Major League Soccer turned its attention away from Minneapolis on Wednesday in an attempt to put a franchise in Minnesota. The league said it would now look more closely at St. Paul as a possible site for a new soccer-only stadium.
Mark Abbott, the MLS deputy commissioner, said in comments to a local radio audience that a July 1 deadline for a stadium plan to emerge in Minneapolis had passed and he would now meet with St. Paul officials — who recently expressed interest — before the league decides whether to abandon Minnesota.
“We did decide that it would be appropriate for me to come to Minnesota [to] learn more about the opportunity in St. Paul,” Abbott said on 1500-AM ESPN, ”so that we can make a fully informed decision as to whether we should continue to consider Minnesota as a potential expansion market.”
Abbott added that he wants to meet with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
While Abbott insisted that MLS was not extending its deadline, he left the door open for Minneapolis to put together an 11th-hour bid to save the proposed downtown soccer stadium that would be near Target Field. Abbott’s comments, however, were a boost for St. Paul, which recently opened a publicly subsidized baseball stadium for the St. Paul Saints.
Two sites in St. Paul that are reportedly in the mix are a 15-acre area near Snelling and University avenues, near Interstate 94, that formerly housed a Metro Transit bus barn, and a second site near the State Capitol where a Sears store now sits.
Abbott’s comments also gave a local investor group led by Dr. Bill McGuire, the former UnitedHealth Group chief executive, time to shift gears and convince a new set of public officials to back a public subsidy package. McGuire has said a subsidy is needed to make an estimated $120 million soccer-only stadium financially viable. McGuire’s group features some of Minnesota’s wealthiest residents, including the Pohlad family, the owners of the Minnesota Twins, and Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Star Tribune.
“We are pleased that MLS has agreed to meet with officials from St. Paul to learn about the possibility of building a new stadium there as we believe this is an opportunity that deserves to be evaluated further,” said Nick Rogers, the president of Minnesota United FC, the lower-level soccer team that McGuire owns.
“Our ability to secure an MLS club is contingent on us finalizing a plan for a new stadium that will serve as a permanent home for our club,” Rogers said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Coleman said the mayor, who was traveling and unavailable for comment, is “excited to have soccer in Minnesota, and if MLS officials pursue a stadium in St. Paul, the mayor will work hard to make that happen.”
St. Paul already has a relationship with United Properties, a large-scale development company owned by the Pohlads.
United Properties is working with the St. Paul Port Authority to redevelop Midway Stadium — the former home of the Saints — near the state fairgrounds. The city turned over that property to the Port Authority in exchange for the former factory site in Lowertown where the Saints’ new CHS Field was built. A $15 million light-industrial building, large enough for four to five tenants, is planned for the Midway Stadium site.
Still time for Mpls.
Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson said she was not surprised by Wednesday’s developments, but said MLS should still look toward Minneapolis. “I just think we have so much more to offer, just a much more vibrant downtown,” Johnson said.
McGuire’s first choice had been to build an open-air stadium with mostly private money near Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. The stadium would reportedly have 18,500 seats.
The MLS announcement also came less than a month after the Legislature adjourned for the year without approving a local subsidy package for a soccer stadium that McGuire said is required to make the franchise profitable. A proposal from Minneapolis officials would have, among other things, frozen property taxes on three land parcels being considered for the stadium.
“We probably could have worked harder to get to some resolution that was before the deadline,” said Blong Yang, a Minneapolis City Council member whose ward includes the stadium site. “We’re still very interested in getting MLS into Minneapolis, and it’s a slow haul.”
He added that he believed the property tax exemption issue is fairly easy to overcome. “In the grand scheme of things, their ‘ask’ is very small, I think,” Yang said.
Minneapolis City Council member Jacob Frey, a key player in the city’s attempt to assemble a subsidy package, said he remained optimistic that Minneapolis was still in the picture. He added however that a city study group, formed to help settle on a funding plan, had yet to meet.
“There’s still time for Minneapolis to cobble together and negotiate a proposal,” Frey said. “The fact that St. Paul is interested confirms one thing: And that’s soccer is an up-and-coming and desired sport.”
The push to put a soccer stadium in Minneapolis has played out with a major player — Hennepin County — sitting on the sidelines. The county had provided a public subsidy package for Target Field and Mike Opat, a county commissioner who played a leading role in the Target Field project, flew to New York late last year to help with McGuire’s presentation to MLS officials.
But Opat said Wednesday he has not had any recent involvement with the project. “They haven’t talked to me for two months,” Opat said of McGuire’s group.
Suburban Brooklyn Park has also asked to be considered. But MLS Commissioner Don Garber as recently as last week appeared to brush that possibility aside, saying a downtown stadium was “the deal we cut” with McGuire.
Staff writers Kevin Duchschere and Rochelle Olson contributed to this article.