For some recent Major League Soccer expansion clubs, brushes with national acclaim aren’t out of the ordinary.
Los Angeles Football Club, for example, has celebrities like Billboard-charting DJ Steve Aoki e-mailing to ask the club for a jersey to wear. Its players have appeared in sketches on “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” At Atlanta United games, rapper Young Joc has hyped up the crowds, and award-winning FX show “Atlanta” has featured the club in the background of a few scenes.
Meanwhile for Minnesota United, which debuted in 2017 with Atlanta before LAFC joined the league this year, such notice is harder to reap. Its biggest brush with widespread soccer fame so far arguably came when the Loons started their MLS existence conceding a league-record 11 goals in their first two games.
Atlanta and LAFC have started their existences on the field in showy new stadiums, as well as by playing better soccer. Atlanta made the playoffs in its first season while LAFC is 6-2-1, including a 2-0 victory over the Loons on Wednesday.
But United, which is 4-6-0 and faces San Jose on Saturday at its rented home, TCF Bank Stadium, is more concerned with gaining a maintainable foothold in a competitive sports market rather than its 15 minutes of fame.
“Once we’re into Allianz Field [next season], and we get into a rhythm around all of that, then the question becomes, ‘Are we going to challenge to really take our place in what is really the great global game?’ ” Loons CEO Chris Wright said. “Have we really thought that through to an extreme yet? No, we haven’t. … Today’s focus is the local fan base, getting us into Allianz Field, doing that right and building the business to be sustainable here and really not worrying.
“The rest will come.”
Wright said there are a few ways to garner national attention, from making a flashy player signing — as LA Galaxy did recently with Zlatan Ibrahimovic — to creating one of the best game atmospheres in sports, as Portland has done. But either way, he said, that respect from national media, companies or fans has to be earned.
That was United team captain Francisco Calvo’s gripe after losing to Atlanta United on March 31. Calvo specifically named Atlanta and LAFC as clubs that receive more respect on a leaguewide scale than his, and he wasn’t too pleased about that.
His frustrations aren’t unmerited. When it comes to national television exposure this year, United has only two of its 34 regular-season games broadcast across the big U.S. networks of Fox, FS1, ESPN and ESPN2, and they’re both away games. Atlanta and LAFC both have 12, the second most in the league.
And as far as social media presence, United has the fewest Twitter followers in MLS, with about 86,000. Atlanta tops the list, nearing 1 million.
Part of why the Loons go a bit unnoticed is because their market is unique. Clubs in New York or Los Angeles have the benefit of the two biggest media markets in the country. Clubs such as Portland or Orlando aren’t in such busy metropolises, but they have less pro sports competition, with only one other major league in town.
Minneapolis-St. Paul, meanwhile, is the 15th-largest media market but the third-smallest with the four major pro sports, not to mention a Division I university and thriving arts scene.
Being somewhere in between a major market and a small one presents some unique challenges. The Loons not only have to educate the Twin Cities about a new team and niche sport, they also have to tell the world that the state isn’t just a frozen wasteland.
“There is not that same process to educate people about what L.A. is like,” said John Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president of soccer operations. “What I think is a strength of MLS is you are getting cities and club cultures and identities of clubs that are very different, and we all want the same things in terms of how we define success. … I am not of this belief that big market equals success. We have seen in the history of this league that that does not necessarily correlate with success.”
Chivas USA, another former L.A.-area team, proved that when it folded in 2014 after 10 years in the league.
Wright agreed that it’s all about leaning into what makes a certain club’s market different. For Atlanta and LAFC, that might be more glamorous pursuits. For United, it’s the history of the sport here combined with the youth soccer popularity and a surprisingly diverse fan base. That has seemed to work so far, with 14,500 season-ticket holders and a waiting list of just more than 600, with the new stadium still about nine months from opening.
“Just being around the league, I think people have a different perspective of Minnesota than what it’s actually like,” said Eric Miller, a Woodbury native who recently joined the Loons from Colorado. “It’s so diverse. There’s so many different cultures here. And obviously soccerwise … how many fans they’re getting, the new stadium they’re building. People can’t believe it because they’re so far north, a little bit isolated.”
As for those celebrity encounters, Wright said United isn’t necessarily lacking.
“That’s really not the Minnesota way. In fact, when celebrities come to our games, they don’t want to be on camera,” he said. “I’m not going to mention any names, but there were people inside of that stadium [Wednesday at LAFC] that weren’t even really concerned about the game. They were more concerned about making sure they were on camera at the game.
“That’s not the way Minnesota works. Minnesota is very understated.”