In a way, 2015 feels like one big waiting game. It probably should feel that way because nothing has happened yet ... but it also feels like a year in which the temptation will be to hit the fast-forward button to better times. That said, here is our best guess at the biggest sports stories to come in the new year:
10) The Vikings’ second and final year in TCF Bank Stadium: If you like your NFL action outside, you’d better get it now. The Vikings’ new indoor palace is slated to open in 2016, and unless an epic snowstorm or a million angry birds do irreparable damage to the glass roof, the second and final season for the Vikings in their temporarily shared home at the U of M will be the last time they play home games outside. Ever. So get it while it’s cold.
9) The Lynx gear up for another run at a title: They are the most consistent recent winner among the local pro teams, so much so that last year’s loss in the conference finals — ending a run of three straight trips to the WNBA finals, which included two league championships — felt like a little bit of a letdown. This is a veteran team with much of the same core its had during its run. They’re not getting any younger, but if they’ve slipped at all it isn’t by much. Another title run is very much within reach.
8) Saints stadium opens: That a new $63 million stadium is being built in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood for an independent pro baseball team is a testament to the power of the St. Paul Saints. They played for more than two decades in the lovable dump that was Midway Stadium, and they have vowed to keep the same fun attitude when the much nicer CHS Field opens in a little over four months.
7) The development of Timberwolves: Decimated by injuries during what was a rebuilding season already, the Timberwolves’ fortunes could start to improve a little now that the calendar has flipped to 2015. The January schedule is full of games that even a team on a nine-game losing streak could win. And it should coincide with the return to health of some of the Wolves’ core veterans, giving us a better idea of just where this team stands.
6) A defining year for Richard Pitino and the Gophers: In a wide open Big Ten, the Gophers have two things that could make them factors — experienced guard play and capable big men. This should be a momentum-building season for coach Richard Pitino, one that can carry the program to bigger and better things in the future. But a trip to the NCAA tournament is the minimum requirement for his honeymoon to last into a second year.
5) Twins return to .500?: It’s been a dark four years for the franchise, with four consecutive 90-loss seasons (and a worse home record than road record over that time, too). They’ve flirted with competency for stretches of that bad run, with last year’s 70-92 squad offering more optimism (light praise) than the previous three. Is this the year the Twins figure out their starting pitching and start to look like a respectable major league team again?
4) Wild does/doesn’t make the playoffs: Last year’s playoff run was nice, but those who worried that it would be hard to sustain if the Wild couldn’t upgrade its goaltending and maintain the same level of postseason intensity over an 82-game grind are being proven correct. Minnesota has a lot of work to do just to make the playoffs. It also has a roster without much flexibility. Cracking the Western Conference postseason field will be a chase to watch for the early part of 2015.
3) Major League Soccer expansion decision: The Twin Cities is on a short list of markets in the mix for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise, and a decision is expected sometime during the first six months of 2015. Much remains to be sorted out, and it will be fascinating to watch. Whether you like soccer or not, this is a big-time league: average per game MLS attendance is greater than that of the NHL or NBA.
2) Can Mitch Leidner and the Gophers football team take the next step?: Minnesota feels like its on the verge of becoming a regular contender in the Big Ten’s West Division. The Gophers can run the ball and play defense. That’s a great start. The separator will be consistently above-average quarterback play, something Minnesota has never had under Jerry Kill. If they can get that — a good test comes in the Citrus Bowl, with Mitch Leidner facing a stout Missouri front four — they can keep building the program.
1) Adrian Peterson returns/doesn’t return to Vikings: Adrian Peterson was the top story in 2014, and he retains that spot in 2015. His NFL suspension lasts until mid-April, meaning a swift resolution to his status with the Vikings is hardly imminent. Has the best running back in franchise history (and one of the 10 best in NFL history) played his final game with Minnesota, or is there a way for him to return after all that happened last season?