Build it and they will come.
Major League Soccer made that perfectly clear Monday when Commissioner Don Garber confirmed that the league was in "advanced discussions" with former UnitedHealth Group executive Bill McGuire and his ownership partners to bring an MLS expansion team to Minnesota.
That's the clearest indication yet that the league has chosen Minnesota for its next expansion franchise, although Garber said in a statement Monday that the official announcement won't be made for another 35 to 40 days. The team likely would not play until the 2018 season.
The remaining hurdle for Minnesota is finalizing plans for "it" — a new downtown outdoor soccer stadium, as preferred by the league.
Whether it's funded privately by McGuire's group or with public funding help is the big unknown.
McGuire — who is partnered with the Pohlad family, owners of the Minnesota Twins, and Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Star Tribune — has yet to reveal his plans publicly. That didn't change Monday.
McGuire and Nick Rogers, president of the McGuire-owned Minnesota United FC soccer club of the North American Soccer League, declined to comment beyond a statement issued by the United that said MLS officials are aware of the "passionate soccer fans in Minnesota combined with a world-class soccer-specific stadium …"
McGuire had been in a two-pronged race for a team with officials in Sacramento, Calif., and another prospective Minnesota ownership group headed by the Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings. The Wilfs' pitch included playing games in the Vikings' new $1 billion stadium that will be ready in 2016, but the league has said it favors outdoor soccer-specific stadiums designed to hold about 20,000 fans.
McGuire's group clearly sold the league on its vision of a boutique, downtown outdoor stadium in the area of Target Field and the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Garber noted as much in his statement, saying MLS officials "are particularly excited about their plans for a new soccer-specific stadium that will serve as the club's home."
McGuire, reached on Saturday, declined to say whether the league had given him a deadline to come up with a stadium financing plan.
Some of Minnesota's most powerful political figures on Monday were quick to quash any notion of public financing from a metro area that has seen four new stadiums in the past five years: the Twins' Target Field, TCF Bank football stadium at the University of Minnesota, the Vikings stadium and a new baseball stadium for the minor league St. Paul Saints. All were built with some public funding.
"They shouldn't even come by," Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said of McGuire's group. "I told [Garber] on Feb. 6 when I talked to him that the appetite just is not here. I made it very clear."
Mark Wilf, Vikings owner/president, said in a statement that his group offered the league "an ideal situation — a stadium that is certain and will be completed in 2016, a plan that was funded by the public and private sectors to host MLS, and an option that will not require additional government approvals."
Wilf also said the Vikings were "pleased to see [MLS officials] believe in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market."
Footing the bill
It's expected to cost about $300 million to bring an MLS team to Minnesota — a $100 million expansion fee to the league, and $150 million to $200 million for a stadium. There have been indications that McGuire will ask for some public subsidy; the United owner has confirmed meeting with Hennepin County Board Member Mike Opat, who was instrumental in getting funding for Target Field.
Opat has expressed his support for the soccer stadium and left open the possibility of county financial help, which could include funding for nearby roads and other public infrastructure. Opat also declined to comment Monday.
Some of his Hennepin County peers are clearly weary of the stadium debate.
County Board Member Linda Higgins, who represents the area talked about as a home for the MLS team, said the media "fixation" on stadiums is "unhealthy and unwanted. We're doing a lot more things that are interesting than the perpetual stadium conversation," she said.
Higgins said the only person on the board talking about MLS is Opat. "There is no story there. … There hasn't been an ask to us yet," she said of subsidizing the planned soccer stadium. "I've had no substantive conversation with anybody about a damn stadium."
Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison said McGuire's group hasn't reached out to her personally but that Opat is the lead person and he, "has certainly let me know that he's talking to people."
Callison declined to discuss what might be under consideration for the board or when something might be introduced, saying that information, "should come from Mike."
Opat has repeatedly said he has nothing to discuss.
It's certain that any funding needing legislative approval would be difficult. Bakk said he phoned Garber last month to try to ward off a Miami-like situation, where former soccer star David Beckham gained an expansion franchise whose existence is now in doubt.
"[MLS] gave a franchise two years ago and [they] still don't have a field to play on," Bakk said. "I don't know if they're potentially going to make that mistake twice or if this group of owners is going to figure out how they finance a $150 million stadium."
Bakk also shot down the possibility that the Legislature would help McGuire's team play at the new Vikings stadium. The Wilf family has a five-year exclusive on soccer from the time the stadium opens, "so no one else can play there unless the Wilfs make a side deal," Bakk said.
The MLS statement said the league has had expansion discussions with San Antonio, St. Louis and Las Vegas, in addition to Sacramento and Minnesota, and left open the possibility of expanding beyond 24 teams. Adding Miami, which is still trying to get a stadium, and Minnesota would give the league 24 teams.
The United statement was more wait-and-see than celebratory, saying the potential owners "are in discussion with the league and remain hopeful" of gaining an expansion team. It said that the fan base combined with the planned new stadium would "make the Twin Cities and our state a perfect home for the next MLS expansion team."
Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.