That pro soccer in Minnesota has survived uninterrupted for the past quarter-century is a testament to many folks — chief among them longtime head coach Buzz Lagos and a core group of fans who refused to give up.
The professional iterations and transitions haven't always been smooth — from the Thunder going pro in the mid-1990s, to the Minnesota Stars taking the mantle in 2010 amid financial woes, to a rebrand to Minnesota United in 2013 and that club's subsequent ascent to Major League Soccer starting with the 2017 season — but they have served as guideposts along the way that allow for an appreciation of both the past and present.
For instance: United's run to the U.S. Open Cup final, which continued Wednesday with an exciting 2-1 victory over Portland at Allianz Field, still probably ranks as only the second-best showing for a Minnesota team in the Open Cup.
The slightly odd tournament, which runs concurrent to professional seasons in the U.S., features teams from multiple levels of soccer. Back in 2005, with MLS established as the top league with close to a decade of history already, the Minnesota Thunder rose up from the USL First Division — the level below Major League Soccer — to defeat three MLS teams in the Open Cup en route to the semifinals.
Their reward? A date in Los Angeles against Landon Donovan and the L.A. Galaxy.
The Thunder had four players at the time who had played in MLS and another four who had been drafted by a team in the league. One of those Thunder players, Chris Brunt, said in the 2005 story I wrote to advance the Galaxy match: "When we play MLS teams, a lot of us seem to take our level of play up. It's almost like we try a little harder. Everyone has a different reason for thinking they should be playing at that level."
That was Minnesota in 2005: Scrappy. A bunch of underdogs trying to survive as individuals and as a team.
There was no way to watch the match against the Galaxy locally except this: The Thunder set up a viewing party at the Sweetwater Grille (inside the Kelly Inn) near the State Capitol in St. Paul with what I remember as projection onto a screen from a one-camera internet broadcast. This being 2005, though, the connection wasn't all that reliable. But there were still a LOT of people there (myself included, though I have no tweets or RandBall posts to prove it because neither of those things existed) for a match that started at 10 p.m. Central time.
Through fits and spurts, we watched the Thunder hang around for a half, trailing just 2-1 at the break. But the Galaxy ultimately prevailed 5-2. That game also happened to be the last one for Lagos as head coach. He had announced earlier that year that he was retiring at the end of the season.
The options were a little better Wednesday — from reliable streaming to almost instant replays on social media to a gorgeous field in St. Paul as opposed to a dark hotel conference room a few miles away.
The victory over Portland brought another layer of legitimacy to what the Loons are building — what they've added to a quarter-century of continuous pro soccer in Minnesota.
They captured a major league-level fan base in their first two years. Now, in their new stadium, they're playing like they deserve every one of those supporters.