Sid Hartman assigns the status of “guru’’ to people who give him insight into sports that have a tendency to prove puzzling, such as Lou Nanne with ice hockey. When you grow up in the southwest corner of Minnesota in the 1950s, as I did, you’re so engrained in the fastest game on ice there’s no need for a guru.
Where I definitely can use some assistance is with European football, a k a soccer, and since the World Cup of 2010, I’ve had a guru: Bruce McGuire of the du Nord football podcast and blog.
McGuire is also one of the founders of the “Dark Clouds,’’ a fan group that started a dozen years ago as supporters of the Minnesota Thunder. There were 10 members originally and now it’s a club of 300 with members who enjoy themselves at matches of Minnesota United FC (football club).
The Thunder was a brainchild of Buzz Lagos, the soccer activist and coach from St. Paul. The team started as an amateur all-star team in 1990, became a professional team in 1995 and held that role on the Twin Cities soccer scene through the 2009 season.
The Minnesota Stars followed with three seasons of significant on-field success and serious financial difficulties. Bill McGuire (not to be confused with Bruce) stepped up to bail them out in November 2012, and with the name change to Minnesota United FC, has turned it into an operation with a professional feel.
I made a first-ever appearance at a Thunder/Stars/United game on Thursday night in Blaine and was surprised (and then some) at accomodations for the customers that were casual and at the same time well-organized.
The grandstand on the west side at the National Sports Center stadium holds around 4,000, and that seating capacity has been doubled with bleachers. There was a sellout for Mexico’s under-21 team on July 4.
(Note: Fireworks probably assisted in drawing that audience. They don’t whine incessantly and demand free tickets when fireworks are shot off in conjunction with sporting events in the north suburbs.)
There could be 10,000 people with standing room on Saturday night, when Swansea City becomes the first English Premier League team to play in Minnesota. I’ve been a devoted follower of the Swans for several months, so this caps a very emotional time for me:
First, I get to spend 90 minutes interviewing Willie Mays, my all-time favorite baseball player for a pre-All-Star Game story, and now we get a visit from the Swans, my all-time favorite soccer team.
Bruce McGuire and the Dark Clouds were in their location in the east bleachers on Thursday. There were roughly 100 members of the fan club in attendance. They stand the whole game and sing songs, which pretty much eliminates me from an encore, but what the hey ...
“Little smaller group tonight,’’ McGuire said. “There are two games this week, and I’m sure everyone is going to be here for Swansea City. This is a league game, and you want to win, but we’re all waiting to see the Swans.’’
United reinforced its roster with seven players this season. It has a roster that includes five Brazilians, plus players from Japan, Italy, Serbia and Jamaica. Bill McGuire has permitted United to rank with the New York Cosmos as perhaps the two best-funded teams in the 10-team NASL.
United finished first during the spring schedule. The fall schedule is just getting started, but coach Manny Lagos appears to have the best team in the league.
There is a difference between a well-funded NASL team and the Swans, a rising power (that’s my opinion and I’m not changing it) in the English Premier League.
Even in this country, thanks to much-increased television coverage, the EPL is now looked at as soccer’s major league. Major League Soccer is that in name only; if this were baseball, the MLS would be triple-A – and the NASL and United would be double-A.
There’s nothing wrong with that. If United does hold its own vs. the Swans, it will be the greatest moment for a Minnesota pro soccer team since Alan Willey artfully dodged to five goals for the Kicks against the New York Cosmos in a playoff game in 1978.
Of course, if United does hang in there, we Swans fans already have our excuse: Wilfried Bony isn’t on the trip, and no team in the world could feel complete without Wilfried.
Willie Mays and Wilfried Bony … my guys.