For white, American males of a certain age, soccer was for decades the persistently receding reflection on the horizon, the next, next, new, new thing.
Indoor soccer would bring the game into the mainstream … or would it be the popularity of youth soccer … or the magnificent U.S. women’s team … or increased scrutiny on the men’s national team … or the increased number of Americans playing overseas … or World Cup games played in the U.S. … or the increased availability of games via cable and Internet?
Soccer’s arrival as a mainstream sport was, for many of us, always almost here. Wednesday morning, for Minnesotans not weaned on the sport, soccer might have finally, actually arrived.
Before the pep rally that was nicknamed a news conference began, there was jazz playing in the corridors of Target Field. Then there were dozens of longtime local soccer fans known as the Dark Clouds marching in. There were matching scarves and coordinated singing. This, clearly, would not be an American football news conference.
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber interrupted the singing long enough to announce that Minnesota had been awarded an MLS franchise. In interviews after the pep rally, several sources expressed confidence that the team’s new stadium would be built in the Farmers Market area of downtown.
This was not exactly an NFL news conference, which was further demonstrated when owner Bill McGuire and Garber spoke not of global primacy or expensive seat licenses but of the way United FC would complement the changing demographics of downtown.
Anyone who lives in Minneapolis knows how the city is growing. There are more and more new apartment buildings, more and more condominiums. There are more great restaurants, and more good ones. There are more coffee shops and attractive bars.
There are more transportation options, and there is more Spanish being spoken, as well as plenty of non-romance languages.
Even for those raised on meat-and-potato American sports, big-time soccer in downtown Minneapolis will be a welcome entree in a city that offers almost everything else.
“When I was growing up and I went to my first soccer practices, I would show up and the coach would have on a baseball hat, with a whistle around his neck, a clipboard, baseball shorts and baseball cleats,” American-born soccer star Landon Donovan said. “This was the guy who was teaching us to play soccer. You juxtapose that with walking onto youth soccer fields now, and you see former MLS players, former college players, teaching kids how to play.
“Thinking of how much that has changed, and then standing here today and seeing all of this, is mind-blowing. I have felt a real shift in the last three or four years. We used to do press conferences like this and it was three or four media members and maybe another 20 people, and you’d be trying to create your own energy. Now it’s genuine. You can sense it. Even if you don’t love the game, or even like the game, you at least respect it now.”
Downtown Minneapolis is becoming what America is supposed to be but in so many places isn’t: a melting pot. Downtown is becoming more livable, younger, more diverse and hungrier for constant entertainment. Soccer will fit in nicely here, as it has in cities that bear some resemblance to Minneapolis, such as Portland and Seattle.
Seattle, in particular, boasts a beautiful, progressive, livable downtown with a popular NFL team where people wear waterproof shoes. “Seattle is a fantastic correlation,” Donovan said.
The Seattle Sounders are the great success story in the MLS. They also had distinct advantages. According to longtime Seattle sports columnist Art Thiel, who runs SportsPress Northwest, the Sounders benefited from a partnership with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, which helped in marketing, sales and public relations, and gave them free rent at the Seahawks’ stadium.
Minnesota United FC might not become the overwhelming overnight success the Sounders have been, but there is more than a niche for soccer in Minneapolis. The game is finally ready to expand from the pubs and suburbs.
At worst, United FC will be sports’ version of the theater. Not everyone attends, but most appreciate that it’s there.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at souhanunfiltered.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org