The battle to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Minnesota has produced a new, but important, player — Hennepin County Board chair Mike Opat.

Opat made a surprise appearance in New York City on Thursday to support the bid by former UnitedHealth Group executive Bill McGuire, who has been joined by the Pohlad family, the owners of the Minnesota Twins, and Glen Taylor, the owner of the Timberwolves. Taylor also owns the Star Tribune.

Opat’s visit immediately put him at odds with Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, who also appeared before MLS officials in a separate bid to have the soccer team play in the Vikings’ new $1 billion stadium.

Though Opat has said little publicly of Hennepin County’s potential involvement regarding soccer, he led the push for the county’s controversial $350 million public subsidy package for Target Field, the four-year-old home of the Twins that cost a total of $555 million.

“The county has much invested in the [Target Field] neighborhood. If expansion happens, I’d prefer it be the [McGuire] group,” Opat said from New York.

His involvement — and whether McGuire would ask the county for public money for a new, soccer-only stadium near Target Field — further entangled an already complicated issue. Gov. Mark Dayton has already voiced his opposition, saying that “if [a soccer stadium] requires a public subsidy, I think we should say no.” Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson added Thursday that while “I don’t want to have a fight” with the county, the city is already subsidizing the Vikings stadium, which is relying on soccer games for some of its revenue.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was more blunt.

“The city does not need another stadium to host soccer. With the new [Vikings] stadium, Target Center and Target Field, Minneapolis already has all the venues it needs,” the mayor said in a statement.

Nick Rogers, president of the McGuire-owned Minnesota FC United soccer team, declined to speculate on whether the group would ask for a subsidy. Rogers said only that his group “has been gratified by the support and encouragement given by a number of members of the community, and there are sites out there appropriate for us.”

Opat and Rogers both said there is no agreement between the county and the hopeful owners.

As the debate intensified Thursday, other prominent names emerged. Former Medtronic executive Glen Nelson, husband of Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who this year co-chaired the successful bid to host the 2018 Super Bowl at the Vikings new stadium, has joined McGuire’s group, according to a person with knowledge of the group’s key leaders. Glen Nelson is a former Carlson Cos. board member.

Other cities bidding

The two Minneapolis groups are vying with Sacramento and Las Vegas to be MLS’ 24th franchise, and the league has indicated it wants two dozen teams playing by the end of the decade. Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta, which both have been granted franchises within the past year, each reportedly paid a $70 million franchise fee to join the league.

Former soccer star David Beckham exercised an option to buy an expansion franchise for $25 million as part of the contract he signed to come to the MLS. Beckham is trying — but has so far failed — to get a stadium site approved in Miami, a process McGuire’s group is likely following closely.

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, a key player in Opat’s push for Target Field, said McGuire’s bid would almost certainly be helped by Opat. The County Board chair’s backing, said Stenglein, “was hugely important [with] Target Field because it made that a reality.”

But Stenglein acknowledged that it “remains to be seen” whether Opat could persuade a majority of the County Board to support another stadium.

Two county commissioners said Thursday that Opat had advised his board colleagues he was going to New York, but did not outline specific ways the county could help McGuire’s group. But commissioners Jan Callison and Jeff Johnson, a Republican who just finished a bid to unseat Dayton, said they understood from Opat that McGuire’s group would be looking for a county subsidy.

“I assumed that was part of the deal, that they wanted the county to be the local partner and kick in some money, which I would have no interest in whatsoever,” Johnson said.

Callison also said she was not eager to support a subsidy. “It’s a heavy lift to expect more public funding of a stadium,” she said.

Opat’s trip to New York drew little official reaction from the Vikings, who sent Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf, Zygi’s brother and the team’s president, to lead a two-hour presentation before MLS officials in New York. “I think they were impressed,” said Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley, who said several MLS team owners listened to the briefing.

Bagley, however, largely declined comment on Opat. “He’s been interested in” soccer, Bagley said of Opat. “I don’t know [what] they’re intending to do.’’

McGuire and Rogers were also in New York for a separate two-hour presentation; Rogers declined to say whether any additional members of their support team made the trip.

Both groups are likely to meet with the MLS board of governors Dec. 6, the earliest date that a decision on expansion might be made.

While it is unclear where the county would find money to subsidize a soccer stadium, its financial backing of Target Field is producing revenue ahead of schedule. Through revenue from a 0.15 percent countywide sales tax, the county is on track to pay off the public bonds on Target Field roughly 10 years ahead of time — in 2027.

Hennepin County has also recently partnered with the Twins and United Properties, a development company owned by the Pohlads. The county, United Properties and the Twins worked together to design and build a public-private transit hub near Target Field that serves as a connector for all light-rail transit corridor lines.

 

Staff writer Dennis Brackin also contributed to this report.