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.
Email Jon to talk about soccer.
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.
When the Minnesota Vikings announced what they termed a "broad strategic alliance" with soccer event management company Relevent Sports, I was quick to assume that - given Relevent's MLS ties - the partnership would include the Vikings' effort to bring an MLS team to Minnesota. As it turns out, that is not the case.
At a press conference on Wednesday to promote ticket sales for the August 2 soccer doubleheader at TCF Bank Stadium, Vikings VPs Kevin Warren and Lester Bagley and Relevent CEO Charlie Stillitano were all quick to stress the close relationship between the Wilf family and Stephen Ross, who owns both Relevent Sports and the Miami Dolphins. However, Stillitano was very blunt when asked what his company's relationship with the Vikings' MLS push is. "I wouldn't overstate our position working with the Vikings," he said, in the Q&A portion of the press conference. "I think you would more put us as consultants on the soccer side to bring international events here."
While Stillitano was happy to enthuse about helping the Vikings, he also noted that he's really only focused on the possibility of playing these types of big international games in Minnesota. "Our relationship and our agreement is really one of collaboration and marketing. Our commitment is to bring as many international games as we can bring here."
Stillitano did his best to not downplay the impact that these big international games can have on a market. The Relevent CEO also noted that he has worked to bring international events to cities that later got MLS franchises, like Toronto and Seattle. "It seems like wherever we go, an MLS team follows," he said. "We test the market."
The Vikings' involvement with the game on August 2 should give them more insight into the local soccer community, which is certainly important for a group that's in some ways starting from scratch on building those relationships. However, it also puts them in the awkward position of promoting an event that has their rivals for an MLS bid, Minnesota United, playing in the second half of a doubleheader.
This is not to say that the Wilfs and the Vikings aren't serious about acquiring an MLS franchise. du Nord Futbol Show co-host and sometime SoccerCentric guest columnist Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) was nice enough to send me a clip of a conversation he had with Bagley, following the press conference, and the Vikings VP quoted a number of statistics that indicate that the Vikings have done a fair amount of research on MLS ticket sales, both from talking to other MLS teams like Seattle and Kansas City, and from surveying their own season ticket holders.
That said, the Relevent partnership appears to be set mostly to extend only to games like the Manchester City-Olympiakos tilt, and not to that MLS effort. The Vikings will have to continue to work on their relationships - both with local fans, and with the league itself - from the ground up.
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?
In a Q&A for Sunday's newspaper, the Star Tribune's Michael Rand spoke with Minnesota Vikings vice president Lester Bagley about the team's future with Major League Soccer, among other subjects.
Though the Vikings have long mentioned their interest in the league, Bagely's statement was the team's strongest yet on the subject of soccer. Here is the relevant passage from the Q&A:
Q: Major League Soccer: We’ve heard the Vikings and a group led by Minnesota United are both making cases for an expansion team. Where are efforts on that, and does the Super Bowl take resources away from it at all?
A: No, I think the Super Bowl proves we can get stuff done. One of the things we intend to get done is secure an MLS franchise. We’ve gone to [Seattle] and met with their ownership and front office. Same thing with Sporting KC, we’re going there next week. We’re continuing our discussions with franchises as well as Commissioner [Don] Garber.
Rand also reports that Bagley said the team is working with their stadium architect on a design concept that would reduce the soccer capacity of the new stadium to 20,000-30,000 seats. This would no doubt be similar to how Vancouver has BC Place set up for Whitecaps home games, with curtains simulating a roof over the lower deck that block the upper-deck stands from view.
The competition for MLS franchises across the country has grown fierce. With Minnesota United also interested in potentially making the move to MLS, the race for a franchise just within Minneapolis-St. Paul is heating up, as well.
According to a report by SI.com's Brian Straus, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank is on the verge of signing a deal to bring Major League Soccer to Atlanta. The report says that the deal will be signed and announced one week from today, bringing the number of MLS teams to 22 - not counting the David Beckham-led franchise in Miami that is still searching for a stadium deal.
Assuming Miami ever takes the field, there would be one spot left in the original "24 teams by 2020" plan that MLS has bandied about. According to a league source mentioned in Straus's report, the frontrunner for the final spot is Minneapolis.
It is worth noting that the construction timeline for the new Falcons stadium is already behind the new Vikings stadium. Atlanta is scheduled to open their new football palace in 2017; Minnesota, meanwhile, is still slated for a fall 2016 opening.
As always, the same questions about a potential MLS franchise in the Upper Midwest remain: Who would own the team, the Vikings ownership group or Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire? If McGuire, where would the team play - and who would pay for what would likely be yet another new stadium in Minneapolis? No details of any kind have been forthcoming.
That said, an Atlanta announcement next week would be the culmination of years of rumors. Right now, Minneapolis is at the center of similar rumors; it seems like it may just be a matter of time for MLS in Minnesota.
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