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Jon Marthaler writes about the Minnesota United and sport of soccer.

Promotion and relegation in America - for the sport that needs it most

All of the sport's problems are yet again on display this week. Huge sums of money are thrown around as teams participate in an increasingly-unwinnable financial arms race. Every year, it feels like the rich get richer, and the gulf between have and have-not gets wider - and yet every year, there are more teams that are clamoring to participate in the big time. There are five big leagues, and while the teams at the top of the pile in those leagues are known far and wide, every area - and in big cities, seemingly every neighborhood - has its own team. 

You tell me - am I describing European soccer, or American college football?

On the American sports scene, college football is the best analog for the tradition and pervasivness of European soccer. Unlike professional sports leagues in America, college football isn't a closed franchise system. The same 32 teams will compete for NFL glory, this year and next year, but 128 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision schools start the year this week searching for national glory.

Just like European soccer, programs rise and fall over the years. Minnesota's past glories, and current struggles, call to mind English soccer teams like Nottingham Forest, which won an English championship and two European Cups in the late 1970s, but has languished in the lower divisions for much of the past twenty years. 

Between the three NCAA divisions and the NAIA, there are nearly 800 college football teams in the United States. It must be said, though, that not all 800 are playing the same game - and that the five divisions between the teams is probably too few. It's tough to argue that Minnesota and Ohio State, despite being in the same conference, are really competing for the same things; the Buckeyes have won six conference titles in the past dozen years, including a national championship, while the Gophers haven't won the Big Ten in four decades. Similarly, not every small-college team is aiming for the same thing; St. Thomas is now annually competing for the national championship, while winning MIAC games by scores like 80-3 and 78-7.

Do the Gophers belong in the same league as Ohio State - or, for that matter, Maryland and Rutgers, schools that share absolutely nothing at all with Minnesota? Should the Tommies stay where they are, beating up on Carleton with an eye towards the national playoffs?

I love the tradition and history of college football as much as anyone, and I really don't want to get rid of what's existed for years... but maybe something like promotion and relegation isn't a terrible idea. College football has spent years trying to escape tradition, anyway - and the Big Ten's at the forefront, in the ranks of those who are wadding up the history book and throwing it in the garbage. Minnesota won't play Michigan for the Little Brown Jug this year, but it will play Maryland and Rutgers. The folks at the Big Ten office don't care a bit about tradition, but they do care about staging a conference championship game. Why try to hold on, when the conference itself doesn't care?

The NCAA exists to try to level the playing field between schools, and at least in football, it has failed entirely. Coach contracts keep growing, TV revenue keeps going up, and even now, some SEC school is probably plotting to put in personal waterfalls for each player, all because they heard that Phil Knight is hiring three grotto designers for Oregon.

It all feels very much like European soccer, where the rich keep building towards the Champions League, and only a few, rare others - Leicester City being the only example that immediately comes to mind - ever manages to break the big clubs' grip on league titles. College football is more even than European soccer, but that's only because NCAA rules force players to (mostly) stay with their original teams - and even then, how many teams have an actual chance at a national title this year? A dozen, perhaps, if they get a few breaks? 

Maybe, then, it's time for college football to consider promotion and relegation. Give each school a chance to find its own level. Let North Dakota State or St. Thomas move up; let schools that can't compete in their league (Vanderbilt, for example) move down. The financial rat race, and ever-shifting conference alignments, mean that tradition is dying off anyway. Maybe it's college football that really needs to look to European soccer for a solution.

A look back: When soccer in Minnesota appeared to have no future

There has been much celebration this week among local pro soccer fans, who officially will see the local team into MLS next season. Just six years ago, though, things weren't looking so good. The Minnesota Thunder had folded after the 2009 season, leaving the National Sports Center to sponsor a low-budget professional team in the second division. The Star Tribune's Roman Augustoviz checked things out on August 10, 2010 - and it's amazing how far things have come.


The summer evening in Blaine was ideal for soccer.

The fans at the National Sports Center's stadium were in high spirits. The NSC Minnesota Stars were playing the Puerto Rico Islanders on July 21, and a dozen fans with Puerto Rican flags cheered the guests.

There were youngsters in soccer jerseys, young adults drawn to the beer garden, and older folks passionate about a sport often called the beautiful game.

One man pounded a big drum, another played a horn. There were scattered vuvuzelas. Late in the game, with the score tied, those in the beer garden chanted "Minnesota goal." Sung with gusto, the words sounded inspiring.

The atmosphere would have been perfect except for the sparse crowd of 872 in a stadium that comfortably fits 10 times that many. The "reserved seating" sign in a middle section was superfluous.

Professional soccer in Minnesota is struggling.

This despite the recent World Cup, which was wildly popular, with large television ratings, and overflow crowds at sports bars. And this despite the large number of youth soccer participants in the state; 75,000 kids are registered to play.

Brit's Pub, in downtown Minneapolis, had to turn people away on July 11 when Spain and the Netherlands met in the World Cup final. And Brit's holds 2,130 patrons. Almost all of them seemed to be sitting on Brit's outdoor lawn bowling field, watching on a huge TV screen. Most revelers were in their 20s and eager to cheer.

The Stars can only dream of packed stands. In its first year of operation, the team is averaging 1,421 fans through 11 home games. The Stars were founded in January on the ashes of the better-known Minnesota Thunder, which folded last year after 15 seasons because of financial problems. In its best season at the gate, the Thunder averaged 4,400.

So why have the Thunder and its successor, the Stars, failed to attract more fans?

The reasons, some close watchers of the sport say, include a lack of marketing prowess, a perception the Stars play second-rate soccer, stadium location and a glut of other sports options.

Stars are dim

Barclay Kruse is the chief communications officer at the NSC, which makes him the voice of the Stars. He said the team operates on revenue from three principal sources -- tickets, soccer camps and sponsors (Schwan's is the biggest). All three have brought in less money than anticipated.

"We need to average somewhere in the 2,200 to 2,500 range," Kruse said. "It's not an impossible place to get."

The problem, he said, is the Stars, who have an $800,000 budget this year, need ticket sales and other revenue to be able to afford mass market advertising; and without extensive advertising, it is hard to draw fans.

He said some Thunder fans come to Stars games, but "their fan base wasn't significantly large."

Bruce McGuire, who writes a soccer blog called du Nord, said the Stars need to be consistent in their marketing: "Pound, pound, pound. The people who come to games are awesome. They love it and they are into it. But there needs to be a lot more of them."

Scott Berg of Burnsville came to the Puerto Rico game with his daughter Grace, 10. She got a free ticket at a soccer camp. "As I'm sitting here and watching the game, I am thinking I should have brought all the girls to watch this game," said Berg, who coaches Grace's youth team. "This is great soccer."

But not good enough, perhaps, to draw a big audience.

Big names elsewhere

"There are a lot of people who may shun our league," said Stars defender Kevin Friedland, who played with the Thunder for six years. "They think we are not Major League Soccer, but we have a lot of guys here who can play."

Some of his teammates have played in the MLS; others will in a year or two, Friedland said. There are 18 MLS teams at the top of the pro soccer pyramid in this country and 12 in U.S. Soccer Federation's Division II league.

Stars coach Manny Lagos, who has played soccer in Europe and on U.S. national teams, said Division II soccer is not that far below top levels. "It is different, but it is not crazy different," he said. "[Our] guys are going to play at higher levels and we play against MLS teams all the time."

Puerto Rico, the team the Stars recently tied, beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 4-1 July 27. The Galaxy is in first place in the Western Conference of the MLS and features U.S. national team standout Landon Donovan.

But even an MLS opponent isn't a guaranteed draw. The Stars canceled a June 20 game against the MLS Chicago Fire because of "insufficient pregame ticket sales."

Todd Bradbury of Maple Grove was at Brit's to watch Spain win the World Cup, but he said he has no interest in the MLS or the Stars. "The World Cup is bigger than the Olympics," he said. "I admire and respect the passion of the fans, particularly those from the European and South American countries."

That's the type of crowd the Stars (7-9-6), whose next home game is at 7 p.m. Saturday against Vancouver, hope to see in the future. If people who yell at the other team and sing and chant start coming to games, Friedland said, support for the Stars will grow.

Blaine an outpost

"The challenge for the Stars is to convince people this is their team," said Buzz Lagos, Manny's father, a former Thunder coach and co-founder of the team. "That is not easy to do."

Jim and Debbie Propes of Woodbury watched every game of the World Cup, a few more than once. They have followed the Minnesota Kicks, Strikers and Thunder, all gone now. But the Puerto Rico game was their first trip to see the Stars.

"For a 7 o'clock game, trying to go across the Twin Cities in this traffic is terrible with all the construction," Jim Propes said. "I love the facility, but it is a little bit out of the way."

Fans also have the option of spending their entertainment dollar on four major league teams or the Gophers sports teams. "We are really oversaturated in a sense," said Inside Minnesota Soccer blogger Brian Quarstad.

"I'm still optimistic about the Stars having success overall," Buzz Lagos said. "Every four years there will be incredible interest in soccer. Nobody can stop the interest in the World Cup."

Tapping into that soccer passion, somehow, is a challenge Minnesota's pro teams haven't yet solved.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

< >
  • Gophers women's hockey at Ohio State

    5 pm

  • Charlotte at Timberwolves (preseason)

    7 pm on FSN/NBATV, 830-AM

  • St. Cloud State at Gophers men's hockey

    8 pm on FSN PLUS, 1500-AM

  • Rutgers at Gophers football

    11 am on ESPNU, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Ohio State

    2 pm

  • Wild at New Jersey

    6 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Minnesota United FC at Carolina

    6:30 pm on Ch. 29

  • Gophers men's hockey at St. Cloud State

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 1500-AM

  • Vikings at Philadelphia

    12 pm on Ch. 9, 100.3/1130

  • Wild at N.Y. Islanders

    5 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Wild at Boston

    6 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Timberwolves at Memphis

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Wild at Buffalo

    6 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • St. Cloud State at Gophers women's hockey

    7:07 pm on BTN PLUS

  • Gophers men's hockey at Clarkson

    6 pm on 1500-AM

  • St. Cloud State at Gophers women's hockey

    7:07 pm on BTN PLUS

Poll: How will the Vikings and Gophers do this weekend?

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Today's Scoreboard

No MLB games today

No NFL games today

  • Toronto



    - F



  • Philadelphia



    - 4th, 4:26



  • Charlotte



    - 4th, 8:44



  • Houston

    San Antonio


    - 3rd, 2:05



  • Dallas



    - 2nd, 1:46



  • Phoenix

    LA Lakers

    9:00 PM

  • Portland

    Golden State

    9:30 PM

  • Chicago



    - F



  • Arizona

    NY Islanders


    - F



  • Nashville



    - 3rd, 4:41



No MLS games today