The Minnesota Vikings have long been accused of not taking soccer seriously. Though the team had the foresight to insert some questionable Major League Soccer-specific language in stadium-related legislation, until earlier this year, the franchise was simply intent on planning the gleaming new building - first getting it passed at the Legislature, then getting it designed and kicking off construction. By that point, they'd managed to infuriate a large number of local soccer supporters, mostly for what appeared to be a resolute desire to ignore questions and pleas from the ever-burgeoning cadre of fans, many of who had concerns that the stadium wouldn't be fit for soccer.
With planning now mostly complete, and the new park shooting out of the ground, the Vikings are finally circling back to their stated MLS desires. To that end, last Tuesday evening the team hosted an event to bring together soccer and community leaders, giving the assemblage a chance to see the team's new soccer-focused stadium renderings, and listen to ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman.
It's all part of the team's latest press for MLS, focused on righting the past's perceived wrongs. The Vikings have tapped local PR and marketing firm One Simple Plan to help lead the push and the firm has run a number of events to try to connect with the area's soccer fans - especially those who regularly gather to watch Premier League matches.
While Vikings VP of Public Affairs Lester Bagley is aware of the criticisms of the team, he asks for understanding, given the demands of the ever-rising stadium at the east end of downtown. Said Bagley, "I think some of the frustration came after the legislation passed, and we had to design and build a billion-dollar stadium, and we were spread thin and we did not have the bandwidth to put an organized effort together. Me personally, I thought after 12 years at the Capitol, that we were going to put it on cruise control and that we were going to build a great stadium and that the hard part was done. But [we found] out that it’s a major undertaking, it’s the biggest construction project in the history of Minnesota, and it’s complicated and our team is full-time on it. So that’s part of it too. I think some of the frustration we’ve heard in the community is, where were you [on soccer] when you passed the legislation?"
To that end, the team released renderings, showing a soccer-themed curtaining system that would drop vertical curtains to block off the stadium's upper deck. Vikings CFO Steve Poppen noted that this system will cost between 3 and 5 million dollars, much of that to add reinforcement to the roof to hold the curtain; obviously, the team would like an MLS decision to be made as soon as possible, so that they know if they can delete this feature from the stadium design if a team is awarded elsewhere.
For Poppen, the curtain is more proof that MLS has always been in the team's plans. "We’ve been working hard from day one to design this for MLS," he said. "The MLS has been part of our process from day one. I personally don’t believe that we’re late to the game on this. We’re trying to attract an expansion franchise to Minnesota, and we’ve been having discussions with MLS about it for years now."
I had a chance to ask about field width, another concern that's been on the minds of soccer lovers. FIFA's recommendations state, "It is strongly recommended that new stadiums have a 105m x 68m playing field" - that's about 115 yards by 74 yards. Most Major League Soccer fields are 74 or 75 yards wide, though both Houston's field and the pitch that's being shoehorned into Yankee Stadium for NYC FC next year are just 70 yards wide - the league's minimum width.
Said Poppen, "The minimum for MLS is 70 [yards] wide. FIFA plays at 75. We have the ability to go out there. If you remember, the north side of the stadium retracts. As part of that development, we were able to design in that ability to expand the facility as well."
This does, however, bring up the question: if the stadium was truly "soccer-specific," a term the Vikings repeatedly used throughout the night, why is moving the stands to get to 75 yards wide even necessary? Why wouldn't the field have been wide enough already? It's a question that simply adds more fuel to the arguments that the Vikings do not understand soccer - a charge that's been leveled at virtually every NFL owner that has dipped a toe into the MLS waters. Earlier this year, Boston Magazine famously accused New England Revolution and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft of being the worst owner in the league. While the Revolution reached this year's MLS Cup Final, other NFL-affiliated teams, like Colorado and Dallas, have been mostly uninspiring through the years.
Tellingly, earlier this season, the Seattle Sounders - long twinned with the Seattle Seahawks, and fellow tenants of CenturyLink Field - ended their working relationship with the NFL team, ten years earlier than scheduled. While the team spun this as a move to refocus their organization on soccer, rumors were rampant that it was a move made to get away from an NFL team that did not care about the Sounders or the sport of soccer.
The Vikings, though, are still trying to win over soccer die-hards. They've promised plenty to fans in the new stadium - including offering to subsidize tailgating costs and bar tabs for supporters' groups. They're also promising to give fans input on the team's name and badge design, something that other clubs in MLS have done as well. ("Vikings FC" is probably unlikely, I would think.)
Some fans have the perception that the Vikings don't care about soccer, but they deserve credit - they may not have been experts in the sport, or in MLS, all along, but they are trying. They're meeting with other MLS franchises. They're bringing Twellman to town, to learn from him. They're in contact with fans, they're in contact with local soccer folks; at the moment, they're certainly not ignoring the sport. They deserve a fair hearing - if for no other reason than they're actually talking to people. Said former Kicks star Alan Merrick, who introduced Twellman at the event, of the competing bid from Minnesota United: "They haven't reached out, as far as I can see, to anybody in the soccer world." While United's work is behind the scenes, the Vikings have been very public - in part, to try to right the perception from the past.
A number of local soccer stakeholders, from Minnesota Youth Soccer Association representatives to fans to those involved with local clubs, were in attendance on Monday. While the Vikings' presentation can only have gone to convince people that there's a chance that the Vikings could be successful where previous NFL / MLS partnerships have failed, most in attendance expressed a desire simply to see the area get Major League Soccer - regardless of the whether the team is owned by the Vikings or by Minnesota United FC. Apart from some very fervent fans of the Loons, "I just want an MLS team" seems to be the opinion of most local soccer fans.
And so: MLS has announced that an expansion decision is likely in the first half of 2015. All signs point to Minneapolis being a front-runner for a team in MLS. The Vikings may have been late in making their push for that franchise, but are coming on strong now. They would have to fight an uphill battle to make soccer workable in a stadium designed for an NFL team, and if they can make joint NFL/MLS ownership viable, they would be the first to do so. But ruling out the Vikings as potential owners, based solely on past perception, is foolish.