It’s fair to say that the first two MLS years of Minnesota United’s existence have not gone according to plan.
It’s easy to focus on the lowlights – the horrendous start in 2017, including a 6-1 home loss to fellow expansioneers Atlanta; the disappointment of the team’s quick fade from playoff contention this season; the rash of injuries that’s hit the team this year; the decision to dump fan-favorite striker Christian Ramirez. It’s difficult to find nice things to say about a team that, for the second straight year, is going to be nearer the historically bad teams at the bottom of the standings than it is to the playoff teams at the top.
But it is possible to be positive, even now. It begins with a single, simple thought: Minnesota is lucky to have a team at all.
In the end, it seems like an easy choice for MLS to expand to Minnesota. It’s one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the country, a city with a thriving business community, one that’s a regional magnet for the young urbanites that make up the core of United States soccer fandom. By the time the league got around to awarding the franchise, the area had not one but two interested ownership groups – the Bill McGuire-led consortium that ended up with the franchise, and the Minnesota Vikings.
That competition gave both groups a reason to push the timeline. The Vikings were latecomers to the game, having mostly ignored the idea of funding a soccer team until it became apparent that MLS wasn’t going to blindly hand them a franchise as soon as US Bank Stadium was finished. The Purple bid was 95% stadium and 5% soccer, and the 5% soccer was mostly the recognition that both soccer and football use a rectangular field.
The Vikings’ interest, though, was what pushed Minnesota United into deciding whether to aim for MLS. Even after McGuire and company bought the team in 2013, then in the second-division NASL, it wasn’t a done deal that the team was headed for the top division. Back then, there were still plenty of true believers in the NASL front office, people who believed that the NASL was the way forward and MLS was too fake to make the grade in the future. NASL, meanwhile, was the safe, stable choice, the pragmatic alternative to the grandiose dreams of MLS.
The Vikings’ interest is what made United push for MLS, rather than waiting to see what would happen with the NASL. The timing turned out to be perfect; a year after Minnesota left the NASL, the second-division league collapsed.
On the heels of Minnesota’s arrival, the expansion race has heated up. For a few years, no cities wanted MLS teams; for a few years after that, the only cities that seemed to want a team were cities that already had a history in the second division. First Orlando and New York City, and then Atlanta and Minnesota, were in the vanguard of the final explosion of MLS interest. Now, there are more cities that want a team than there are teams to go around; cities that seemed like shoo-ins, a few years ago, like Sacramento and San Antonio, now seem like they may have lost the race. Austin is jumping the line by stealing the Columbus Crew. Other cities that miss out on expansion will attempt the same kind of theft.
It can be small comfort, when United is giving up 18 goals in four games, or earning two points out of 21 possible in the middle of a so-called playoff push, to think that things could be worse. But Minnesota United is in MLS now. Next season, it will open a sparkling new stadium right in the middle of the two Twin Cities. There were plenty of past nights where that seemed unlikely; there were even more times when it seemed impossible. And there are only a handful of MLS teams that will be as well set as United next year, with a new stadium in an urban setting.
None of that excuses the last two years. None of that in any way flattens the steep climb to the top for Minnesota. After two years, the jury’s still out on the team’s front office and coaching staff. Only a handful of Loons can feel sure that they’ll be on next year’s squad; perhaps only Darwin Quintero can be all but certain he’ll be in the starting lineup. With the exception of Quintero, Minnesota doesn’t seem noticeably ahead, at the beginning of 2019, from where they were at the start of 2017.
But they’ll be here. And they nearly weren’t. And as 2018 begins to wind down, that might be the most positive it’s possible to be.