The other big question for Major League Soccer in Minnesota: just how many fans are out there?

Courtesy of Minnesota United FC
Forward Christian Ramirez shown during a recent game versus Edmonton.

On the back patio of Nomad World Pub last week, at a table beneath a shady tree, Abe Opoti and Patrick Phenow debated the future of local professional soccer. This engaging conversation among pals proved ten times more insightful and nuanced than anything you’re likely to hear on local sports talk radio, about anything.

Opoti and Phenow belong to the Dark Clouds, the largest of the three fan groups supporting the Minnesota United, the local North American Soccer League affiliate slated to join top-tier Major League Soccer by 2018.

Soccer is king at the Nomad, in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, and a few dozen of the 500 or so Dark Clouds congregate there for watch parties when United plays on the road. United owner Dr. Bill McGuire and his son-in-law, team president Nick Rogers, staked out a corner of the bar to watch the on-again, off-again live stream of United and the New York Cosmos on one of the bar’s flat-screen televisions.

Outside, the discussion centered on the Twin Cities as an MLS soccer market. United sold about 1,000 new season tickets after MLS announced its Minnesota expansion plans in late March, Rogers said. Average attendance jumped so much, from about 5,000 per match to 9,000, that United added more bleachers at its home field, at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

But attendance needs to double, to at least 20,000, for United to thrive in MLS. Ten of MLS’s 20 franchise averaged 20,000 or more last season, while Sporting KC averages 19,925 — in an 18,500-capacity stadium.

“I think there are two ways they can get to 20,000,” said Phenow, a 34-year-old transportation planner for MnDOT who lives in Minneapolis. “If they move back to downtown, especially downtown Minneapolis. A lot of people, myself included, don’t go to as many games because they play in Blaine. And if it’s an MLS team. I think the United can compete with a lot of MLS teams.” 

“I think they’ll get people if it’s in Minneapolis,” said Opoti, a 32-year-old African-American IT specialist from south Minneapolis. “What gets me is, there are so many people here who are so territorial. I know St. Paul people who will not go to Minneapolis. I know people in Minneapolis who will not go to St. Paul. People in areas of the south Metro won’t go north that much.”

Opoti arrived at the Nomad in proper United regalia, a black-and-slate-gray team jersey with matching scarf. But Phenow sported the white jersey of his favorite team, Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League. The “AIA” on the front reflected the Asian insurance company that sponsors the club (for a reported $25 million a year). Phenow loves the Spurs but embraces United as well.

That’s the key to the answer.

The Twin Cities is flush with soccer fans of multiple ethnicities and rooting interests. More than 30,000 attended last year’s Manchester City-Olympiacos match at TCF Bank Stadium. (Most left before the United game that followed.) Arsenal, another leading English Premier League team, has a thriving 80-member fan club called the MSP Gooners; founder Eric Grafnitz said some attend United games. True North Elite, a second United support group, includes fans of Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool. Mexican soccer fans frequent Eat Street favorite Pancho Villa in Minneapolis, where matches run on TV almost non-stop. And last month, hundreds took part in the annual Hmong soccer festival at Como Park in St. Paul.

Many Premier League fans look down their noses at American soccer as sub-standard. But MLS is growing on some of them. The challenge, if  United builds a new stadium at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market or the old bus barn site in St. Paul, will be getting those folks behind the club and into seats.

“I don’t see it as being a problem,” Opoti said. “Minnesota as a state is like, `Oh, this is a new thing? Awesome.’ “

He has a point. The St. Paul Saints just broke their franchise attendance record in their first year at CHS Field. University of Minnesota football sold out its entire home schedule when TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009, and the Twins sold out virtually every game its first two years at Target Field. 

But TCF Banks and Target Field crowds eventually fell off. Rogers and his staff are working to not only build United’s fan base, but sustain it.

Blaine is tough to reach without a car, discouraging attendance among two groups that include a sizable number of soccer-loving non-drivers: immigrants and millennials. The Dark Clouds rent a school bus from the Nomad to Blaine on game days, at $10 a head. McGuire turned down an overture from Canterbury Park in Shakopee to build there because another suburban site doesn’t solve the problem.

Crowds at United’s last two home matches, against Jacksonville on July 15 and FC Edmonton on Aug. 9, were overwhelmingly white, with a few hundred East Africans and Hispanics. United drew a franchise record 9,412 the first night, which coincided with the USA Cup international youth tournament, and 9,077 the second, when part of Interstate 35 – the primary route from Minneapolis — was closed for construction. Both games were televised locally and live-streamed.

“It’s a challenge, not just for those communities, but for a lot of people to get to Blaine,” Rogers said. “There is no public transportation that comes here at all – no buses, no light rail. In that context, it makes the attendance numbers we’ve been doing this year even more impressive. I think when we’re in a place that’s more accessible, you’ll see a lot of different groups show up.”

Those who did were certainly boisterous. Fans seemed knowledgeable, well-behaved and entertained. Food was reasonably priced – no $4.50 bottles of water like some places we know — and popular food trucks parked around the stadium perimeter offered lots of exotic options.

Midfielder Juliano Elizeu Vicentini shown during a recent game versus Edmonton.
Courtesy of Minnesota United FC
Midfielder Juliano Elizeu Vicentini shown during a recent game versus Edmonton.

“It’s a great live experience and a great game atmosphere,” said United Coach Manny Lagos, the former Minnesota Thunder star and reigning NASL Coach of the Year. “You don’t just flip a switch and turn this on. A lot of people have turned this into a golden gem, and they want to be a part of it.” 

After the Jacksonville game, which United won 4-0, top scorer Christian Ramirez said: “From TV, my parents said it looked awesome. You wouldn’t think that we were in Blaine.”

In the southern corner of the bleachers, across from the team benches, the Dark Clouds jumped around and sang silly songs the entire match, taking cues from leaders on wooden risers with megaphones. Someone set off a smoke machine after United goals.

“I brought somebody from the Timberwolves here a few weeks ago and they asked me, `How do you get them to stand and cheer the whole game?’” Rogers said. “I said, `I can’t get them to do anything. They do what they want.’ 

“We’re fortunate to have these guys be so self-policing and so conscientious about what they’re doing, because other clubs have groups and they have to deal with all sorts of problems, whether it’s violence, racism, homophobia. We don’t deal with any of that right now, so we’re very lucky.” 

The Dark Clouds were formed in 2004 to support the amateur Minnesota Thunder. “You can’t have thunder without dark clouds,” said Bruce McGuire, the group’s 53-year-old bearded patriarch who is no relation to Bill.

When the Thunder folded in 2009, the Dark Clouds moved on to the Minnesota Stars, which became Minnesota United after McGuire bought the struggling franchise in 2012. Pre-game tailgating finds graying, well-travelled soccer fans like Bruce McGuire mingling with North Loop hipsters and newbies like Opoti, who bought United season tickets in part to protest the Vikings stadium legislation. 

Opoti and his father owned Vikings season tickets since 1999. But it annoyed him that the bill included personal seat licenses, and circumvented the referendum required by the Minneapolis city charter.

“I was pissed at the Vikings,” he said. “I was mad that I didn’t get to vote. I probably would have voted yes anyway, but I didn’t get the chance. I started reading more and more. How did people not think there were going to be PSLs? That’s what the NFL does.”

Instead, for the same price as his Vikings tickets, Opoti kept his Gopher football season tickets and added United. “I knew friends who were jumping in because it was pre-MLS, and they didn’t want to be late to the party,” Opoti said. “I knew six different people who did that.” 

Now, United needs to find a few thousand more.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Catherine Pasch on 08/14/2015 - 10:19 am.

    soccer stadium

    My family loves soccer and would go to more games if the stadium was in St. Paul.

  2. Submitted by Paul Rider on 08/14/2015 - 10:31 am.

    I’m doing my best…

    …to get people excited about MNUFC. I almost always take a friend to join me for matches. Most of them get hooked right away. And many of those would certainly back the MLS franchise. If every other season ticket holder would do the same, we’d fill a new stadium every time.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 08/14/2015 - 11:02 am.

    Good question

    Thank you, Mr. Borzi, for posing this basic question: one that’s particularly important if developments lead to significant public subsidies.

  4. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 08/14/2015 - 11:40 am.

    The fans have been here for years

    I remember years ago when the Kicks were here & very popular. We filled the old Bloomington stadium (where MOA is now) to overflow capacity with 40,000+ fans.

    It has always been the USA football league that has worked overtime & spent so much money trying to convince us all that we love football. Well, I do not. I have always preferred soccer. I am 63 years old. My adult son played soccer when younger, and enjoys matches now. And we are far from alone. Soccer fans abound here & all around the country and our numbers have only increased over the years. The USA Women’s team just drew the largest television viewers EVER.

  5. Submitted by Damien Tank on 08/14/2015 - 12:14 pm.

    Blaine is a tough sell

    All the points discussed here about getting an audience to Blaine are spot on. When the Thunder played at Central High School in Saint Paul, my wife and I attended 5-10 matches per year, usually biking or busing to get there. Since they moved to Blaine, we’ve attended 2 matches. I know we’d attend a lot more if it moved back to the metro center.

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/14/2015 - 01:06 pm.

    No matter where they start out in attendance,…

    …they’ll fill the place up eventually, whether it’s located in Mpls or St. Paul. It’s only a question of how fast it will happen.

    There are an awful lot of kids involved in youth soccer, and if it’s conveniently located, their parents are going to be bringing them to the games, so I would think admissions will be sold in bunches – 3, 4, 5, 6 tickets at a time, rather than onesy-twosies.

    One big difference between Mpls and St. Paul location, I think, is that the St. Paul location is going to be a LOT more convenient to the customer, ESPECIALLY the customers who are not married to the auto and use public transportation. The train line service to the St. Paul location is not speculative, as it currently is in the proposed Mpls location – it is already in place.

  7. Submitted by Scott Walters on 08/14/2015 - 01:50 pm.

    Rename the Green Line the Sports Line

    It’s inconceivable to me that MLS wouldn’t work in the 3rd iteration of Midway Stadium. It’s within walking distance of The Titanic, the massive high-rise apartment building on the south side of I-94 just east of Snelling. That building alone will fill half the stadium every night, let alone all the millennials from both downtowns riding in on the trolley.

    From CHS Field and the Xcel, to the new Midway Stadium, on to The Bank, the Barn, the Hockey Center and US Bank Stadiums, and ending with Target Field and the Target Center, this almost looks like a custom built Olympic City ready to go.

    I’ve never watched a soccer game in my life, live or on TV. I’d go to at least one MLS game a year if it were at Midway Stadium. Sounds like a blast.

    The stadium would also be great for other events…the annual Hmong games, high school state soccer tournament, etc. With the light rail location, existing hotel infrastructure in both downtowns would serve all the visitors from outstate schools.

    I’m the farthest thing from a sports guy, and I phoned, wrote, and did all I could to prevent US Bank Stadium from happening, all to no avail. This one, however, I think actually makes good sense.

  8. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 08/14/2015 - 09:41 pm.

    This is just another unsustainable expense

    I like sports and watch less than I once did. I played sports and one of them was intramural soccer in college. I have gone to a couple football games, baseball games and even hockey. The only soccer game I saw was the Phoenix pro team and I can only describe it in a way that H.L. Mencken commented on opera. On being advised that I would enjoy seeing a soccer match I showed up at the appointed time of 7pm and the match began promptly at 7pm. Three hours later it was 7:05.

    • Submitted by brian hanf on 08/15/2015 - 07:04 am.

      Weird

      I’ve never heard someone be bored with Soccer before. I would guess its the same people that don’t enjoy the 30-90 seconds waiting for a pitcher to get a signal from a catcher, or the players huddled for the 40 seconds after ever single play in football. The only pause in play is injury, if you don’t find non stop play exciting I’m not sure anyone can help you.

  9. Submitted by brian hanf on 08/15/2015 - 07:10 am.

    Oh, OK?

    So your headline seems like they won’t have enough people to fill a stadium. Yet all the details support that despite being in a lower division and in Blaine with no public transportation they have sold out every game this season.

    Instead of saying they need to find a few thousand more, I would think the conclusion would have been.

    It should be easy to find a few thousand more.

  10. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/16/2015 - 08:04 am.

    0- 0, Let’s Go To A Shoot Out

    If one enjoys a reasonable amount of offensive production in 90 minutes of playing time, one can easily be bored by soccer, a.k.a.football.

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