Decades of soccer in Minnesota culminate with MLS entry in 2017

Photo Courtesy NASL

Minnesota United FC will enter MLS in 2017. Paul Tenorio explores soccer's history in the Twin Cities.

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Nick Rogers was just a private practice attorney watching the MLS All-Star Game in 2012 when he posted a message on his Twitter account: “Hard to overstate how happy it would make me to have an MLS club in Minneapolis.”

Five years later, Rogers, now the president of Minnesota United FC, was on the stage Friday as Minnesota was officially unveiled as Major League Soccer’s 22nd franchise, to begin play next year.

“I know I said Minneapolis at the time,” Rogers wrote FourFourTwo in a message this week. “But St. Paul is just as good.”

The ceremony Friday was the culmination of a jagged expedition through the many levels of American professional soccer in Minnesota. The story of Minnesota United arguably reflects that of American soccer better than any other club in the country’s top division.

Professional soccer has had many forms and names over the course of the last five decades in Minnesota. It has seen teams come and go, franchises fade into history and its latest club avoid that same fate before receiving an MLS invite. It has been an existence so fragile that the club’s fans have a mantra: “In any league, by any name.”

Manny Lagos, United’s sporting director, represents the club’s snaking journey. His father, Buzz, won more than 300 games as coach of the A-League’s Minnesota Thunder. His own career was built in the Twin Cities, and he spent money out of his own pocket to keep pro soccer alive in his hometown. Now, the son of the man who meant as much to soccer in Minnesota as anyone else is in charge of shepherding the move to MLS.

On the other side of the story is that of Rogers, who represents the recent soccer explosion in the United States. The 34-year-old lawyer fell in love with the sport watching Liverpool on Saturday mornings at a local pub with friends. His support helped convince Dr. Bill McGuire to buy the franchise, an investment that unequivocally saved Minnesota United and led to Friday’s scene at CHS Field in St. Paul.

Minnesota’s pro team, like American soccer, is guided by the old guard and the new. Those who have loved the sport when there was no permanence guaranteed, and those who have discovered the beautiful game more recently and helped to create the momentum towards stability.  

Photo Courtesy NASL

Photo Courtesy NASL

If there is a sentiment that some MLS markets were simply awarded franchises without much history in place, Minnesota should be considered the opposite. This wasn’t just a grassroots movement a few years in the making. It was a decades-long struggle to keep alive a sport in a community that craved it.

“There’s been great history over the last few decades starting in the ’70s with the Minnesota Kicks,” Lagos said. “To me the announcement on Friday is another historic moment for Minnesota soccer. We do value that history and we value so many people making sure the sport stayed relevant and was able to be here in the community. What we have now is an incredibly special ownership group that gave us a vision we could achieve.”

Building a foundation

McGuire’s leadership was the turning point. The owner fell in love with the game watching the first leg of a two-leg playoff in 2012. The drama of the sport pulled him in. His investment and vision for the club immediately brought a solidity that had never before existed. There is some symbolism purely in United’s ability to keep the same name for the move to MLS, especially after a rumored name change caused some hand-wringing in Minnesota and MLS circles.

Bill wanted to save this team that was going to go away and take it from there."

- Nick Rogers

“It just became more real,” said Bruce McGuire, no relation to the owner, who has blogged about soccer in Minnesota for the last 11 years. “Because up until then, for I don’t know how many years, several, it felt like at the end of the season the question was always, ‘Will there be a team?’ That always floated over everyone. [When Dr. McGuire bought the team] you looked at it and thought, this is an opportunity to make a bigger-picture plan here and try to do something. At the end of year instead of ‘Will it exist?’ it became, ‘How will we build on this?’”

The plan never revolved around getting to MLS. It was about latching on to a culture that could drive the team forward, and also to bring a professionalism to the organization and ensure longevity.

“Bill wanted to save this team that was going to go away and take it from there,” Rogers said.

The Minnesota market was attractive to MLS, however, and McGuire’s ownership team won out on the opportunity to bring the highest level of the sport to the Twin Cities. That move became official on Friday. The announcement is hardly a finish line, however. In some ways, United now begins to play catch-up.

Photo Courtesy NASL

Photo Courtesy NASL

The club has been in a holding period as it awaited the official move into MLS. It has not been able to take season ticket deposits for next year or sign partnership deals with sponsors, for example. It still has work to do on its home base for the next few years. St. Paul recently approved site plans for a soccer-specific stadium, but United will play at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium until the stadium is completed.

On the soccer side, while players have been discussed and some brought in on trial, the team has not been able to sign anyone to MLS contracts for the 2017 season.

Work to be done

With less than six months remaining until the start of preseason, that puts Minnesota in somewhat of a time crunch. The club has made some preparations in advance, hiring a bigger staff than most NASL teams and transitioning in some areas of operations. United hired Tim Carter, formerly of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, as the director of its development academy, a move that is expected to be announced early next week. The team also created a role in the front office dedicated solely to learning and understanding the MLS collective bargaining agreement, roster rules and budgeting.

With the move official, Lagos is now more free to put into action his plans to build the roster. FourFourTwo will chronicle the behind-the-scenes construction of the team’s expansion roster over the next few months.

Assuming the club brings up around five to seven players from its NASL roster – a number two sources familiar with the roster said was reasonable – United must look to fill around 20 spots in the next few months. It will do so through the MLS expansion draft, MLS SuperDraft, free agency and the international market.

Minnesota’s expansion rival Atlanta United lacks the core of an existing team, but it has started to add to its MLS roster already, including a pair of major signings: designated player Hector Villalba from Argentine club San Lorenzo and Trinidad & Tobago striker Kenwyne Jones.

Lagos said the club has to “grow and get better and improve” in all areas in order for Minnesota to be competitive in the short- and long-term.

“There’s tons of work to be done,” Lagos said. “I try to look at it as a positive. We can’t sugarcoat it. It’s an incredibly important time to grow and build the club on many levels. … We have to figure out how to grow and how to develop our training facilities to be competitive in an MLS market and a global market that’s very competitive for players. And then there is the roster building piece. It is going to be stressful, it’s going to be hard. We have to look at one-, three-, five-year cycles and it’s about how to manage and grow the roster and to do so in an ever-changing sport that seems to be growing and growing with more and more resources globally.”

Lagos also must do so in the midst of the team’s final NASL season, a balance that no doubt has contributed to some of the team’s ups and downs this year. For any club making the transition into MLS, keeping a focus within the team when players are wondering about their future is difficult. United sits in fourth place in the NASL after a 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday.

For Lagos, however, the glass is perpetually half-full.

There’s tons of work to be done,” Lagos said. “I try to look at it as a positive. We can’t sugarcoat it. It’s an incredibly important time to grow and build the club on many levels."

- Manny Lagos

Perhaps it’s the right take for someone whose family has given so much to the sport in Minnesota and now will oversee its biggest moment. Lagos can find motivation by recalling the years his father was in charge of the Thunder, or the times his wife supported him when he wrote checks for rent and travel to keep the club going.

“I’ve seen the older generation and what they’ve put in, and what my family and my father dedicated to the sport and the state because they felt the way I do,” Lagos said. “And I’m excited for the younger generation of Minnesota soccer fans and the future stars here who needed this pathway. I’m excited to build this and for this new vision, to be relevant as a soccer state and for Minnesota to be relevant as a global soccer state as well.”

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.