On some summer Saturdays, in the windswept city of Blaine, you’ll find hundreds of Minnesota’s most patriotic citizens gathered. Together, they stand and sing hymns to their state:
From the land of sky blue waters,
From the land of pines, lofty balsams…
The old Hamm’s advertising song, with slight edits, is among the repertoire of the Dark Clouds, the idiosyncratic fan group of Minnesota United FC, the state’s professional soccer team. Together with the Loons (soccer teams commonly bear staid formal names, while being referred to by a more casual nickname), the Dark Clouds are bound for a bigger and better stage than the paved prairie of the north metro.
Minnesota has supported professional soccer for over 20 consecutive years, more than almost any other state in the nation. Teams have played in many colors under many names. Recently there were the Minnesota Stars, the NSC Minnesota Stars, and the Minnesota Thunder. Before these iterations were the Minnesota Strikers, who played indoor soccer, and the Minnesota Kicks, who played in the heyday of the North American Soccer League (NASL) at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Today, the team is Minnesota United, and on March 25, 2015, they announced that they would be joining Major League Soccer (MLS) in three—possibly two—years.
The short version of the franchise’s complex history goes like this: Minnesota United FC currently plays in the second division of American soccer, as did their predecessors the Thunder and Stars. Today, that league is called the NASL. This is not the same league as the one that the Kicks played in, but a new entity that has exploited nostalgia for its namesake as a hopeful springboard to popularity and stability.
While the league and its teams have achieved a measure of both, there is no disputing that MLS provides a higher level of play, draws greater local fan attention, and is more visible globally. Still, the Loons were reasonably content pushing the envelope in the second division—that is, until the big, bad Minnesota Vikings began to make noise about winning an MLS expansion bid. If that happened and a first division team moved into their own backyard, the Loons wouldn’t be able to compete. So, they moved to defend their turf by launching a counter bid. Thanks to owner Bill McGuire’s ability to draw in additional investors (among them Glen Taylor, owner of the Timberwolves, and the Pohlads, owners of the Twins), his commitment to the team being his first priority (unlike what the Vikings group could offer), and the choice of existing fans (the Dark Clouds were firmly and vocally in the United camp), the Loons’ grassroots bid was successful in winning MLS favor.
The saga isn’t over, however. With the Vikings vanquished, United must now make their pitch to local politicians, many of whom openly rooted for the NFL team’s bid. The next battle is being fought on familiar terrain: the hope of a downtown stadium.
There’s good reason for United to pursue a home of their own. The 20-year history of MLS has taught soccer fans how crucial the right stadium is to a successful team. The league began its life playing in rented NFL stadiums and marketed heavily to youth soccer players and their families. The atmosphere was impersonal. Eventually, clubs began building their own intimate soccer-specific stadiums—often wherever land was cheapest, which improved the game-day experience tremendously. But it wasn’t until expansion franchises like Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders began playing that the league finally saw the light. The new teams were drawing sold-out, raucous crowds of young, loud, passionate urbanites in stadiums near city centers well-connected by transit.
This is the model Minnesota United hopes to follow. The team has targeted a plot of industrial land near the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market, just three blocks from Target Field Station and within a block of planned stations on the green and blue light rail extensions. Details about the planned stadium are scarce, but it will likely have a capacity of around 20,000, feature a natural grass field (a must for many professional players), and be specifically designed around the fan’s experience. That means steep stands close to the action and a roof to protect them from the elements and to trap sound. The entire project will cost somewhere just south of $200 million and be entirely privately funded.
But the question remains: Will it happen? Despite an overall price tag that’s less than half the public subsidy for the new Vikings stadium, Minnesota United has run into headwinds from skeptical politicians over tax exemptions. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has been among those leading the opposition to property-tax breaks on the stadium. With potential property-tax receipts estimated between $1.5–$3 million a year, the opportunity cost of the stadium to the city is not irrelevant.
The 2015 Minnesota legislative session ended without an agreement on a bill that would have provided the tax exemptions the club sought. In response, Minnesota United FC released a statement expressing disappointment and said they are “assessing all options in search of a solution that will secure a soccer-specific venue and Major League Soccer in Minnesota.”
Given the tremendous wealth of the local ownership group, the breadth of the plan (which includes investing in the farmers’ market), and the lack of alternative proposals for the area, the ingredients are in place for an eventual agreement. But until that happens, the speculation and lobbying will continue, and the Dark Clouds will keep lending their voices to the wind in Blaine.