If you look back through the rosters of the original North American Soccer League (1969 – 1983), you’ll find a whole host of international stars who played in the United States (Pele, Beckenbauer, Best, Cruyff and Eusebio among others). Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe is probably less well known but he’s widely considered the greatest player from South Africa. And between 1976 and 1981 his boots graced Metropolitan Stadium right here in the Twin Cities. His team, the Minnesota Kicks, drew over 23,000 fans per game between 1976-1979 and in 1977 averaged 32,775 per game.
The current iteration of Minnesota’s professional soccer team, Minnesota United FC, also plays in the NASL and draws a far more modest crowd — 4,445 average in 2013. But standing in the National Sports Center in Blaine (lovingly called “Nessie”), hearing the ‘Dark Clouds’ belt out a rendition of “Glory Glory Minnesota” to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it’s hard not to imagine Cruyff or Ace Ntsoelengoe feeling right at home.
Minnesota United FC started as the league-owned NSC Minnesota Stars in 2010. The Stars rose from the ashes of another team, the Minnesota Thunder, which folded in 2009 after 19 years of mixed success. Two seasons into their tenure the Stars did the impossible: they won the league. The team’s fans had already gained a reputation as some of the most passionate in the second division and after the final whistle, they were invited to celebrate with the players at a local bar. The ‘Dark Clouds,’ as the group of supporters is known (Clouds…Thunder…Stars…get it?) still sing of “filling The Cup with Surly.” Despite reaching the finals again in 2012, the NASL announced that the Stars would be folded unless a new owner was found to purchase the team. Fans and players alike awaited the grim fate as time slipped away and it seemed more and more likely that Minnesota had seen the last of professional soccer.
Enter Dr. Bill McGuire, who purchased the team and installed the capable Nick Rogers as team president. The Stars were rebranded as Minnesota United FC with a logo featuring the state bird of Minnesota. United’s branding is now regarded as one of the best in US soccer, and it has earned the team the nickname “the Loons.” Despite the transition year that saw United languish in the middle of the league, the Dark Clouds continued to build their own reputation of creativity, passion and heckling. The season opener saw the Clouds improvise a ten foot high Loon puppet bringing the team’s logo to life. Other games saw the Clouds light flares, chant their heads off and feature an unofficial mascot dressed as the Loch Ness Monster (Nessie). However, even with the passion of their fans, United only managed to finish fourth out of seven in the fall 2013 NASL season.
Going into the 2014, the fans were apprehensive of what was to come. Would the new owner spend on signings? There were also rumblings of the MLS being interested in expansion to the Twin Cities.
The first piece of good news was the establishment of a new training facility in Woodbury (currently under construction). Then a reserve squad was established which will play in the semi-pro NPSL league (the fourth tier of US pro-soccer). And finally the signings started to roll in: Tiago Calvano from Australia’s A-league, Juliano Vincentini who had played in Italy’s Serie B, Jamie Watson who was the top goalscorer for Orlando City SC and an exciting young forward from the Charleston Battery in Christian Ramirez.
The coup de grace was a preseason trip to England which saw the Loons train at St. George’s Park, the official training center for the English National Team. When they weren’t schmoozing with West Ham United (who also used the facility), the Loons played preseason games against Derby County, Matlock Town and a local reserve academy. The trip got United FC national attention and the MLS started to make more hints that expansion to the Twin Cities might be on the horizon. The preseason wasn’t all smiles though, as the team lost its starting striker, Brazilian Pablo Campos, to a torn ACL that sidelined him for the season.
If the Dark Clouds were concerned though, they didn’t show it, assembling en masse at the Nomad World Pub on the first day of the 2014 season to cheer on their beloved Loons. Striker Christian Ramirez obliged by scoring a stunning overhead shot before fullback Kevin Venegas slotted a free kick in to the left side of the net to dispatch the San Antonio Scorpions 2-0. In their second game the Loons struggled more against expansion team Ottawa Fury and were tied 1-1 until the 96th minute when on the last play of the game, Ramirez headed one into the net for the win.
The Loons head into their home opener this Saturday, second in the table behind the New York Cosmos on goal difference. Among United fans, there’s a sense of anticipation. Attendance at home games has ballooned in recent years and a recent advertising push coupled with the team’s winning record means there is a chance of a sellout. There are rumors of an extensive tifo display planned by the Dark Clouds and the appearance of another puppet. United’s first opponent is FC Edmonton who participate in the ‘Flyover Cup,’ United’s derby since its previous rival in Milwaukee folded.
The ‘Eddies’ keeper, Lance Parker, is a Dark Clouds favorite to heckle due to his history as a Calvin Klein underwear model. Last year’s game against the Eddies was punctuated with calls of “Lance! Lance! Underpants!” One Dark Cloud even applied to a FC Edmonton contest to win a date with Parker — she didn’t win. United’s Miguel Ibarra is likely to be lethal in this game after two fantastic performances in the midfield. Don’t be surprised if Christian Ramirez makes it 3 in 3, although the Eddies’ defense has a reputation for being tough to break down.
So come out to old Nessie this Saturday at 7 p.m. to get a taste of Minnesotan soccer culture. Take it from this ex-EPL fan, there’s nothing quite like standing in a packed stand singing the Looney Tunes theme and watching the Loons score. If you’re stuck at home, you can catch the game (and all of United’s home games) on KSTC-TV channel 45 and away games on www.nasllive.com.