Organizers of the first Hmong Cup have one clear goal: to raise the standard of community soccer.
Even today, with flag football, basketball and other sports becoming more popular among Hmong-Americans, soccer is still the game.
Huge crowds flock to St. Paul every year for the July 4 Hmong Soccer Tournament, and on many a summer night, Hmong kids and adults can be seen scrimmaging in city parks across the metro area. But two local entrepreneurs say it's time for Minnesota's Hmong to get serious about soccer.
Hoping to improve the soccer experience for both players and fans, Blong Yang and Dao Her are rolling out the first Hmong Cup soccer tournament next month in St. Paul.
So far, 10 teams -- mostly from Wisconsin and Minnesota -- have signed up to compete in the Aug. 4-7 tournament at Concordia University's Sea Foam Stadium.
Yang, a co-founder and longtime soccer fan, said most Hmong soccer tournaments do very little to display players' talents and skills.
"We need to raise it up a notch and I'd like to be a part of that process," he said.
Soccer games played at other Hmong soccer tournaments typically are two 30-minute halves, the standard length of a children's game, Yang said.
The Hmong Cup games would be a grown-up version: the whole, official 90 minutes long, he said.
In addition, Yang and Her are bringing trained referees to call the games.
The action at the Concordia athletic stadium gives soccer fans more seating and better views of the action.
"It's going to be a stadium experience, which is completely different than the soccer-in-the-park-type of experience that most Hmong people are used to," said Yang, a Minneapolis attorney.
Asked if there is enough of a fan base to support two big Hmong soccer tournaments in Minnesota, Yang downplayed a potential rivalry. "I don't see it as competition," he said, noting that the July 4 festival is a broader event. "July 4 has its place in our community."
The duo have been planning the Hmong Cup for about a year.
Originally, they envisioned a larger tournament with 20 teams from all over the country and a purse worth $20,000 for the first-place team.
They had to downsize the dream for this opening event, with fewer teams and a smaller purse ($10,000 for 10 teams).
"I think people are a little skeptical because it's never been done in our community before," Her said. "If we can get our first year under our belt, the following year it will be easier for us."
It'll be a challenge, said Chongneng Thao, president of St. Paul United Youth Soccer Club, which serves mostly Hmong players.
He agrees that there is a need to take the game from "street soccer" style to the next level. "The majority of the current players today in the Hmong community have not played what I call 'structured soccer,' or 'competitive soccer,'" Thao said. "There are a lot of talented folks out there, but they're not making it to the college level or the pro level because they didn't have the proper training."
But he doubts that the Hmong Cup or any single tournament, especially one for adults, is the remedy.
The way to elevate the game within the community, he said, is to start with the kids and get them involved in an organized soccer club early.
Nonetheless, he plans to attend the inaugural tournament to support soccer and because he's curious to see how it goes.
It's anybody's guess whether the Cup will be here to stay. "It will be an uphill battle to get there," Yang said. "The event's going to happen. We've paid our deposit. We've signed contracts. We're ready to go."
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Allie Shah • 612-673-4488