It is difficult to say with any certainty what would have happened to pro soccer in Minnesota if Bill McGuire hadn’t bought the then-Minnesota Stars when the franchise was on the verge of folding after the 2012 season.
What is certain, though, is the purchase kept intact the thread of Minnesota's quirky pro soccer history. It started with a team playing in America's top soccer league, then went through a quarter-century of ups and downs at lower levels. The next chapter marks its return to the nation’s best league with the Stars’ successor, Minnesota United FC.
The Loons’ lineage can be traced to the Minnesota Thunder, a team founded in 1990. But many of the state’s soccer die-hards go back even further — to the late 1970s, when the Minnesota Kicks drew a young, party-happy fan base to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
Of those who made it from the tailgating — parking was free — to the stands, a hardy few can still recite names such as Ace Ntsoelengoe and Tino Lettieri.
By existing in the same city for five consecutive seasons, the Kicks were actually one of the more stable franchises in the old NASL. After folding in 1981, the team was replaced by the Minnesota Strikers, who played a year in the Metrodome. When the NASL fell apart, the team played indoor soccer for five years at Met Center.
In 1990, Buzz Lagos, then the soccer coach at St. Paul Academy, thought he would form a high-level amateur team in St. Paul. The Minnesota Thunder grew to become one of the better squads in the second division of American soccer. Between 1999 and 2003, the Thunder won the A-League once and finished as runner-up three times.
Former Medtronic CEO Bill George, who had coached youth soccer for years, served as the financial muscle behind the team — a much needed role, given that lower-division soccer always has been an exercise in financial losses.
Starting in 2005, though, George sold the team to less-deep-pocketed owners. Lagos retired from coaching and the team entered a period of on-field struggles and off-field financial upheaval.
By 2007, the Thunder was owned by real-estate developer Dean Johnson, whose wild dreams of building a stadium in downtown St. Paul were only matched in outlandishness by his unfulfilled financial promises to players, front-office staff and vendors. Johnson blew out of town after the 2009 season, leaving a defunct team and a trail of unpaid bills.
That left it to the sport's remaining true believers to keep the pro game going. To their credit, they did.
The National Sports Center stepped in to own what was, on paper, a new team called the Stars for 2010 but one that shared both staff and players with the final incarnation of the Thunder. After 2010, the new NASL took over the team, installed a skeleton crew and a limited budget for general manager and head coach Manny Lagos (Buzz's son) and kept the team alive.
It was the 2011 and 2012 teams that so many fans fell in love with. Maddeningly inconsistent during the season, both squads were better than the sum of their parts come playoff time. The 2011 team won Minnesota soccer’s second championship. The 2012 team, even with its fate uncertain, came close to doing the same, losing the final on penalties.
It’s that thread that connects the MLS version of Minnesota United with the team’s past. Officially, the Loons are an expansion team this year. For longtime fans, though, this is just the latest squad to earn the title of Minnesota’s favorite pro soccer team.
Writer Jon Marthaler is a soccer fan who writes a weekly soccer insider. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org