With Major League Soccer team owners meeting Saturday, the Vikings may be making progress in convincing skeptics that playing soccer in the team’s new $1 billion football stadium remains the best local option.
The Vikings, owned by Zygi Wilf and his family, invited local soccer officials this week to the unveiling of how the 65,400-seat stadium could be transformed into a 20,000-seat soccer stadium, and generally received warm reviews. The Wilf’s in-state competition for an MLS franchise, a group headed by former UnitedHealth Group executive Bill McGuire, has largely not discussed how it would finance a separate, soccer-only stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
MLS officials said that, while expansion would be discussed Saturday in Los Angeles, no final decisions would be made on selecting a team from proposals submitted by Sacramento, Las Vegas and the two potential ownership groups from Minneapolis. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week that an announcement likely would come early next year.
The anticipated no-decision by MLS owners Saturday could at least be a minor victory for the McGuire group — and Las Vegas, which also has no solid stadium plan. The delay gives McGuire’s group time to work on details of its stadium plan; the Vikings and Sacramento, by comparison, have almost all their cards on the table.
McGuire’s group — which includes the Pohlad family, owner of the Twins, and Glen Taylor, who owns the Timberwolves — have courted the aid of Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat, an indication the group will seek some form of public subsidy for its stadium plans. Opat acknowledged as much this week, saying, “They wouldn’t be talking to us if they didn’t want us to participate in some way.”
But getting a public subsidy to help build a new stadium appears to be problematic for McGuire, owner of Minnesota United FC, which plays in a lower-level pro soccer league.
The incoming House majority leader said this week that Republicans are not interested in providing a public subsidy for a new soccer stadium. And while Opat has endorsed McGuire’s stadium location near Target Field, there are indications his board colleagues are tepid toward helping the project with public money.
“I don’t believe the House Republicans would have any appetite for another publicly funded stadium,” said incoming Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, whose party takes control of the House in January.
Hennepin County Commissioner Randy Johnson, a key vote for subsidies for Target Field, was more blunt in a letter to his colleagues last week. Not building one stadium for both the Vikings and the Gophers football team, he said, was the “first mistake.” He added that he did not now understand why soccer and football could not be played on the same field.
“I am reluctant to place any significant [Hennepin County] taxpayer money [into a project] that involves still another special purpose entertainment building,” he said.
Opat, meanwhile, said that, while he went to New York recently to endorse McGuire’s proposal before MLS officials, he has not been asked to support a specific public subsidy package for a stadium. McGuire’s reported stadium site, which Opat called “attractive,” would be near the Royalston stop on the planned Bottineau light-rail transit line. But “that doesn’t mean we would help them a lot, a little or at all,” Opat said.
Minnesota United FC officials declined to comment for this story.
MLS wants stadium ‘commitment’
Deputy MLS Commissioner Mark Abbott said that publicly discussing the two proposals in Minnesota was “premature” but — in a reference that would apply to McGuire’s group — added that “a club needs to have a commitment for a stadium.” The “vast majority” of soccer stadium commitments, Abbott said in addition, involve a “public and private” financing plan.
Paula Hildman, who helps administer the referee program for soccer in Minnesota, said she was not yet willing to discount McGuire. “Their fan base is pretty strong. Right now, that’s where they have the edge,” said Hildman, who attended the Vikings’ unveiling of their soccer stadium plan and called it “well put together.”
But “I think FC United will come out with something. I am not counting [McGuire] out.”
Ben O’Brien, president of the 7,000-member Minnesota Soccer Association, said he was skeptical of the Vikings’ soccer commitment but came away from the Vikings’ soccer stadium presentation impressed. “As a soccer person [I] didn’t really have a good feel about it because soccer isn’t their business,” he said. Now, he added, the Vikings have a “pretty impressive” proposal.
“Right now, the Vikings obviously are holding the cards on a couple of fronts,” said O’Brien. But the Vikings, he added, only reached out to the local soccer community “extremely recently” when they needed stadium support.
Many in the soccer community are staying neutral on the battle for an expansion team.
“I just want soccer,” said Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Klingel said he has talked to both groups but is not taking sides. “Not doing it — two great groups,” he said, smiling, as he listened to the Vikings’ stadium presentation.