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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All it took was one sentence in a press release to send the Minnesota soccer community into a tizzy. The release, announcing a press conference this afternoon, included a tidbit from the Minnesota Vikings that the team had formed a "broad strategic alliance" with marketing company Relevent Sports, as part of their efforts to acquire a Major League Soccer franchise.
Relevent Sports is probably best known locally as the group that's putting on the Manchester City - Olympiakos match on August 2 at TCF Bank Stadium, but they're also a company whose CEO, Charlie Stillitano, is a former MLS general manager who still has strong ties to the league. With Vikings VP Lester Bagley reiterating once again the team's desire for MLS, the Vikings' soccer groundswell has started to feel a little more like a tidal wave.
That said, it's worth mentioning that, despite the hype, the Vikings don't have much to show for it. Bagley noted that the Vikings met with MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott on Monday, to update him on the team's stadium situation - but he also admitted that the team currently does not have a specific plan in place to outfit the new stadium for soccer.
Across town, meanwhile, Minnesota's already-existing soccer team was celebrating. NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson gathered with United coach Manny Lagos, team president Nick Rogers, and fullback Justin Davis to hand off the spring championship plate. The United fans in attendance cheered, and later posted pictures of themselves imbibing from the plate in celebration.
United is touting their upcoming schedule as the “Summer of Soccer” in Minnesota. The team has a US Open Cup match against MLS champions Sporting Kansas City next week; if they can beat KC, they’ll host the next game of the competition the following week, one that is almost certain to be against the Portland Timbers. They have a friendly with Premier League side Swansea City, a July 4 game against the Mexico U-21 team, and are playing their August 2 home match at TCF Bank Stadium following the aforementioned Man City-Olympiakos tilt.
Throw in the team’s regular league schedule, which begins again on July 12, and the team’s efforts to organize World Cup-watching parties around town, and the Twin Cities market isn’t exactly hurting for soccer, no matter what the Vikings’ hype says.
It was a picture of the interesting dichotomy between the two soccer groups in town. On the one side is the Vikings, who have a stadium and are loudly hyping their MLS desires. On the other side is United, who actually have a team, fans, and a history - and who are determinedly staying quiet about all things MLS-related, including their desire to potentially acquire a stadium of their own.
At the moment, it’s the stadium issue that is the wild card in the whole process. It’s the one thing that United is missing; it’s the only thing that the Vikings have going for them. While an NFL stadium isn’t necessarily ideal for an MLS team, Seattle and Vancouver have made it work, and the new Atlanta franchise is set to do the same. And given that January and February were the only two months that didn’t see an MLS match in 2013, having an indoor stadium in Minnesota might not be the worst idea in the world, even though it would be painful to watch a game inside on a gorgeous summer evening.
United are rumored to be working on a stadium plan of their own, potentially in tandem with the Twins, potentially at the Farmer’s Market site just behind Target Field. At the moment, though, any United-led stadium plans are nothing more than rumors, and the team refuses to speculate on partners, timelines, or locations.
It’s also worth mentioning Bagley’s comment that the Vikings would have to build "fan by fan." It was the allusion to the beginning of an effort by the team to appeal to the grassroots soccer fans in Minnesota, one that the team has hired local PR / marketing firm One Simple Plan to assist with.
The strangest thing about that comment, though, is that the Vikings have long ignored opportunities to get involved with soccer in Minnesota. United was on the market for two years before Dr. Bill McGuire bought the team; the Vikings could very easily have a team and a fanbase of their very own, and could currently be following the path to MLS that Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal all took before them, and that Orlando is scheduled to take next year, by jumping to MLS from a lower league.
Instead, United - which dates back (in some ways) to 1990 - nearly folded before being rescued by McGuire. And now, the Vikings talk about building fan engagement, while soccer fans show up at Brit’s Pub in the middle of a Tuesday to applaud United and drink beer out of their newly-won trophy.
With the two groups competing for MLS, it’s difficult not to write about the situation as a horse race. Ultimately, though, the decision only rests with Major League Soccer itself. While Minneapolis is rumored to be the front-runner, the league could still choose to go elsewhere with its next franchise. If they do pick the Twin Cities, though, who do they opt for? Do they go with the Vikings, with their settled stadium issue and the financial security that goes hand-in-hand with an NFL franchise? Or do they go with the group that’s focused on local soccer, but doesn’t have the resources or the under-construction stadium to match the Wilfs?
It’s a battle over the future of professional soccer in Minnesota. Where will it end up?
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