When Minnesota United FC travels to Portland this weekend to begin play in the 2016 Simple Invitation, the trip will be more than a preseason tournament.
United executives such as sporting director Manny Lagos plan to meet with representatives from the Timbers to learn more about what it takes to make a successful transition to Major League Soccer.
“We’re certainly excited about the possibility of going to MLS, and certainly the timeline is looking good for very soon in the future,” Lagos said. “I think all these things intertwine with the type of trip we’re having, which is against MLS competition in Portland. I think hopefully my exuberance [for] the event makes it more than your normal preseason trip.”
Portland entered MLS in 2011, and within only a few years, the club built a fanbase that sells out every home game and even crafted a roster that won last season’s MLS Cup.
Last March, Minnesota was awarded an MLS expansion franchise. The United will play again this season in the North American Soccer League, and team President Nick Rogers said in January that he hopes to begin MLS play in 2017. That notion was reinforced this week in a Sports Illustrated report that also noted United could be forced to change its club name.
As the date nears, United’s Lagos is fortunate to have a long-standing friendship with Portland General Manager Gavin Wilkinson.
“Part of the premise and the discussions of bringing Minnesota into Portland was we would also share the best practices on the business side, what learned here and what our growing pains were,” Wilkinson said. “With us having known Manny for many years, we’re trying to help them position themselves in the best way possible when they do jump into MLS.”
This is the fifth year for Portland to play host to this four-team round-robin. The field usually consists of the Timbers, two other MLS clubs and an international team. But the relationship between Lagos and Wilkinson helped the Loons become the first American non-MLS club to take part.
The task of moving up to MLS is an immense one, meaning there will no shortage of topics to touch on.
United coach Carl Craig plans to bring his family to Portland to experience what he calls the best soccer atmosphere in America. He said it’s an opportunity to gauge which of his players are capable of playing in MLS.
“It’s guaranteed to be an excellent atmosphere in the stadium, it’s a chance to watch your own team play against the MLS champions,” Craig said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better, really.”
Wilkinson said he learned not to assume a good NASL player will translate to the MLS, and it’s important to begin building a roster early. United already has done that in the form of multiple offseason signings, most recently MLS veteran forward Ben Speas.
Mike Golub, Portland’s president of business operations, noted similarities between the Twin Cities and Portland in terms of market size and a history of soccer tradition at various levels. He also said one of the most important factors is completing a stadium. In 2010, Portland made massive renovations to Providence Park to accommodate an MLS club.
The SI report indicated United could play the 2017 season at the Gophers’ TCF Bank Stadium, and hopes to complete a $120 million, 20,000-seat stadium in St. Paul by 2018.
There is much work to be done for United, but the club will not be alone. Golub said before Portland’s move to MLS, he spent a lot of time talking with executives from other franchises. When Orlando City SC entered to the MLS in 2013, it looked at Portland as a blueprint as well.
In a league that continues efforts to surge into mainstream American culture, Golub said, it’s important for competitors to also work as a team.
“The league is on such a great trajectory, and it’s because there’s so many success stories around the league,” Golub said. “We watch with a very engaged eye and root very hard for our brethren and our cities to have the kind of success we’ve had. You’ve seen it in Orlando and Vancouver and NYC FC. We think Minnesota is poised to have that same sort of success.”