At least where Minnesota United FC is concerned, Shakespeare had it wrong.
What’s in a name? Symbolism, meaning and loyalty, to name a few ingredients — especially considering the team’s journey to its inaugural Major League Soccer season from the precipice of oblivion just five years ago.
The combined work of a sporting director with a Minnesota soccer legacy to uphold, a new owner with an urge to give back to the community, longtime players with the fortitude to stay and fans with the devotion to support the team through this big jump made that name especially apt.
“It has been a united effort,” said Jim Crist, who is on the board of directors of the Dark Clouds, a supporters group for the team. “Everybody wants this to be successful. Everybody realizes the potential, and there’s a lot of people working on this in a lot of different ways.
“United fits nicely.”
Keeping United in the name was anything but certain a year ago, about six months before United officially announced this past August it would join the league for the 2017 season. Two other MLS clubs already had the popular European moniker, including fellow 2017 expansion side Atlanta United FC. But Minnesota had already rebranded from the Stars to United in 2013.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber at first thought the name was just a generic traditional one, but eventually, it all made sense to him.
“It’s uniting two cities together,” Garber said. “I love the fact that we are a link between Minneapolis and St. Paul. I love the fact that, today more than ever, the diverse community that exists here and our sport can be a unifier of those communities. And I just love the fact that it’s kind of taking its fan base and bringing it together with those that might be new to our league and hopefully expanding the market and bringing a little more attention to this club.”
Like father, like son
Manny Lagos’ senior soccer career spanned 15 years and five MLS clubs starting in the league’s first season in 1996. The first six of those playing-career years he spent with his father, Buzz Lagos, on the Minnesota Thunder. Manny Lagos, who became coach of the pre-United NSC Minnesota Stars in 2010 and is now United’s sporting director, credits his father with continuing the sport in Minnesota in 1990, after the demise of the Minnesota Kicks in 1981 and the Minnesota Strikers, an indoor team, in 1988.
“It’s always important for us to build and grow on the legacy and try to understand that there’s been a great environment,” Manny Lagos said. “There’s been history with our fans, on the business side and certainly on the soccer side that we should always use to handle adversity and stress and the good and bad times that the club needs to deal with to become a good club.”
Some of those bad times hit around 2010. The Thunder had dissolved in 2009, and the National Sports Center had sponsored a new team, the Stars, with Manny Lagos as coach, in 2010. But by the next season, the North American Soccer League owned the team, and without an owner, the future looked grim.
Despite that uncertainty, the team went on to win the 2011 NASL championship. A year later, it reached the championship and lost on the same day the league’s board had scheduled and then postponed a vote on whether to keep funding the team. Kevin Venegas, a rookie in 2012, remembers every player talking to his agent weekly trying to figure out whether the team would even see 2013.
“We wanted to do as well as we can because if we go out and make the finals and win it, the league is then almost entitled,” Venegas said. “ ‘How do we let the team that just won it on the lowest budget in the league just fold?’ With the following that we already had, it kind of put the pressure on them to keep us.”
A former CEO of UnitedHealth Group, Bill McGuire stepped in to save the team from disappearing, formally buying the club in November 2012.
“It was just a feeling that we should, this community, the Twin Cities and the state, should have a professional soccer team,” McGuire said of his decision to take a turn in sports team ownership. “It’s the world’s game. It’s the game of all the people. It’s infinitely accessible. … How can we not have the world’s game and think we’re a great international city?
“It would be wrong to lose it.”
McGuire admits that when he bought the second-division team, joining MLS “wasn’t even on the radar.” But with the Vikings’ owners looking into fielding a team, United had to quickly decide if it wanted to become an expansion franchise.
Off McGuire’s pitch for a soccer-specific stadium — which will be privately financed, located in St. Paul and probably open in 2019 — United won the bid.
“Without Bill McGuire, there’s no chance we would’ve done it,” said Nicholas Bisbee, one of the founders of another supporters group, True North Elite. “I’ve thanked him nearly every time that I see him because every time that I see him, we’re having some big breakthrough, some big development, some new piece is added.”
Venegas looks back at his early years with United as a “blessing in disguise.” Chivas USA initially drafted him in the 2012 MLS supplemental draft, but the team soon released him. A connection his agent had with Minnesota Stars FC brought the California native up north.
No player really dreams of playing in a lower division, but within three years, Chivas USA had folded and Venegas had come into his own at United. He and fellow fullback Justin Davis, who has been with the team since 2011, were the first official signings when United went to MLS. They are two of eight players on the current roster with ties to the NASL squad.
Venegas, also known by his nickname Viva, drew interest from other MLS clubs toward the end of those NASL days but kept the faith that United would want him for the big leagues.
“I built my stock up and created a name for myself in Minnesota,” Venegas said. “I don’t know if I would have had that in a different city or with a different team.”
Always united, never divided
Back when United was trying to decide whether to remain United, at least in name, McGuire invited a few fans to a dinner with him and team President Nick Rogers. The pair used the opportunity to crowdsource the fans’ opinions on several topics, including a possible name change.
“We are United, never divided, and it stays that way” is how Bisbee responded to the latter, echoing a popular fan slogan.
That dinner exemplifies fan involvement with the team. Many fans were vocal either through word of mouth or social media when it came to United’s MLS bid. The Dark Clouds even wrote a formal letter to the league, stating their support of United.
That culture of connection started back in the lower-league era, when 1,500 people was a great turnout for a match in Blaine, and fans and players socialized after games at local restaurants.
Sari Hagen, 35, of Minneapolis, became a fan around 2011 when a buy-one-get-one ticket deal on Groupon brought her and her husband up to the north metro suburb. They ended up buying season tickets that same day.
She recalled that the first year after McGuire bought the team, the club hosted a potluck for season ticket holders. Many players brought dishes from their native countries, and there was even a bit of a competition for whose dish was best.
“Fans and players and the office staff sitting down together, hanging out, having some food, joking around,” she said. “It was a really cool thing.”
Bisbee actually rearranged his life around the team after becoming a fan in 2014, working his bartending schedule around the games. In job interviews, he brings up his kids and United as the two most important parts of his life. His vision is to one day see United become so commonplace that average Minnesotans will walk around wearing United gear, just like they do for the Vikings and Twins.
That goal seems a lot closer to fruition thanks to the work from Lagos, McGuire, players and fans.
“There is no way we’re telling this story without every single piece,” he said. “Without the fans, without the supporters, without the players for the club and without Dr. McGuire, we wouldn’t be telling this story right now.”