After undergoing an ownership change and rebranding itself under a new name in 2013, the local Minnesota United FC had a disappointing season in the North American Soccer League. Management is confident this year will be different, and the squad has a chance to show it in next Saturday’s home opener (7 p.m. vs. FC Edmonton at the National Sports Center in Blaine). The Star Tribune’s Michael Rand caught up with Nick Rogers, the team president:
Q What has this organization learned about the local sports market since taking over ownership?
A It’s similar to how I think about the arts and theater community. People always ask how we find a place in a crowded sports market. Well, if you want to be an actor, do you go to a place with a lot of theaters or a place with no theaters? There are people here really interested in sports, and we’re finding our niche and foothold to ascend toward relevance. There’s no silver bullet. There is a lot of hard work and shoe leather you have to burn through.
Q What is the niche you feel you’ve carved out to this point?
A It’s soccer. We’re in this moment where it’s not one of those things that’s popular everywhere but here anymore. It sort of feels like [soccer] has arrived. We came in and we changed everything, including the name and visual identity of the club. The last year has been about getting our brand out there in front of people and letting them know we are the team for them if they’re interested in soccer, which increasingly we’re finding people are. That’s the niche. There’s a group that cares deeply about soccer, watches the Premier League, and they want a local club.
Q Is this a team that can compete for a championship?
A I believe we can. We’re not 100 percent done adding pieces, but even if we didn’t add anything more, when you compare where we were last year to where we are now, I’m much happier. Soccer, much more so than other sports, is about the team. There’s a prevailing dynamic in the NBA with the Big Three superstars and role players around them. That would not be enough on a soccer team. Your weaknesses get exposed quickly.
Q Attendance-wise, how do you make gains and do you have specific goals for this year?
A We just want to continue an upward trajectory. Last year I think we came close to tripling the average attendance from 2012 [to about 3,500 per match].
Q There has been a lot of talk about Major League Soccer and possible expansion here, with United’s ownership group factoring in. How do you keep that from being a distraction?
A For me, it’s great. It shows there is excitement around pro soccer in this market when there are whispers about Major League Soccer. It tells me MLS sees what we’re doing and they recognize what we recognize: This is a great market for pro soccer. … But it’s not something that impacts me on a day-to-day basis, and I think our players are also focused on the competition.