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Minnesota's best hope for landing big-league soccer over the next decade now rests with the Minnesota Vikings and their new $975 million downtown stadium.
But whether the Vikings, who have exclusive rights to bring Major League Soccer to the venue for five years after it opens, can secure a franchise and attract top international competition depends largely on the building's design and whether team owners believe the professional game can succeed in a market where it has often floundered.
As the Vikings and the public stadium authority collaborate on developing the project, a passionate group of soccer fans is quietly lobbying for a voice in the design. Their goal, they say, is to ensure that the facility becomes a premier soccer attraction, worthy of hosting everything from MLS to a World Cup.
"If you have the opportunity to get 60,000 people into a stadium to watch soccer, I think the local businesses would appreciate that," said Dave Laidig, a local attorney and member of a grass-roots soccer coalition called MLS4MN, which met with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently to stress the stadium's potential.
The team and the authority will begin design work this fall after hiring an architect. The Vikings hope to open in time for the 2016 NFL season.
"I look at soccer, for this stadium, like college basketball wound up being for the Dome," said Rybak, an enthusiastic soccer supporter. "It was not the reason it was built, and it wasn't thought out at the start. But the Final Four and Sweet 16 wound up being huge events for the city. And soccer could be that, too."
On back burner
Lester Bagley, vice president of public affairs and stadium development for the Vikings, said owner Zygi Wilf and his family will thoroughly analyze the market before deciding whether to bid for an MLS franchise that could cost as much as $40 million.
But, he said, the Vikings are intrigued.
MLS teams are averaging almost 19,000 fans a game this season. With 17 home games, plus preseason and playoffs, "that's a lot of people in seats, and that's a lot of revenue for our hospitality community," Bagley said.
That's partly why the team pushed last spring for a provision in the stadium financing bill giving it exclusive rights to negotiate for a franchise. But with dozens of major stadium decisions ahead, soccer discussions are on hold, Bagley said.
"That doesn't mean we're not interested," he said. "It just means we've got a tremendous amount of work to do to make sure the facility meets the Vikings' and our fans' needs first and foremost."
That worries some soccer fans.
"It's something that can't be put on the back burner," MLS4MN member Wes Burdine said. "If you are going to spend $900 million or whatever, you want to do it right from the beginning."
Burdine said it's important to talk early about everything from field dimensions to seating in order to maximize the stadium's potential, save taxpayer money and make MLS and international soccer aware that Minnesota is serious about the game.
Bagley said that even if the Vikings don't pursue a MLS team, the stadium will be designed to host international soccer competitions.
"That's been our intention from Day One," he said.
Yet Laidig said he worries that the Vikings and stadium authority "might cut corners to maximize the football experience" at soccer's expense.
There is concern, too, that the Vikings' pursuit of a MLS team threatens the current pro team, the Minnesota Stars, a Division 2 team in the North American Soccer League. The team, which plays in Blaine, had the league's lowest attendance last year as it won the league title and has struggled financially. It is owned by the league but is searching for a new owner.
The prospect of a Vikings MLS bid could scare off potential buyers, dooming the Stars and leaving fans without a team for several years. That, some fear, could sour MLS on expanding here.
"In the end, if the Stars go away, it severely hurts our chances of bringing in a MLS team," Burdine said.
Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president of communications, said that having a pro team in the market "could help" an MLS bid but is not required.
Still, Laidig said of the Vikings and stadium authority, "If you are really thinking about hosting the sport, think about it early on. In the long run, the MLS team could be a huge benefit. It's like buying into the NFL in the 1960s. It's only going to get better. It's not going away."
Looking to expand
Over the past eight years MLS has nearly doubled in size, going from 10 to 19 teams.
Courtemanche said the league is looking to add several franchises in coming years and had "exploratory discussions" in several markets, including the Twin Cities. He said Minnesota appeals for several reasons:
The market is attractive to TV sponsors, and it's in a region where MLS has room to expand. Currently, the only Upper Midwest franchises are Chicago and Kansas City.
The Wilfs are an established ownership group, and area fans have shown a passionate, if inconsistent interest since the 1970s, when the Minnesota Kicks played at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
Though the Kicks, then Strikers, Thunder and Stars all struggled financially, Courtemanche said the area's young and diverse fans, with immigrants from Laos, Latin America and eastern Africa, where soccer is popular, portend growth.
"When we expand," he said, "we'll make sure it's done for strategic reasons and we have the right ownership and the right market."
While the league prefers soccer-specific stadiums, its top draw, the Seattle Sounders, plays in a multipurpose stadium shared with the NFL Seattle Seahawks. The Sounders average nearly 40,000 fans per game, Courtemanche said.
"There is no blueprint for success, whether you play on grass or artificial turf or in a large stadium or small stadium or with a retractable roof or no roof," he said. "We have all of those in MLS."
The key to a multipurpose stadium, he said, is having the flexibility to expand the playing field; soccer fields are about 20 to 25 yards wider than NFL fields.
"But really, it's been years since that's been a challenge for many of the venues," Courtemanche said. "All these modern stadiums are built with soccer in mind."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425