Vikings entertain MLS bid
A double-header soccer event will be held on a temporary grass pitch Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Another soccer match will continue outside the lines.
First, Manchester City FC and Olympiacos will play in the International Champions Cup, a preseason tournament for the world’s best clubs. Second, Minnesota United FC will play Ottawa Fury FC, a matchup of teams in the second-strata North American Soccer League.
Winners and losers likely will be determined in those matches, but the biggest competition, with an undetermined endgame, remains the pursuit of a Major League Soccer franchise in Minnesota.
The Vikings are a lead promoter of the International Champions Cup and consider the event a precursor to an increased focus this fall on a possible MLS bid. Meanwhile, United owner Bill McGuire has heavily invested in his club, explores sites for a new stadium and quietly considers MLS possibilities.
“No one wants to overcommit,” said Alan Merrick, a soccer ambassador in Minnesota since the 1970s. “No one wants to make statements that will come back to haunt them, so I think they are both being very coy in their approach.”
The Vikings are more open. The NFL franchise continues to talk with MLS leaders; they visited the Portland Timbers franchise this summer, and they’re working on renderings and designs of what soccer could look like in their nearly $1 billion stadiums under construction in downtown Minneapolis.
“It’s about the long-term elevation of soccer in Minnesota,” said Lester Bagley, the Vikings’ vice president of public affairs and stadium development. “We believe that this is a strong expansion market for MLS.”
Merrick, who played for the Minnesota Kicks pro team during its heyday in the 1970s, said both groups have merits.
For the Vikings, it’s the stadium.
“Looking at all of the complexities of that stadium, and the state-of-the-art environment that will be there, I can’t think of a better location,” Merrick said.
For the United, it’s the investment in the existing local pro team.
“They now have to come to terms on whether they want to maintain being in the second division of soccer or bring it to (MLS), the pinnacle of the game in the U.S.,” said Merrick, who currently coaches the University of Minnesota men’s club team. “They will move in the direction of nothing but the best. They’ve invested a lot of time, energy and money and passion into it. They need to be rewarded.”
The goal of MLS is to expand to 24 teams by 2020, and Minnesota is considered a frontrunner to be awarded a franchise.
But MLS has been interested in Minnesota for about eight years, said Candace Daley, executive director of the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA).
“It’s really important to them that if they are going to move into a state and try to bring a team in that there is a large and well-structured youth organization,” Daley said.
Minnesota has that. With 70,000 playing members, MYSA is the 15th-ranked state in number of participants, Daley said. Their publication, Soccer Times, reaches 55,000 households six times a year.
“They (MLS) really like the fact that soccer is very popular here,” Daley said.
The United, and its previous iterations, have been involved with MYSA for many years, and Daley said the Vikings have reached out to partner with MYSA in the past two months.
But MYSA isn’t playing favorites. They want MLS here, regardless of which ownership group might be awarded the franchise. They just want professional role models for their players.
“It’s not for us to duke out, but we are going to be supportive of the efforts,” she said.
Support of Saturday’s game is crucial, Merrick said. On Wednesday, announced attendance figures eclipsed 30,000, which is well below the 45,778 averaged in the opening eight matches of the tournament.
“I think they need to get 35,000, 40,000 fans to show that people are interested, and that this is more than just a passing fancy,” Merrick said. “Let’s start moving this game into the No. 1 league. Let’s bring it into the Twin Cities.”