Minnesota Aurora’s wildly successful first season in the fledgling USL W League came and went as fast as a Minnesota spring.
After falling just short of an unbeaten record and the league title, the club’s co-founders barely had time to catch their breath before fielding questions about what’s next, including the inevitable: How long before Aurora jumps to the professional National Women’s Soccer League?
“I get the NWSL question every game, from fans and parents and all of the above,” said Allie Reinke, the former University of Minnesota standout and one of Aurora’s nine co-founders.
In one sense, it’s a preposterous notion. One outstanding season in a third-tier amateur league with college and postgrad players means you’re ready for the pros? That’s like demanding your favorite Northwoods League club replace the Twins in the American League Central (keep the remarks about the Twins’ pitching to yourselves).
But one thing about Aurora is hard to ignore – its stunning fan support at the 6,200-capacity TCO Stadium in Eagan; the Vikings’ training site.
Aurora topped the USL W League in attendance at 5,626 per game, better than seven of the 12 NWSL clubs through July 17, per soccerstandiumdigest.com. Fans in Aurora hats and scarves eagerly tromped several hundred yards from a gravel parking lot down a path lined with goose droppings to watch a women’s team that didn’t exist a year ago.
The league championship game July 23, when Aurora suffered its only loss of the season – 2-1 in overtime to South Georgia Tormenta FC – attracted a season-high 6,489, comparable to the average attendance at a NWSL game (6,421). All three playoff games were sellouts.
Aurora made headlines early on by signing goalkeeper Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt standout who gained national notoriety by kicking for the Commodores’ football team. Count Fuller among those convinced the Twin Cities could be a NWSL market.
“You can quote me: Hell, yes,” Fuller said after the championship game. “I 100 percent believe that, especially seeing how this community is. It’s Soccer Central up here. I would love to see this team go into the NWSL. They will be my No. 1 team for years to come. So yes, I definitely see it going there, for sure.”
Thing is, a lot must happen before Aurora can even consider such a dramatic move. First, the NWSL has to want them. And second, the club will need a lot more money than the $1 million it raised from its 3,000-plus community investors last year.
NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman told ESPN in July that expansion for 2023 is “one-hundred percent off the table,” though the league plans to add two teams in 2024. Utah is expected to be one, according to ESPN. Berman claimed 30 groups are bidding for the expansion slots.
Aurora exceeded its expectations for ticket, revenue and sponsorship by so much it tapped less than 10 percent of its WeFunder stake, according to co-founder Matt Privratsky. But it’ll take oodles more cash to fund a pro team.
Players must be paid; USL W League players aren’t. Aurora would have to fly to at least 10 NWSL cities and maybe all 12. It took buses everywhere this season.
Then there’s the hefty expansion fee Aurora will need to pay to join NWSL. Kansas City, new to the league this year, is believed to have paid $5 million, according to Spotrac.com. That alone will be tough for Aurora to raise. None of the co-founders are independently wealthy, and it might take multiple new angel investors with deep pockets to make it happen.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement in the Twin Cities for that (NWSL) idea, and people have asked for a team to fill that space,” said Aurora co-founder Elisa Vicuña. “We know there’s a huge demand for women’s sports and women’s professional sports in the Twin Cities.
“But right now, we’re really focused on making our model stand out, showing you can make things operate with community investment … It’s a unique ownership structure that’s different from anything you see in the MLS or NWSL. That community ownership is really important to us.”
Plus, Privratsky said, a bunch of other stuff has to happen first, like hiring a full-time staff. Trying to limit spending, the co-founders took on most of the off-the-field work themselves while holding down jobs in other professions.
Team president Andrea Yoch juggled multiple tasks, from managing gameday operations to writing press releases. Vicuña and Reinke handled merchandise sales. Privratsky, a soccer blogger, ran the technical side. The rest contributed in roles large and small, with help from part-timers. So, by the time the season ended, the co-founders were exhausted.
“We always knew what some of us referred to as the `group project phase’ was never meant to be permanent or long-term,” Privratsky said. “For us to be successful … we have to sort of professionalize the front office and empower them to lead the club day-to-day.”
That means hiring a full-time club president, a technical director to find players, and marketing and media relations staffs. The club also needs to do more in the community than it did this year, whether it’s clinics for kids, personal appearances by players and coaches, or even a booth at the Minnesota State Fair.
“All of us as a funding group have a ton of ambition and a lot of high hopes for what this club can become and what we can achieve,” Privratsky said. “Right now we’re focused on making sure this next step is executed super well.”
Maintaining the momentum and attendance of Year One is vital for Aurora to keep its NWSL dreams viable. It’s hard to top a 13-1-1 debut season that earned Nicole Lukic the league’s Coach of the Year Award, but that’s the challenge Aurora faces.
It helps that Fuller enjoyed her time in Minnesota so much she stuck around a few extra days to speak at the Star Tribune’s All-Metro Sports Awards ceremony at Allianz Field. (Yoch served as her driver and escort.) Fuller said she wants to come back next summer, in the front office if not on the field. She’s finishing her master’s degree in sports entertainment management at the University of North Texas.
“That’s a year from now, and knowing me, anything can happen. I’m a wild card,” said Fuller, 23. “I would love to be here again, whether playing or in a different position (in the organization). I just to want to help continue to grow this game. What it’s become is incredible. It’s all up from here.”