Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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At various points during my interview with him, departing Minnesota United FC team executive Djorn Buchholz credited the NASL, the National Sports Center, head coach Manny Lagos, marketing firm Brave New Media, the team's fans, and the community as a whole for the success of soccer in Minnesota.
If credit is being honestly apportioned, though, it would start with Buchholz himself.
For two years, he's been the CEO, team president, general manager, and basic front-office dynamo for pro soccer in Minnesota. He took over a league-owned team that was in constant danger of folding, and he righted the ship, steering it successfully to the current situation - one that includes what he calls the "best ownership group in the NASL right now."
If you attended a Stars game in the past two years, you saw him. He was everywhere - glad-handling VIPs, setting up chairs, coralling merchandise and program sellers. He even sang the national anthem regularly. "You could call it a little bit of a personal quest, but my goal was to get this thing to a point where we knew it was going to be here for a long time," he said. "And that happened".
Buchholz came to Minnesota in the fall of 2003 as the Minnesota Thunder's sales and marketing manager. Two years later, former GM Jim Froslid left the team, and nominated Buchholz - "at the ripe old age of 24," he says - to be the team's new general manager. He worked in that role until 2009, when the Thunder folded under the weight of financial difficulties caused by the team's owner. And when he left for a role with the expansion Austin Aztex in 2010, he thought he'd seen the last of Minnesota.
"When I left, I thought I was never coming back," said Buchholz. The Austin ownership group had ties to English Premier League club Stoke City, and Buchholz had hoped to potentially get in to European soccer via their connections. But after a season, Austin's ownership chose to move the team to Orlando to pursue an MLS franchise, leaving Buchholz free to return to Minnesota to work on the NASL-owned Minnesota Stars franchise.
Said Buchholz, "I didn't hesitate about coming back, because I never felt good about the way the Thunder ended."
He left Texas with nothing but his car and some clothes. "All of my stuff has been in a storage locker in Texas for the last two years," he said. And now, he's on his way to Kansas City, to take a job as the Director of Fan Experience for Sporting KC in MLS.
"I don't think it's any different than being a professional soccer player," he said. "You want to do what you can do at the highest level possible. I know that the NASL is a high level, and we proved it last year on the field in beating Real Salt Lake - on the field the product is very similar. But MLS from a business standpoint is just a bigger animal right now. For me I look at it as not being any different from Captain Kyle Altman that goes and tries out at Portland. You want to do what you do at the highest level, and for me it’s no different."
In some ways, it'll be calmer for him as well, having only one job instead of having to wear many different hats. Effectively, his job is to manage everyone who comes into contact with fans at a Sporting KC game - from parking, to ticket sales, to merchandise and concessions. "They already have a fantastic fan experience," he said. "My job is to come in and change the culture just a little bit, to not only make it a top MLS team, but from a fan experience standpoint, make it one of the best sporting franchises in all the country."
"When I saw this job come up, it rung with me, in particular because of what I think we've done the last two years. We've created quite an incredible experience that not enough people know about yet. But once people get up there, I’ve never heard one person say, 'I'm never coming back to one of these games again.' And I think that's all about the experience."
Ultimately, though, he does have a soft spot in his heart for Minnesota - and despite all of the trials, he says he'll miss not only working to help build the team on the field, but the bonds created by the siege mentality of the past two years. "I’m going to miss the camaraderie with the coaching staff and the players in particular," he said. "Having such a tight space between our locker room and our front office, interacting with them every day, I think it really created a family. We had a team that didn't have superstars on it. We had one player that made the NASL Best XI in the last two years, and we had a team that won a championship and a team that lost in the finals. And I think that tells you about the mentality of this team, that we were a family."
"It’s time for me to get a new challenge. I’m officially the longest-tenured person in the country in second-division soccer. I don’t want that title anymore. It’s time for me to really take the next step and see what I can do at the MLS level."