Big-time soccer returns for Minnesotans on Friday night when Minnesota United makes its Major League Soccer debut in Portland.
The Timbers have one of the best home crowds in MLS and will draw in excess of 20,000 fans for tonight's opener. The 8:30 p.m. match is nationally televised on Fox Sports 1. Nine days from now, Minnesota United will open its home schedule against fellow expansion side Atlanta — and that one should have a big crowd while being shown on ESPN2.
We are becoming further removed by the day from "smaller-time" when it comes to local soccer. But we also shouldn't forget that those smaller-time days were pretty good, too.
Maybe I have more of a soft spot for them because I covered countless matches featuring one of the previous Minnesota soccer iterations, the Thunder. Most of this happened in the late 1990s through mid-2000s, when the Thunder was often one of the premier teams in the old "A-League" (later re-branded as the USL First Division).
There were big-time moments sprinkled in, including a league championship match in 1999 that drew nearly 10,000 fans to the National Sports Center in Blaine (to this day, I still don't know why the Thunder announced a crowd of 9,987 when it could have just added a few more for a five-digit total). Amos Magee — now United's director of player personnel — was a star on that Thunder team and jumped into head coach Buzz Lagos' arms after the 2-1 victory over the rival Rochester (N.Y.) Raging Rhinos.
But overall, the operation was often a lot smaller — shoestring budgets, long van rides for the players and crowds that normally were around 3,000 but dipped much lower than that if the weather was bad or the timing wasn't right (especially after the club moved to James Griffin Stadium, a high school field, for several seasons in the mid-2000s). I also remember watching a huge U.S. Open Cup match on a grainy, often-interrupted stream projected onto a wall of the Sweetwater Grille in St. Paul, back when that was the place to be for all things soccer.
Lagos, when he wasn't emptying a giant bag of soccer balls onto the field out of his car for practice, was famous for having his players do six-mile training runs on days there wasn't formal training. This was back before I was a runner, and I thought six miles might as well have been 600. Why six miles? Because that's the distance an average player might cover in the span of a 90-minute match.
My favorite story, still, is of Lagos washing the team's kits at a distant laundromat during a multi-city road trip. I don't think new United coach Adrian Heath will ever have to do that.
Lagos retired after the 2005 season. Later, ownership grew shaky. Pro soccer changed hands, names and brands multiple times in Minnesota.
Nevertheless, soccer persisted. To say it is stunning to see the arrival of MLS in Minnesota based on where things looked to be even five years ago is an understatement. Kevin Venegas, who played for United in the NASL and is still with the organization as it prepares for its MLS debut, summed it up with a tweet:
The big-time never would have arrived if not for the smaller-time that preceded it. Those weren't perfect times, but they were good times.