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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Guest post: MLS inevitable for Minnesota? Don't be so sure

Posted by: Jon Marthaler Updated: July 3, 2014 - 11:56 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week, I published a post about the inevitability of MLS coming to Minnesota. Sometime SoccerCentric Major League Soccer correspondent Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) isn't so sure, and offered up the following rebuttal. I am always happy when Wes, who co-hosts the popular du Nord Futbol Show podcast, is here, even when he disagrees with me. Take it away, Wes!


“I want to reassure you, soccer fans of Minnesota… Minnesota will get a Major League Soccer team.… it’s happening. I’m convinced of it.”

My friend and the curator of this soccer blog, Jon Marthaler, wrote these words last week. Jon knows the sports world, and the soccer community specifically, very well, yet I disagree with him completely. I am not convinced Minnesota will be awarded an MLS franchise, and unfortunately, there is an air of inevitability that has overtaken our politicians and media.

Despite Jon's arguments, the Twin Cities have proven nothing about their ability to be a guaranteed MLS success. No politicians support the team, and the fanbase has yet to show up in the waves that would indicate that MLS has support. The market needs politicians and media to publicly support a bid, and fans to show that MLS will have a home here.

In his blog post, Jon cited the desirability of the Twin Cities market for why MLS would want a franchise here. I agree with him thoroughly. The Twin Cities is not just the 15th largest television market - the entire upper Midwest is dead space for MLS.

Major League Soccer’s expansion strategy has followed three principles. Their top priority is working toward better TV deals, and so they have targeted top TV markets such as Atlanta, and a New York City team in one of the five boroughs. They have also looked to fill out their geographic profile, specifically the glaring gap in the American Southeast. Finally, they are looking for teams in cities that will develop unique and passionate soccer cultures.

This final principle is a little bit hard to capture, but it is the difference between Sporting Kansas City - who have sold out every league match since opening their new stadium in 2011 - and the less-passionate markets for FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids, or the New England Revolution. The resounding success of MLS’s growth over the last few years has come from the unique relationships between fans and front offices.

Major League Soccer has now overtaken the NBA and NHL in average attendance per game, and while the successes of Toronto, Philadelphia, and Portland all have different flavors, they can be traced back to the very soccer-specific fan and club relationships.

The Twin Cities tick all the MLS expansion boxes: we have a large TV market, we would have great rivalries with Kansas City and Chicago, and we have has one of the most unique and famous lower-division soccer supporters groups, in the Dark Clouds.

Despite all this, MLS coming to Minnesota is not inevitable. Frankly, MLS does not need Minnesota. They would certainly love to expand to the Twin Cities. However, to believe that we have the upper hand is to completely misunderstand the position we are in right now.

The idea that MLS needs Minnesota more than we need MLS betrays the kind of dismissiveness that we heard in planning meetings for the new Vikings stadium. In those meetings I heard comments from council members putting soccer on the level of college baseball. I distinctly remember hearing an official saying, “We have to remember that this is a football stadium and we can’t meet the needs of every interest group.”

This attitude is part and parcel of Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson’s comments to the Pioneer Press, in which she said, “Taxpayers are funding half of a one billion dollar stadium that is being built to accommodate soccer.” I’m sorry to report to the Council President that she is incorrect; soccer has never been anything more than an afterthought in the planning of the new Vikings stadium.

These attitudes greatly misunderstand the health of Major League Soccer right now. The League has no need to move to a city where they can’t expect a resounding success. They will not move into Miami without a proper downtown stadium, and they most certainly will not move into the Twin Cities without knowing that we will deliver a game-day atmosphere that will surpass their other recent successes.

The Twin Cities have built two football stadiums and two baseball stadiums in the past decade. Apparently, one football stadium is not appropriate for two teams of the same sport. And yet soccer fans are continually asked, “Why can’t an MLS team play in the new Saints stadium?” Or TCF Bank Stadium? Or the Vikings stadium?

I am not advocating for a certain level public funding here, or anything else specific. I am merely pointing to the lack of self-awareness that surrounds public conversations about soccer. American soccer’s success has been built on the unique atmosphere created by soccer fans. We stand and sing for 90 minutes. We don’t just watch the games; we participate in the action. That is not an atmosphere that can be shoehorned into any stadium.

If you think that MLS will just happen to ride into town someday, you are greatly mistaken. Our cities and our state are in auditions. It’s our job - not just the job of soccer fans, but a job for businesses and politicians - to prove to to Major League Soccer that we understand what’s at stake. If we continue to shrug our shoulders and pretend that soccer is just another sport that can be shoe-horned in anywhere, then MLS can take its horse and pony show to San Antonio or Sacramento or any other city that will take them seriously.

The Mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro, has been vocal about his desire to bring MLS to San Antonio. In Minneapolis, our politicians discuss soccer on par with college baseball.

In Orlando, the state has joined with the city to create an exciting new stadium that will be foster and showcase the scintillating atmosphere of live soccer. In Minneapolis, decision-makers view soccer as a way to fill dates in a stadium built for another sport.

There are three high-end international soccer matches coming to the Twin Cities this summer: English Premier League team Swansea City vs Minnesota United FC, the Mexican Under-21 National Team vs Minnesota United FC, and English champions Manchester City vs Greek powerhouse Olympiakos. None of these matches have sold out. That says something.

I firmly believe that MLS would be a great success in the Twin Cities, and I believe the fanbase is there. But I don’t believe that people have taken soccer seriously enough, especially as a sport that is tied to a particular revitalization of the urban core in cities throughout the US and Canada.

MLS coming to Minnesota is not inevitable. Thinking that it is only adds to our collective underestimation of Major League Soccer.

      

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