Two sides push for Twin Cities to land Major League Soccer team
By Andy Greder
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS — As 32 nations compete on soccer’s biggest stage in the World Cup, two sides in Minnesota are vying for an expansion Major League Soccer franchise on different platforms.
The Minnesota Vikings are making their push public, while Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire and Minnesota Twins owner Jim Pohlad are keeping theirs mostly private.
The Vikings announced that owner Mark Wilf met with MLS leaders earlier this month “as part of an ongoing discussion,” according Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley. The Vikings said they went on two fact-finding trips in May to successful MLS clubs, the Seattle Sounders and Kansas City’s Sporting KC.
“We are focused on our game plan,” Bagley said. “We are aware of other efforts and interest in the community, and we applaud those.”
McGuire, United President Nick Rogers and Twins President Dave St. Peter made a quieter trip to Kansas City in December. A Minneapolis business consortium, 2020 Partners, approached United about building a soccer-specific stadium on the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market site near Target Field last September.
McGuire, who made his fortune as CEO of UnitedHealth Group, declined to comment on the MLS in early May, saying that he is focused on the United, which plays in the minor-league North American Soccer League.
Pohlad, who directed most questions to McGuire in late May, said, “We think that soccer is very exciting, and it would be great to bring to the Twin Cities.”
MLS, which also declined to comment for this story, said last year it wanted to reach 24 teams by 2020. The 19-team league already has announced plans to add franchises in Orlando, Atlanta, New York and possibly Miami.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bagley said. “The window is closing and there is some competition for the 24th spot — and this is our view, not that of the MLS — the opportunity is now and we want to move our effort forward.”
That leaves one spot for Minnesota — which is considered a frontrunner — and more than a half-dozen other locations, including Sacramento, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, St. Louis, San Antonio and Austin, Texas.
Pohlad said competition locally and nationally is ultimately MLS’ call.
“It’s good that there are a lot of people interested,” Pohlad said. “I’m sure that makes MLS happy.”
Bagley said there is no firm timeline on when MLS will be receiving bids or make a decision on the 24th franchise.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to draw that last spot out a little bit more because there are a handful of cities out there that are really interested,” said Drew Epperley, editor of soccer blog WVHooligan.com.
Epperley said the MLS looks for ownership groups to have both capital and a stadium.
“That’s always a good thing in my book: two groups bidding within one city,” Epperley said. “And they have the money to do it; that’s the other thing.”
The MLS has been willing to go with NFL-size stadiums and soccer-specific stadiums, which have a capacity of about 25,000. The recent Atlanta franchise went to Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who has plans for a new shared stadium for MLS and NFL. In Orlando, MLS insisted on a smaller soccer stadium located downtown.
“They say they want a soccer-specific stadium,” Epperley said. “I think that is really the big key to attract them more so than an NFL venue because they’ve only seen it really work in Seattle. In New England, if they had any other owner than Robert Kraft, it wouldn’t be in (Gillette Stadium).”
The Legislature’s bill for the new Vikings stadium in 2012 included a provision granting the NFL franchise five-year exclusive rights to establish MLS at the stadium.
“An MLS team would be a good use of the stadium and the investment that the state already made,” said Michele Kelm-Helgen, executive director of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority.
But this is not binding for the MLS or United, Kelm-Helgen said.
“It clearly is up to MLS if they come to Minnesota, and No. 2, who they sell the franchise to and where it goes,” Kelm-Helgen said.
This provision was written into law to possibly create another tenant for what was designed as a multipurpose stadium.
“I believe there are 17 home (MLS) games, so it could be a pretty significant revenue source for us,” Kelm-Helgen said.
The Vikings are working on a “house reduction mechanism” to close off the upper levels of the stadium and cut capacity to 20,000 to 25,000. Atlanta had to bring forward a similar plan, Bagley said.
The Vikings and United will be in the same ballpark, er, stadium for the International Champions Cup on Aug. 2. The United will play the Ottawa Fury after international power clubs Manchester City and Olympiakos square off at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Vikings are swooping in with a partnership with Relevent Sports to promote the event.
The Vikings’ “strategic alliance” with Relevent Sports, an international soccer promoter, will include possible upcoming events in 2015 and at the new stadium in 2016, Bagley said.
“It’s part of a broader, long-term play for MLS in the market,” Bagley said.
As the Vikings were talking about the possibility of MLS, the United were letting their play on the field do the majority of the talking. United displayed the North American Soccer League trophy for the Spring season at Brit’s Pub in Minneapolis on June 10.
The United will play the Mexican Under-21 National Team on July 4 and Swansea City of the English Premiere League on July 19.
United coach Manny Lagos said this summer will be the most competitive in his four-year tenure with the club. He says it’s indicative of the competitive commitment of McGuire.
“We really believe we will become one of the best clubs in North America,” Lagos said.
There is precedent for teams from the smaller NASL and USL Pro leagues to make the jump to MLS. Orlando City FC will make the leap from USL Pro in 2015.
“They’ve had a lot of success in the past in a way of poaching teams from these smaller divisions,” Epperley said.
NASL commissioner Bill Peterson acknowledged earlier this month that there is a “pathway” that has been traveled for some clubs, but “I don’t see that happening” with United.
“Professional soccer in this country is bought, not earned,” Peterson said during a United game earlier this season. “If you buy a team, you can put one just about anywhere these days. … Everyone has to sit down and decide what that means. Unfortunately, it’s unclear.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.