bit something about playing outdoors in the summer,” he said of Target Field, which opened in 2010. “We also [have] gone through a facility development.”

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