The Seattle Sounders play their home games at CenturyLink Field, which is mostly given over to the Seattle Seahawks, not to soccer. Over in one corner of the upper-deck facade, though, hang a few banners for the Sounders — one for each of four U.S. Open Cup victories, and a single panel denoting the team’s four second-division titles. Those four league championships are a footnote, an afterthought, all crammed onto one banner. The message is obvious: These titles were once, but are not now, something to be celebrated. Minnesota’s pro soccer history will go the same way, eventually. It is sad to see that history heading the way of an asterisk, worthy of a page in the team yearbook and maybe a few small banners, commemorating a prior epoch that no longer matters.
Minnesota United has drawn comparatively large crowds to National Sports Center Blaine the past few years, but even so, the Loons will no doubt kick off next season with many first-time fans in the stands. There’s no shame in being one of those fans. Second-division soccer isn’t for everyone, and it’s hard to criticize soccer fans who chose to avail themselves of either the many other sports teams in town or the vast multitude of soccer options available on television.
To new fans, though: I hope you’ll understand what it took for Minnesota to get here. Know that the Minnesota Thunder, as founded by former coach Buzz Lagos in 1990, rose from a superstar amateur team to become perhaps the best second-division team in America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the team’s 1999 championship the pinnacle. Know that, by the mid-2000s, ownership changes meant that the team’s funding had dried up, which led to years of on-field struggle. Know that a shady owner, who made more promises than payments, eventually left the Thunder as little more than a collection of bad debts after the 2009 season.
Know that first the National Sports Center, for one season, then the North American Soccer League, for two seasons, stepped in to keep pro soccer in Minnesota afloat until Bill McGuire bought the team in 2013. Know that the team’s 2011 championship felt like a dam breaking, with an ownerless team powering through the playoffs to take home the title. In many fans’ minds, it’s possible to draw a straight line between the moment that former captain Kyle Altman lifted that trophy and the news conferences that announced Minnesota’s MLS team in 2016.
Know that whatever the official team history says, the team that became Minnesota United is a continuation of the original team that Lagos founded in 1990. MLS is coming, and United’s second-division history will soon be an afterthought. But here’s hoping that people remember that history, and 1999, and 2011, as something else: the history that paved the way for the Loons of the future.