With new ownership and a new league commissioner already promising to revamp soccer in this state, the local Minnesota club added one more wrinkle Tuesday: a new name.
In front of a large crowd at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, which included North American Soccer League Commissioner Bill Peterson, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, owner Bill McGuire unveiled the jerseys and logos of a squad that is now called Minnesota United FC.
"It reaches out to unite communities and the diversity in the state," McGuire said of the new name and the logo, which has a blue streak running diagonally through the middle to represent the Mississippi River. "It has a nice soccer, football feel to it."
And hey, it's familiar since McGuire was formerly the CEO of UnitedHealth Group.
"It's absolutely a coincidence," he said. "It's all about uniting a lot of people in this sport and [that's] what it does. … It is the sport that has total access. All our communities know it."
That was the theme of the day for an organization that feels as though it is on an upswing since McGuire purchased the team and took over operations in mid-January. The number of people employed by the team has doubled from 30 to 60, while Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara, two former NASL MVPs, have been signed for 2013. The team also will divide its home schedule between five home dates at the Metrodome, including its April 6 opener, and nine at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
"When you think about what soccer can become in this region, it's just waiting to take off," Rybak said.
This is the fourth name for a pro soccer team in Minnesota in the past five years. The Thunder, which existed for two decades, folded after the 2009 season and gave way to the NSC Stars — who were later renamed Minnesota Stars FC. Team executives explained that they wanted a new brand and wanted to introduce it as soon as possible, hence the change to Minnesota United FC.
McGuire's purchase of the team essentially rescued it from the abyss. Minnesota was previously league-owned, a situation that was considered a short-term remedy.
"I think there are a lot of people who see potential," said coach Manny Lagos, who directed the squad to an NASL title in 2011 and a runner-up finish in 2012 despite its shaky off-field status. "There already is a great legacy of a team that has done really well on the field and a great fan base already. I think [McGuire] recognized that and said, 'This could be so much more.'"
The NASL is the same league the Minnesota Kicks played in, though in a different incarnation. It is the only Division II league in the United States, while Major League Soccer is the only Division I league. Buzz Lagos, Manny's father and former coach of the Thunder, said he believes the current Minnesota United FC squad is "as good as the Kicks were" and "would be competitive with any MLS team in the league."
McGuire talked of drawing crowds of up to 20,000 but downplayed any speculation about trying to take a Minnesota squad to MLS in the future.
"Our focus right now is on this team in this league," he said, "and building the type of support this team needs."