The World Cup came to the United States in 1994, starting on June 17 and lasting for a month. There was a bit of competition for a TV audience on that opening Friday, what with Al Cowlings chauffeuring O.J. Simpson around the freeways of Los Angeles in a white Bronco.
The Minnesota Kicks had folded back in 1981. Our highest-profile soccer outfit was the Minnesota Thunder, an amateur team run by the indomitable futbol man, Buzz Lagos.
The Star Tribune decided to take a soccer plunge with World Cup coverage. Jerry Zgoda was the main reporter, and with me dropping in for occasional columns.
I covered four matches: Ireland-Italy in Giants Stadium on June 18, Mexico-Norway the next day in RFK Stadium in Washington, the Italy-Bulgaria semifinal on July 13, back at Giants Stadium, and then Brazil-Italy for the World Cup in the Rose Bowl on July 17.
When you don’t have much understanding of what’s taking place down there, you need a formula for producing columns, and mine was simple:
I talked with groups of Irish fans before the first match, Norwegian and Mexican fans before the second match, Italian fans before the third match, and Brazilian fans before and after the final.
One highlight came during the Mexico-Norway tilt in RFK. I was in a press box row of columnists who also were add-ons to their newspapers’ coverage. I looked to my left at one point and asked:
“I know that’s the crease in front of the netminder, but what do they call that big rectangle that’s on both ends of the field for some gosh-forsaken reason?’’
It was unanimous: a half-dozen Americano columnists and none had the answer.
Finally, a reporter with an Italian accent sitting in the back row started yelling at us in broken English: “Why are you here! You know nothing of soccer! It’s the penalty area! Little bambinos know this! Why are you here!’’
Excellent point though the man made, I had a terrific time being around those soccer lunatics:
Starting with the Irish fans complaining all they could find on New York TV the previous night was some person named O.J. riding around in a white lorry; a month later, ending with Brazilians vilifying Carlos Alberto Parreira as the “worst coach in all of the World Cup,’’ after Parreira’s team won the final on penalty kicks.
Lagos’ Thunder became a professional team in 1995, and in 2004 and 2005, they moved from the National Sports Center in Blaine to James Griffin Stadium, next to St. Paul Central High School.
“We had all been to matches in Blaine, but we became friends and started sitting together at Griffin Stadium,’’ Dr. Charlie Callaghan said. “Not the greatest amenities there, but we have fond memories of those seasons at ‘The Jimmy.’ ”
Very well, Doc, but would you agree that the facility in the midway area of St. Paul hosting the Twin Cities pro soccer team has been upgraded?
“Yes, Allianz Field is an improvement over the Jimmy,’’ Callaghan said.
Bruce McGuire, another fan going back to the Thunder days, said: “You can start with hot water. Griffin Stadium didn’t have hot water. Allianz has that for the players.’’
There were a dozen or so fans who started sitting together behind a goal at The Jimmy and they became the seed for the “Dark Clouds’’ supporters group.
“It is a very official group now and there are well over 1,000 people who cheer and sing together as the Dark Clouds at United games,’’ McGuire said. “Except this year, with the pandemic. [There] hasn’t been a home game since last Oct. 20 … since this game at Allianz, but without fans.’’
Bridget McDowell spotted the Dark Clouds in their earliest days at Griffin Stadium. Eventually, she joined the group, as the Thunder begat the Stars, the Stars begat Minnesota United FC, the Loons became a fan-driven nickname, and the presence in Major League Soccer became a reality in 2017 — two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium, and now, finally, a second at the magnificent Allianz Field, with hot water and everything.
McDowell has become such a hard-core fan that she writes United blog posts for a site, switchthepitchsoccer.com. Still, if the Loons had allowed a select number of fans in for Friday night’s return to Allianz, she probably would have passed.
“I’m not sure I’ll be going to any event until the virus truly calms down,’’ McDowell said. “There were virtual watch parties of the games in Orlando through Twitch, and again [Friday night].
“That has given supporters a chance to share, but, really, soccer is a participatory game. TV doesn’t do it justice. The only thing that does a soccer match justice is being there.’’
Too late now by a quarter-century, but that should’ve been my response when the Italian sportswriter was screaming at us in the RFK press box.
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