All it takes is a good look down from about 10,000 feet in the air.
“It used to be you’d land in Chicago, and all I would see is the softball [fields] when I looked down,” said Tim Carter, Minnesota United FC’s youth development academy director. “Now, you count the number of soccer fields.”
Beyond this brick-and-mortar investment in soccer facilities, the sport’s emergence in Minnesota now counts 60,000 youth players and a burgeoning flow of local talent into Major League Soccer.
Fed by expanded TV coverage of soccer worldwide, local fans by the tens of thousands have flocked to matches between European teams at TCF Bank Stadium and filled U.S. Bank Stadium’s 64,000 seats last summer.
Against that backdrop comes Minnesota United, on the precipice of its inaugural season in America’s top soccer league and poised to provide another breakthrough for the sport in the state. The team opens its regular season Friday on Portland Timbers’ home pitch and plays its first home game March 12.
It’s been two generations since the Minnesota Kicks — the state’s first top-division pro team — began their first season in 1976. Two years earlier, about 100,000 kids were registered to play soccer nationwide, according to US Youth Soccer. Today there are more than 3 million, including the estimated 60,000 in Minnesota.
Youth players who trained in Minnesota are now competing at the top level. Brent Kallman of Woodbury and Ish Jome out of Prairie Seeds Academy are both on United’s roster. Teal Bunbury from Shattuck-St. Mary’s and Cody Cropper from Minnesota Thunder Academy play for New England Revolution.
Eric Miller, also from Minnesota Thunder Academy, is with Colorado Rapids. Kallman’s sister Kassey Kallman suits up for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, the highest division in the U.S. for the women’s game. Jackson Yueill, another Minnesota Thunder Academy product, was just drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes ahead of this season.
While the Kicks and their free parking at the former Met Stadium set the standard pretty high attendance-wise — topping out at 46,370 — Minnesota’s top-league soccer scene has steadily climbed back to and even exceeded those heights.
A crowd of about 20,000 saw David Beckham’s LA Galaxy take on the Thunder at the Metrodome in 2007. In 2014 when Manchester City faced Olympiakos, the first time such top international teams played in the state, 34,047 watched at TCF Bank Stadium.
Popular European sides Chelsea and AC Milan nearly doubled that number this past August, opening the new Vikings stadium in front of 64,101 fans. A United match against Mexican team Club Leon in the first soccer match at Target Field this past June drew 18,505. In October, the U.S. women’s national team played a friendly at U.S. Bank Stadium that drew 23,400.
For some Minnesotans, however, United joining MLS is the first time they’ve heard about a hometown team playing that other kind of football. Just ask Brian Kallman, a Woodbury native who played professionally in Minnesota for 10 years.
“There are so many people out there even now when they’re like, ‘Oh, you used to play pro soccer. Where did you play?’ And I say, ‘Here in Minnesota,’ ” said Kallman, older brother to Brent and Kassey who played for United in the lower-division North American Soccer League. “They’re like, ‘We had a team?’ ”
Playing in Blaine before small crowds was a far cry from the Kicks, a top division team that played in the now-defunct version of the NASL from 1976 to 1981 and averaged in the 30,000s for attendance at Metropolitan Stadium.
Alan Merrick played for the Kicks and then coached the next manifestation of professional soccer in the state, the Minnesota Strikers in the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1984-88. The now Eagan boys’ team coach and University of Minnesota men’s club team coach remembers traveling the state — from Winona to Duluth, from schools to VFW posts — putting on demonstrations about how the game worked and even chipping a soccer ball from half-court into a basketball hoop.
“We impacted the game in the state of Minnesota pretty well,” Merrick said, adding the Kicks players acted as ambassadors for the team as well as the sport as a whole. “We were everywhere.”
After the Strikers came the Thunder, founded in 1990 as an amateur team. The team went pro in 1995. While the Thunder folded in 2009, the National Sports Center in Blaine sponsored a new team, the NSC Minnesota Stars, in 2010. By the next season, the current version of the NASL took over ownership.
Bill McGuire bought the team in 2012, saving it from being dissolved and rebranding it as Minnesota United FC the next year. Four years later, United (nicknamed the Loons) is in the nation’s top league.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said when he looks around the league, he sees how each team has established a solid foundation for the sport: “Taking all of that which happened in the past to a level that I don’t think people ever dreamed of.”
Garber credits the Kicks and the old NASL for helping trigger the game’s current popularity. “The moms and dads who took little kids to those games, those kids are now adults, and they’re having their own kids,” he said. “So supporting a local professional soccer team is not foreign to them.”
The slow build of popularity for the sport since the Kicks era also has a lot to do with accessibility. When the Kicks began, Merrick said, the only soccer he could really find on TV were Sunday morning German league matches. Even just back a few years ago, most TV coverage for soccer in the U.S. happened every four years for the World Cup.
Now, though, not only can people see their local teams play in person, they can also watch MLS and foreign leagues regularly on TV or online.
That visibility has influenced more kids to pick up the sport, and thus more playing opportunities — from youth clubs to rec leagues — to form. And the more kids who play, even if they don’t become elite players, the more they can give back to the sport once they’re adults, as youth coaches themselves.
Stefanie Golan, the University of Minnesota women’s soccer coach, said while MLS in Minnesota will be a great boon, she dreams that it eventually leads to the NWSL coming to the area.
“What I hope it does is [put] those youth players in a position where they can see the highest level up close and personal, and they can be attending those games in the atmosphere and everything that goes along with it,” Golan said, adding it keeps young players connected to what the future could look like for them. “Maybe it tends to keep them in the game longer than they otherwise would have.”
United hasn’t had much time to solidify its spot in a Minnesota market with five other big-league teams, only officially joining MLS this past August. While the team harbors no illusions about rivaling their popularity, its profile could rise if its outreach efforts make inroads in a diverse minority community in the Twin Cities.
A stable league. A soccer-specific stadium on the way in a few years in St. Paul. Put a winning squad on the pitch, said Tino Lettieri, the former Kicks goalkeeper who still lives in Excelsior, and it shouldn’t be a problem to fill every seat from day one.
“Minnesota has been one of those places that is just waiting for its moment, and the moment is now,” Lettieri said.