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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In contrast to the Minnesota Vikings' very public push for a Major League Soccer franchise, the group being led by Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire has conducted its bid for a franchise almost entirely out of the public view. Where United has tread softly, the Vikings have paraded; while McGuire and United team president Nick Rogers have offered little comment, Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley and other Vikings officials have been frank.
While the Vikings unveiled renderings of a system to curtain off the new Downtown East stadium for soccer, even the merest suggestion of a stadium for the United bid met with uproar, at least in the Star Tribune comments section. Bagley, and the rest of the Vikings publicity team, aren't shy about stating their team's desire for MLS; meanwhile, Rogers was quoted in the City Pages suggesting that his team "wasn't itching" to get a deal done.
We've seen pictures. We've heard stories. Because of this, it's natural to feel that we know a lot more about the Vikings bid, led by team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, than we do about McGuire's. But it's worth remembering that there is more to a successful first-division soccer franchise than just a stadium. It's also worth remembering that Major League Soccer is the only group that has a vote in this process, and that the league will consider much more than just stadiums in the process. And so, in some ways, it's United's bid we know the most about.
For one thing, we know a lot better how a United-led franchise would manage a soccer team. It's one of the biggest open questions about the Vikings' bid - would they do well as an MLS owner? It's been a problem for a number of MLS teams recently, from the "worst owners in the league" in New England, to Seattle, where the Sounders ended their association with the Seahawks ten years earlier than scheduled. Last week, an article by Mike Kaszuba in the Star Tribune confirmed that the Wilfs passed on a chance to buy United, before McGuire purchased the team. While the Vikings' decision may have been understandable - as Bagley has stated, the team was engaged fully in stadium design at the time - it also would have been a chance to learn the soccer business on the ground, managing the day-to-day operations of a team.
At the time, late in 2012, the three most recent MLS expansion franchises - Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal - were teams that had made the jump from the second division to the first. Stadium project or no, it's impossible to believe that the Vikings didn't at least consider that the best way to prove themselves to MLS was to own a second-division team. Even ignoring the NASL route, Atlanta - which will join MLS in 2017 under the aegis of the NFL Falcons - managed to both design a stadium and discuss soccer at the same time, which is why Falcons owner Arthur Blank already has an expansion franchise, with tens of thousands of season ticket deposits placed.
As I've said before, the Vikings deserve credit for their efforts to turn around public perceptions, and they're making a strong push to convince both the league, and local soccer fans, that they'd do well owning a soccer team. But their past doesn't speak well for them. And United doesn't need a public-relations push to convince us of their credentials, given that they've now been proving things on the field and in the front office for two years.
While the Vikings have held press conferences and unveiled renderings, United has sold tickets, built relationships, and won soccer games. They were the NASL's best team in 2014, finishing with a first-half title and the league's best record overall. They regularly drew more than 5,000 fans all the way to Blaine for home games, far and away the best regular attendance for pro soccer in Minnesota since the days of the Minnesota Kicks at Met Stadium. Though some might have a perception they haven't reached out to the local community, they have a partnership with the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, one that's close enough for Rogers to have been the keynote speaker at the group's fall Recognition Banquet. They've developed international relationships, as well, one that led the team to do their preseason training in England, and later bring Swansea City of the English Premier League to town for a friendly match that drew nearly 10,000 people.
We don't need United to show off a PowerPoint presentation to know about that part of their bid.
As for stadiums, it's worth mentioning that financing aside, two key considerations make the Downtown East stadium less attractive. For one, the Vikings' comments indicate that they would be aiming a field that's the MLS-minimum 70 yards wide. Most soccer fans like the field to be as wide as possible, which allows for a more free-flowing matchup - part of the reason that FIFA mandates a field that's at least 75 yards wide.
Second, the field surface is a key consideration in a league whose 2014 MVP, Robbie Keane, was quoted as saying, " If this league wants to progress, turf has to go. It's very simple. Very, very simple. It's not good enough. In this day and age, playing on turf, it's not good enough." While ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told us that certain turf fields in the league have gotten better, we also know that recently-retired superstar Thierry Henry simply refused to play on the artificial fields - a silent endorsement of grass.
While the new Downtown East stadium would be able to accommodate a 75-yard-wide field for a FIFA event, thanks to the movable north stands, the turf makes it unlikely we'd see a FIFA event or a national team match for the foreseeable future. Recent experiments to lay sod fields over artificial turf have been almost uniformly disastrous, including the event at TCF Bank Stadium last summer; it's unlikely that either US Soccer or FIFA would want to take a chance with the new stadium, not when there are so many proven alternatives available around the country.
There are many discussions to be had about stadium financing, of course, and the battles will continue to rage here and elsewhere. Given that, it's no wonder that United has been keeping their stadium plans quiet. As for the remainder of their bid, though, it's not a secret by any means. It's not hiding. It's there for everyone - including Major League Soccer - to see.
The Minnesota Vikings have long been accused of not taking soccer seriously. Though the team had the foresight to insert some questionable Major League Soccer-specific language in stadium-related legislation, until earlier this year, the franchise was simply intent on planning the gleaming new building - first getting it passed at the Legislature, then getting it designed and kicking off construction. By that point, they'd managed to infuriate a large number of local soccer supporters, mostly for what appeared to be a resolute desire to ignore questions and pleas from the ever-burgeoning cadre of fans, many of who had concerns that the stadium wouldn't be fit for soccer.
With planning now mostly complete, and the new park shooting out of the ground, the Vikings are finally circling back to their stated MLS desires. To that end, last Tuesday evening the team hosted an event to bring together soccer and community leaders, giving the assemblage a chance to see the team's new soccer-focused stadium renderings, and listen to ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman.
It's all part of the team's latest press for MLS, focused on righting the past's perceived wrongs. The Vikings have tapped local PR and marketing firm One Simple Plan to help lead the push and the firm has run a number of events to try to connect with the area's soccer fans - especially those who regularly gather to watch Premier League matches.
While Vikings VP of Public Affairs Lester Bagley is aware of the criticisms of the team, he asks for understanding, given the demands of the ever-rising stadium at the east end of downtown. Said Bagley, "I think some of the frustration came after the legislation passed, and we had to design and build a billion-dollar stadium, and we were spread thin and we did not have the bandwidth to put an organized effort together. Me personally, I thought after 12 years at the Capitol, that we were going to put it on cruise control and that we were going to build a great stadium and that the hard part was done. But [we found] out that it’s a major undertaking, it’s the biggest construction project in the history of Minnesota, and it’s complicated and our team is full-time on it. So that’s part of it too. I think some of the frustration we’ve heard in the community is, where were you [on soccer] when you passed the legislation?"
To that end, the team released renderings, showing a soccer-themed curtaining system that would drop vertical curtains to block off the stadium's upper deck. Vikings CFO Steve Poppen noted that this system will cost between 3 and 5 million dollars, much of that to add reinforcement to the roof to hold the curtain; obviously, the team would like an MLS decision to be made as soon as possible, so that they know if they can delete this feature from the stadium design if a team is awarded elsewhere.
For Poppen, the curtain is more proof that MLS has always been in the team's plans. "We’ve been working hard from day one to design this for MLS," he said. "The MLS has been part of our process from day one. I personally don’t believe that we’re late to the game on this. We’re trying to attract an expansion franchise to Minnesota, and we’ve been having discussions with MLS about it for years now."
I had a chance to ask about field width, another concern that's been on the minds of soccer lovers. FIFA's recommendations state, "It is strongly recommended that new stadiums have a 105m x 68m playing field" - that's about 115 yards by 74 yards. Most Major League Soccer fields are 74 or 75 yards wide, though both Houston's field and the pitch that's being shoehorned into Yankee Stadium for NYC FC next year are just 70 yards wide - the league's minimum width.
Said Poppen, "The minimum for MLS is 70 [yards] wide. FIFA plays at 75. We have the ability to go out there. If you remember, the north side of the stadium retracts. As part of that development, we were able to design in that ability to expand the facility as well."
This does, however, bring up the question: if the stadium was truly "soccer-specific," a term the Vikings repeatedly used throughout the night, why is moving the stands to get to 75 yards wide even necessary? Why wouldn't the field have been wide enough already? It's a question that simply adds more fuel to the arguments that the Vikings do not understand soccer - a charge that's been leveled at virtually every NFL owner that has dipped a toe into the MLS waters. Earlier this year, Boston Magazine famously accused New England Revolution and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft of being the worst owner in the league. While the Revolution reached this year's MLS Cup Final, other NFL-affiliated teams, like Colorado and Dallas, have been mostly uninspiring through the years.
Tellingly, earlier this season, the Seattle Sounders - long twinned with the Seattle Seahawks, and fellow tenants of CenturyLink Field - ended their working relationship with the NFL team, ten years earlier than scheduled. While the team spun this as a move to refocus their organization on soccer, rumors were rampant that it was a move made to get away from an NFL team that did not care about the Sounders or the sport of soccer.
The Vikings, though, are still trying to win over soccer die-hards. They've promised plenty to fans in the new stadium - including offering to subsidize tailgating costs and bar tabs for supporters' groups. They're also promising to give fans input on the team's name and badge design, something that other clubs in MLS have done as well. ("Vikings FC" is probably unlikely, I would think.)
Some fans have the perception that the Vikings don't care about soccer, but they deserve credit - they may not have been experts in the sport, or in MLS, all along, but they are trying. They're meeting with other MLS franchises. They're bringing Twellman to town, to learn from him. They're in contact with fans, they're in contact with local soccer folks; at the moment, they're certainly not ignoring the sport. They deserve a fair hearing - if for no other reason than they're actually talking to people. Said former Kicks star Alan Merrick, who introduced Twellman at the event, of the competing bid from Minnesota United: "They haven't reached out, as far as I can see, to anybody in the soccer world." While United's work is behind the scenes, the Vikings have been very public - in part, to try to right the perception from the past.
A number of local soccer stakeholders, from Minnesota Youth Soccer Association representatives to fans to those involved with local clubs, were in attendance on Monday. While the Vikings' presentation can only have gone to convince people that there's a chance that the Vikings could be successful where previous NFL / MLS partnerships have failed, most in attendance expressed a desire simply to see the area get Major League Soccer - regardless of the whether the team is owned by the Vikings or by Minnesota United FC. Apart from some very fervent fans of the Loons, "I just want an MLS team" seems to be the opinion of most local soccer fans.
And so: MLS has announced that an expansion decision is likely in the first half of 2015. All signs point to Minneapolis being a front-runner for a team in MLS. The Vikings may have been late in making their push for that franchise, but are coming on strong now. They would have to fight an uphill battle to make soccer workable in a stadium designed for an NFL team, and if they can make joint NFL/MLS ownership viable, they would be the first to do so. But ruling out the Vikings as potential owners, based solely on past perception, is foolish.
By Dana Wessel
Week 15 already? Where has the season gone? Even crazier, because of the holiday fixtures, we will be past the halfway point of the season by New Year’s Day. Time to find out who is serious about their top-4 prospects, which relegation fodder are resigned to their fate and if anybody feels like giving Chelsea and Manchester City a serious run.
The schedule is very front-loaded this weekend. The Sunday matches are about as appealing as a turpentine cocktail so we’ve got ourselves a nice little Saturday triple-header! So get up early, hunker down and avoid any real responsibilities for six straight hours of Premier League goodness.
Also, don’t forget. MLS Cup between the LA Galaxy and New England Revolution is Sunday afternoon at 2:00. It is the last ride for Landon Donovan. Tune in and say goodbye.
No. 1: Newcastle vs Chelsea at St James Park
When: Saturday at 6:45am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Newcastle took all three points from this one last November. Chelsea fell behind 1-rip in the 68th before current Blue Loic Remy added a dagger in the 89th to make an impressive 2-0 scoreline for the Geordies.
Gonna be an early wakeup for the proprietor of this here webspace. I gotta be honest though, I really like the 6:45am match. Due to the hours that I keep for work, 6:45 is like 11:00am for me. But more importantly, sporting events at random hours are just fun. Makes it feel like more of an event.
As far as the match goes, a win or a tie for Chelsea on Saturday and they become the 4th Premier League team in history to make it through their first 15 matches without a loss. It would also set a new club record for an unbeaten streak (24 games).
But despite their 3-0 win against Spurs mid-week, this one has Chelsea fans shaking in their Stamford the Lion boxers briefs a bit. Jose Mourinho has never won a Premier League match at St James Park and Chelsea have lost there in consecutive years.
Chelsea were without prolific striker Diego Costa against Spurs and will be without another vital player Saturday. Nemanja Matic acquired 5 yellow cards (I hope his mother is mad at him like mine used to get at me) and will miss his first minutes of the Premier League season. Matic has solidified a defensive midfield position that had been a revolving door the past few seasons.
Newcastle have come back down to earth a bit after their 5-match win streak that vaulted them into the top-4 for like 24 hours at one point. But a loss to West Ham and a draw with Burnley has left them looking more like the drop-zone contenders they were the first month of the season. What does that mean? They are likely somewhere in-between.
Chelsea are the favored side. A Newcastle win is the least likely of the three potential outcomes*. But this will not be a laugh for Mourinho and his undefeated squad. Looks to be a very entertaining match.
*I guess technically there are more than three potential outcomes. Ninja monkeys could invade the pitch and the match would be abandoned. Wouldn’t that be cool? 40-years from now we could be sitting around a pub, talking about the time the ninja monkeys invaded St James Park and bit Oscar before Branislav Ivanovic killed all of them.
No. 2: Liverpool vs Sunderland at Anfield
When: Saturday at 9:00am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Liverpool beat the Black Cats 2-1 at Anfield last March. It was in the middle of their 11 match win streak and just one match before they overtook City for top spot in the league.
Liverpool are on TV a LOT. They are the only team to have 100 percent of their matches televised this season. I get it. They have a lot ton of fans here. And win or lose, it usually happens in spectacular fashion. But they are like the Braves in the 1990s. No matter where you live, you can always watch them, whether you want to or not.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers finds himself with some crucial matches coming up and some difficult lineup decisions. Liverpool have won a pair of matches after losing three straight and find themselves in eighth place and five points out of the coveted 4th spot in the table.
Sunderland are Sunderland, but Liverpool cannot overlook the lowly Black Cats with Tuesday’s must-win Champions League match looming. Steven Gerrard scored midweek against Leicester City but does Rodgers roll out the 34-year old midfielder and hope the can be ready to play his third match in six days come Tuesday?
Rogers said recently he knows he is a sack-candidate. This month will determine his fate. On on one hand, a win Tuesday and a strong December in the league and he could have them in the Round of 16 in Champions League and in the thick of a top-4 fight. On the other, they could get run by FC Basel Tuesday, be eliminated from Champions League, stumble through the rest of December and be in the bottom half of the table come New Year’s Day. If that’s the case, Rodgers could be watching the rest of the season on TV.
But all that will come in due time. All they can worry about is Sunderland. The Black Cats got beat by City 3-1 on Wednesday but did manage to become the first team this season to hold Chelsea scoreless.
Despite a rough start, it is still there for Liverpool to have a successful season. But they have to get fat at home — where they have won just two of the last six — against teams like Sunderland. However, I think this one has draw written all over it.
No. 3: Manchester City vs Everton at Etihad Stadium
When: Saturday at 11:30 on Big Boy NBC
Last year: City fell behind 1-0 early in this fixture last year thanks to a goal from Romelu Lukaku. But City responded with three goals (one scored by Everton keeper Tim Howard) for a 3-1 win.
You’re killing me, Everton. I got bold and slotted them to finish in the top 4 this season and so far they’ve let me down. They sit in 11th place in the table on 18 points. The most disturbing part, however, is that World Cup hero, All-American, and future President of the United States Tim Howard has looked like that kid on a U-11 team that was forced to play goalie against his will.
OK. Maybe it hasn’t been that bad, but man, oh, man Timmy. Letting balls go through his legs, getting beat near post, yelling at defenders much more than he usually does. Everton have given up 22 goals this season, good for second-worst in the league behind Crystal Palace and Sunderland with 23. Bums me out. I like Tim Howard more than I like most of my friends. I hope he turns it around.
Everton gave up a late equalizer at home to Burnley on Wednesday after falling at Spurs on Sunday. The odd thing is, their form in Europa has been great. They need that European form to start carrying over domestically.
But Timmy and Everton will be up against it Saturday at the Etihad against City and Sergio Aguero. How ridiculous has he been? Teams could play with three goalies in net and he would still find a way to score. He scored two more midweek against Sunderland is sitting on 19 in all competitions. He is just downright scary.
So are City. They have overcome their early season lumps, have won three straight and are just six points behind Chelsea. The race for top of the table is shaping up to be the heavyweight slugfest between Chelsea and City everybody thought it would be.
I’d like to say I see Timmy and company fighting the good fight but it is still early Friday morning as I write this and haven’t had any booze yet. City extend their win streak to four and keep the pressure on Chelsea is the obvious result here. Hope I am wrong!
Alright, enjoy logging hours on your couch for the triple-header Saturday. If the pub is your route, be sure to tip your waitress and thank the owner for opening up early. Until next week, keep your wall tight and your free-kicks direct.
Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show with Rider, Eric Perkins and Rena Sarigianopoulos on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30 am-10 am.
ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman doesn't remember the days of the Minnesota Kicks, or being born in Minnesota in 1980 - but, after talking to his dad Tim's teammates with the Kicks, he's ready to count himself as a native. "Now that I’m in the world of soccer, I hear all of these ex-Kicks stories," he said. "I feel like I lived here for 20 years of my life. I see the glow on my mom’s face when she talks about Minnesota and the time, the fun they had here. It’s amazing."
With that in mind, there might have been no one better for the Minnesota Vikings to bring to town to enthuse about the possibility of the area getting MLS. Twellman was careful to note that he has no horse in the race between the Vikings bid and the competing bid that's being led by the Minnesota United owners, but his enthusiasm for the league placing a franchise in Minnesota was palpable.
Said Twellman, "I’m asked constantly, if you had to expand Major League Soccer, where would you go? My first answer, for the last five years of my life, is Minneapolis. The knowledge and the enthusiasm of the fan base here is second to none. Soccer is a no-brainer here."
The analyst, who recently signed an eight-year contract with ESPN to be the network's lead analyst for soccer, was bullish on the potential for Minnesota in MLS during the span of his deal. "I fully expect Minnesota to be a part of that," he said. "[The potential team] will challenge the Twins, the Wolves, and the Wild. This sport is here to say, and if Minnesota does this right, and treats it on the same level as the Vikings, Twins, Wolves, and Wild, and not as the ugly stepchild - and there’s many examples of it in the early days of the league - I can promise you that this will be one of the top five cities for Major League Soccer."
Twellman also noted that there's a good market for fans in Minnesota. "The truth is, there’s a hipster market in Minnesota," he said. "Bikers, downtown - that’s where this needs to go. Soccer moms and club moms, they’re invited, but the supporter groups, that kind of stuff - that’s drinking beer and knowing how to tailgate. I’ve been to a University of Minnesota tailgate in my life. It’s one of the more fun tailgates I’ve ever been to. They know what they’re doing. Minnesota sports fans, they get it."
With that in mind, though, Twellman also offered a pair of caveats, one that might apply to the Vikings-led bid, and one that might apply to the United-led bid. He admitted some trepidation on his part of seeing another MLS side that is owned by an NFL team - exemplified by the disaster in Boston, where the New England Revolution have long been considered second-rate, compared to the NFL, by their own ownership group. "It scares me, no doubt about it," he said. "It’s got to be treated the same. Everyone says, why’d Seattle work? It’s because, on Opening Day, Pete Carroll and Sigi Schmid were on the same pecking order. The Sounders front office and the Seahawks front office were treated the same. Obafemi Martins is treated the same as Marshawn Lynch. That’s where it sends the message to the fans. As a fan, why do you want to be treated as an ugly stepchild, when you’re not? If you’re getting 20,000 people and ESPN’s paying $75 million a year for your broadcast, it’s got to be treated on the same level. I told them that today when I met with the Vikings. If you get it, you have to make sure it’s not the ugly stepchild, and from everything I’ve heard, it won’t be."
Meanwhile, for United - which as yet has no approved or even public stadium plan - he offered some words of caution from recent league expansion experiences. "The struggles for stadiums in MLS - NYCFC, the debacle of what’s going on in Miami with the stadium - if Minnesota’s getting [a franchise], which I believe it is, the stadium’s first and foremost," he said. "There are no ideas of stadiums. You need to have a stadium, it needs to be approved, it needs to be ready to rock, for a market like this to work."
Ultimately, though, the former Revolution and US Men's National team star can't stop enthusing about the situation in Minnesota. "If you had told me ten years ago that there’d be two legitimate offers, two bids in Minnesota, I’d have told you that you were out of your mind," he said. "I don’t technically need to sell MLS on Minnesota. The fact that there’s two bids with real money and stadiums - how many other markets have two real money groups going after the same thing?"
About that turf...
Artificial turf was in the news anyway, as LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane called for it to be outlawed for soccer on Monday, and with the Vikings unveiling renderings of how MLS might look on the artificial turf at their new stadium, the topic was naturally going to come up.
"I’m vocal about it. I hate turf. I hated playing on it," said Twellman. "However, something’s changed over the past two years, because of what Portland’s brought in. You never hear a player complain about Portland. Whatever they’ve done there should be replicated, if the game of soccer is going to be played [on turf]. Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, they’ve both told me straight to my face that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that field. That’s turf.
"Now, Robbie Keane comes out today and says that turf should be outlawed in the game of soccer. That’s because [he's referring to] Seattle. I’ve walked on that field. It’s one of the worst fields I’ve ever walked on. Seattle I like, they’ve got a great stadium, great ambience, great players; the game’s crap. The game’s crap, because if the turf’s crap, it kills the game. And that’s what Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry are talking about. But Henry told a couple of people at ESPN that New England’s turf turned the corner. They replaced it six months ago with what Portland had. As vocal as I am about turf, I listen to players currently playing - because I’m done, my life’s over - and their experiences are a little bit different now."
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