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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MLS will come to Minnesota, and waiting may be a good thing

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Vikings management, Soccer Updated: June 27, 2014 - 1:00 PM

I want to reassure you, soccer fans of Minnesota - especially those of you who might just be joining us, thanks to an exciting World Cup and the USA making it to the knockout round. Allow me to soothe your fevered brows: Minnesota will get a Major League Soccer team. When they will start play, no one knows; who will own the team is also undecided, as is where the team will take the field. But it’s happening. I’m convinced of it.

For all of Major League Soccer’s talk about franchise fees and expansion criteria, the league has been extremely pragmatic in placing its franchises. The league wanted to tap into the Pacific Northwest’s soccer culture, so it placed teams in Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, despite the first two playing in cavernous football stadiums and the last playing in a converted baseball stadium. MLS wanted a second team in New York, and so New York City FC will begin play next year in Yankee Stadium, without a concrete plan to build a stadium of its own. The league wanted to get back into the Southeast, where two clubs folded in 2002, and so awarded teams to a smaller market in Orlando, to an NFL owner in Atlanta, and to a stadium-free, David Beckham-led bid in Miami.

Now, the league wants to spread across the country, to expand from its East Coast / West Coast / Texas footprint. The Southeast trio was a big part of that expansion. Adding another team in the center of the country, to go with Chicago and Kansas City, looks like it’s the next logical step. Combine that with the lure of a top-15 television market and the financial backing of the Twin Cities business community, and you begin to see why Minnesota, not San Antonio or Sacramento or Las Vegas, has been the focus of most of the next-franchise league rumors.

Nothing has been decided yet, though, and that’s because Major League Soccer would like to drop a team into a perfect situation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. Ideally, the league would like all of its teams to play in a soccer-specific stadium, in a downtown locale that’s accessible both by car and by public transit, in front of fans that have an affinity for the team and owned by a group that’s committed entirely to soccer. The league has never made any bones about this desire in every market they’ve gone into. They’ve achieved bits and pieces of this vision; twelve of the league’s 19 teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, although these tend to be in the suburbs and not downtown, and very few of the league’s teams have the disinterested corporate ownership that predominated in the MLS’s early days.

It remains possible that the league could check just about every one of their boxes in Minneapolis. Two decades of pro soccer support in Minnesota have now coalesced around Minnesota United FC, and almost ever since Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the team early in 2013, rumors have swirled about his desire to build a soccer-specific stadium in Minnesota. Talk of a stadium at the Farmer’s Market site in downtown Minneapolis has intensified, and other sites that would meet the team’s desires have been suggested. Any plan would not only require a site but also a financing plan, which could be difficult in a local market that has seen the approval of four new stadiums in the past ten years. But if McGuire - and any partners he might include in the team - could make a stadium plan a reality, it would appear, to me at least, that the team is a natural choice to become the next MLS franchise.

Should the plan fail to materialize, though, the league has a waiting backup plan in the Vikings. The team already has the downtown arena being built, albeit in the form of a Vancouver-style converted football stadium, and the Vikings’ latest public-relations push appears designed to convince both the league and local fans that the team is serious about being a committed MLS owner.

Many United fans are dead set against the idea of the Vikings owning a team, an anger that is the combination of a number of factors. For one, the fans fear the cheap, disinterested soccer ownership style that New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who also owns the New England Revolution in MLS, has made infamous. For another, fans of pro soccer in Minnesota are angry that the Wilfs did not step in to save their team while it was in years-long danger of being folded - even while simultaneously pushing the possibility of soccer in the new Vikings stadium.

Mostly, though, both local fans and MLS itself realize that there is still the possibility of that top-notch, soccer-focused experience coming to Minnesota, and that’s what they’re holding out for. If that doesn’t happen, I expect the league to once again be pragmatic, and announce the launch of a Vikings-backed team. But the league can afford to be patient, and wait to see if its best hopes become a reality.

I know it’s hard, soccer fans. But I think you just need to be patient, as well. I’m convinced MLS in Minnesota is going to happen, and waiting means it might happen in exactly the way that both you, and Major League Soccer, want it to happen.

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