For local soccer fans, years spent watching, waiting and worrying about the sport’s future in the Twin Cities professional market will end Friday.
Minnesota, granted a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in 2015, will receive official word that it will begin play in America’s highest pro league in 2017. That announcement is expected to attract more than 4,200 fans to CHS Field in the Lowertown neighborhood of downtown St. Paul.
But, as has happened so often during this expansion saga, there’s a new wrinkle. Gov. Mark Dayton said late Thursday that he has decided not to call a special session, which was needed to finalize a property tax exemption and liquor license for the new stadium.
The lack of a special session will not affect Friday’s planned celebration. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire, Gov. Dayton, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and former MLS player and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman will address the crowd during the event, scheduled from 5 to 9:30 p.m.
McGuire, heading the MLS ownership group, has said the team is operating “on the good faith” that Dayton and the legislators will ultimately approve the stadium tax breaks.
The property tax exemption and liquor license were passed during the regular legislative session, but an accounting error in a larger statewide construction tax bill has left the bill — including the stadium tax breaks — unsigned.
United officials declined to comment Thursday when asked if the lack of a special session could delay groundbreaking on a new stadium.
But politics isn’t going to dampen the enthusiasm of longtime soccer fans who have endured rebranding, ownership changes and local professional soccer’s near extinction in 2009. They are seeing their faith rewarded in the MLS expansion.
“It’s definitely something I’ve felt the city and the state has always deserved,” said Jim Crist, a member of the Dark Clouds supporters group board of directors. “There was always a core group of people here, but it was a matter of other people realizing what we had.”
Beyond the 2017 MLS start date, team and league officials will confirm TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis as the club’s temporary home for at least next season.
On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council approved the Midway neighborhood site for Minnesota’s privately financed $150 million, 20,000-seat soccer stadium. Groundbreaking is contingent on final legislative approval.
Among the new beginnings comes the end of the United name used by the current North American Soccer League team. MLS already has D.C. United, and Atlanta, another 2017 expansion club, was allowed to use United, leaving Minnesota the odd club out. The Loons’ new name will be unveiled Friday.
Transition was evident anywhere team gear was being sold at Wednesday’s home match at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine.
From jerseys to supporter scarves to onesies and keychains, everything sporting the United name was 25 percent off.
“That first time we play Atlanta — I’ve got big expectations for that game in terms of what we’ll be doing,” Crist said. “We’ll let the Atlanta fans know why United would have worked better for us and doesn’t make any sense for them.”
Consternation about a name change is nonexistent for Bruce McGuire, an active blogger and respected voice in the local soccer community. Professional teams have been called the Kicks (1976-81), Strikers (1984-88), Thunder (1990-2009), NSC Minnesota Stars (2010-11), Minnesota Stars FC (2012) and United FC (2013-16).
“On my Twitter page there’s a banner that says, ‘By any name. In any league,’ ” said McGuire, no relation to United owner Bill McGuire. “It has no meaning to me at all. You feel the thread that’s run through it all these years and that’s the only thing that matters.”
Coach Carl Craig and his players will miss Friday’s event because they will be traveling to Jacksonville for a 1:30 p.m. match Saturday.
“I wish them all the best on Friday,” Craig said Wednesday. “It’d be lovely to be there, but we’ve got business to take care of and that’s my first priority.”
But the magnitude of the announcement is understood.
“It’s well-deserved for the community and for the state,” forward Christian Ramirez said earlier this week. “They’ve been so loyal to the club through the changes. And it shows soccer is growing in the state. You don’t drive past a park where kids aren’t playing.”
Friday’s event will have a party atmosphere with some members of Doomtree and fellow local hip-hop artist Astronautalis performing.
When MLS announced Minnesota as an expansion team in March 2015, the Dark Clouds supporters group filled the Target Field news conference with chants and cheers. Crist said he is unaware of a coordinated effort Friday.
“I just want to be there and enjoy it,” he said. “It’s something that’s been a long time in the making.”