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Matt VanOekel returns as United FC’s starting goalkeeper.

JERRY HOLT • jerry.holt@startribune.com,

United FC hopes televised home matches build fan base

  • Article by: David La Vaque
  • Star Tribune
  • April 26, 2014 - 1:03 AM

Raucous fans. Burning flares. A last-second goal.

Jamie Watson remembers well his most recent match at the National Sports Center in Blaine, when Minnesota won the first leg of the 2012 Soccer Bowl championship series.

Watson, who played in Orlando last season, returns for another home match meaningful to Minnesota soccer. Securing its first broadcast partnership ever, United FC will be one of only five North American Soccer League teams with all of its home games on television. KSTC (Ch. 45) will be the home for United soccer.

“This has the potential to grab the fan who likes soccer or the fan that loves soccer and still didn’t know we have this here,” Watson said. “It’s a top-20 market in the country, and we’re breaking into that. It shows the club is progressing.”

Doing its part to entice fans, United FC opened the spring season with two road victories. But Minnesota, which plays FC Edmonton at 7 p.m. Saturday, must become a more formidable home team. United’s 16 points last season in home matches was tied for the league worst. In contrast, New York had 17 points in its fall season home matches alone en route to the title.

Carolina owns the ultimate home-field advantage. The RailHawks enter the weekend riding a 17-match unbeaten streak at home.

Coach Manny Lagos, who called televised home matches an honor, knows increased exposure means higher expectations.

“There were some good moments at home last season but what hurt the most was a lack of consistency,” Lagos said. “We expect to deal better with the stresses of what it means to play at home, getting results and providing a high quality of play for the fans.”

Lagos said his team has answered all his challenges thus far.

After a season-opening 2-0 victory in San Antonio, Lagos urged his team to defend better near the Minnesota goal. Players responded with what he called “an outstanding defensive effort” one week later at Ottawa. They spoiled the first home match ever for the expansion Ottawa Fury, snatching a 2-1 victory on a stoppage time goal from Christian Ramirez.

With an eye on both the soccer standings and the team’s tenuous foothold in a competitive Twin Cities sports market, players hope to make Saturday’s home debut something special.

“Any athlete is a salesperson in their sport,” midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan said. “If you show that you’re passionate and excited about what you do, hopefully you will pass that on to others.”

Pitchkolan, who regularly played on local or national television during his time with Major League Soccer clubs, said, “You never know who is watching and what sort of new fans you might pick up. They will see a great atmosphere on TV and maybe they’ll come check it out.”

Minnesota’s final two home matches in 2013 were televised by KSTC and Fox Sports North. Both were interested in a partnership this season, United FC team president Nick Rogers said, but “FSN carries the Twins, so we are more of the main event on Channel 45 rather than secondary.”

Ratings for last season’s KSTC match ‘‘was low but detectable and that was very positive considering it was [a] one-off deal that was not well-promoted.”

Rogers does not see televising games as a conflict to selling tickets. He said the club already has “four times the season-ticket holder base” it had last season.

“We were already broadcasting our games online last year,” Rogers said. “I think television just lets more people know what we’re doing.”

Playing all but one of its 2013 spring season matches at the more centrally located Metrodome, the club averaged more than 5,000 fans at each of its five games and ranked second in the NASL in home attendance (5,338). The fall season home attendance average at the National Sports Center in Blaine dropped to 3,679, seventh in the eight-team NASL.

Rogers believes on-field success, plus broader television exposure, will attract more fans. The Metrodome provided a familiar location, he said, but playing on grass outdoors in a more intimate stadium offers advantages.

“The distance to Blaine is more psychological than physical,” Rogers said. “It’s 15 to 20 minutes from downtown, there’s free parking and we offer one of the last true tailgating experiences.”

Rogers, who watches his favorite European soccer clubs play on television, said it’s “very cool” to see United FC getting similar treatment.

“A big part of our job is bringing soccer to the people,” Rogers said. “This is a great way to get ourselves out there.”

© 2014 Star Tribune