Major League Soccer to Minneapolis is official, so now the question is how to go about Making MLS Work.
It has been common knowledge for a while that Minneapolis was seeking to be one of the next cities to be awarded an MLS franchise and be part of Don Garber’s “24 by 2020” plan for Major League Soccer. With today’s announcement that Minnesota United will be joining MLS, that part of the wait ends and the waiting for the team to actually join MLS begins.
I wrote last fall about the prospects of Minneapolis getting into MLS (which you can read here) and predicted they would get one of the final available expansion bids (at least for the time being until MLS goes beyond 24, which seems more and more likely) along with Sacramento. Sacramento seems to be on hold while MLS tries to give David Beckham as much time as possible and then some to get his act together in Miami, Minneapolis is in, and thankfully, they did it right.
The only real complication with the Minneapolis bid was which ownership group would be awarded the franchise. With both Minnesota United and the Minnesota Vikings NFL owners vying for an MLS franchise there was question until recently of who would be awarded the bid. The Vikings ownership potentially could have created a successful MLS franchise, but MLS really got it right by awarding the franchise to Minnesota United. This way, it sets the team up to be successful both on and off the field from the start. They’ve got ownership that is clearly invested in making MLS work in Minneapolis, an established fan base and supporter culture, a youth setup, and a stadium plan for a downtown soccer specific stadium.
All it takes to realize that MLS in Minneapolis is going to be a success is a few minutes on the internet reading about Minnesota United’s recent history in the North American Soccer League. Following a few years of financial instability, which included a couple years of being operated as a league owned franchise by NASL, the team was purchased by current owner Bill McGuire in November of 2012. This move essentially saved soccer in Minneapolis. Since McGuire took over and re-branded the previously named Minnesota Stars as Minnesota United, he’s invested heavily into the team and the organization which has led to improved results on the field and in the box office. McGuire’s ownership group includes the owners of the Minnesota Twins (MLB) and Timberwolves (NBA) and certainly has the deep pockets and has proven a willingness to invest in this team.
Average attendance has risen from around 1,600 in 2011, their first year in NASL, to over 5,500 in 2014 and over 8,000 for the fall season in 2014. While 5,500 isn’t blowing anybody away, that’s a good number for a team in NASL and is certainly miles ahead of starting from scratch as the Minnesota Vikings group would’ve been doing. Perhaps even more important is the existence of multiple established supporters groups. The Dark Clouds are Minnesota’s oldest and largest supporters group, having formed in 2004 and supported soccer in Minnesota through a myriad of team changes. The Wolf’s Head and The Loons Nest are newer groups, but certainly nothing to be ignored. These groups get it, they’ve created a supporter culture that attracts fans to the stadium, provides an entertaining environment for fans, and an boisterous support for their club. Would some of these fans have supported a new MLS team in Minneapolis if it wasn’t United? Maybe, but by awarding the franchise to Minnesota United, MLS ensured strong fan support from the beginning.
Minnesota United has proven they’re aware of the need to develop youth talent. Orlando City has proven this year it can help a team transition successfully into MLS on the pitch. Through partnerships with local youth academies and their own U-23 squad, Minnesota United Reserves, competing in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), Minnesota United may already have the beginnings of a talent pipeline to feed into their first team.
That said, United will need to expand their development program. An academy program is something they need to get right in order to succeed long term. While partnering with local youth systems has proven successful to a certain extent for some MLS clubs (the case of DeAndre Yedlin in Seattle comes to mind), the teams that have had the most success developing young talent are those who have show a long term commitment to their own development academies. These would be clubs like FC Dallas whose academy has produced 13 homegrown players. Making the most of local talent available is a must in order to ensure the long term success of the club, and while investing in an academy is expensive and is not something United has shown real interest in previously, it can pay off financially in the long run.
The stadium plan may not be the primary reason Minnesota United will work in MLS, but it’s important, especially given the recent issues with MLS expansion teams and their stadiums. New York City FC just entered the league playing in a baseball stadium and still look to have no real developments on the stadium front. Atlanta is set to join MLS and play in an NFL stadium. Their ownership group can talk all they want about how they’re designing it with MLS in mind and how they can make it work, but it’s still a football stadium not a soccer stadium. If the Minnesota Vikings group had their way, they’d be starting an MLS franchise in the new stadium they’re building for the Vikings.
Instead, McGuire and his group are building an outdoor stadium near the Twins’ Target Field. The plan is reported to be for an 18,000 seat stadium with grass and the $150 million cost looks like it will be mostly privately funded. While playing in an NFL stadium has worked for the Seattle Sounders, there really isn’t another team in MLS that could say they’re happy playing in a football stadium. D.C. United finally got a deal to build their owns stadium and get out of RFK before it falls down, and New England Revolution fans have been begging for years to get their own stadium. Not only is the stadium going to be a beautiful soccer specific stadium with grass, it’s going to be in a great downtown location, which is key to making the most of the market they will play in.
One potential snag that exists involves reports out of Minnesota this week that the Minnesota Vikings ownership is actively lobbying public officials to reject United’s stadium proposal. This could make things a bit more of a challenge, but with the stadium thought to be mostly, if not completely, privately funded, it may not actually be a problem.
When all is said and done, the main reason MLS in Minneapolis will work is because Minnesota United is already proving that SOCCER in Minneapolis works, and that’s what is most important. United already exist and they’re already making soccer work in Minneapolis. Moving to MLS just means they’ll be doing it on a bigger stage.