The United States has some of the best professional (men’s) sports leagues in the world. Baseball, basketball, hockey…the best players in each of these sports from all over the world want to come here (but there are some Canadian teams too…). Football…well, there’s a reason it’s known as American football. But when it comes to soccer, the U.S. can’t even pretend to have the best league in the world. Soccer is largely ignored in this country, or it was for a lengthy period of time. Major League Soccer is younger than I am. However, it seems that soccer is beginning to gain more traction here in the U.S.
Major League Soccer (MLS) expanded this year, adding two teams, bringing the total to 22 pro teams (some of these are in Canada, too). To my excitement, one of these expansion teams was awarded to Minnesota. As both an avid Minnesota sports fan and increasingly interested soccer observer, my excitement was grounded in two different fronts – I was going to get to see more soccer, and I was going to get to cheer for my home team while doing it. With the lack of a major pro league and less coverage than other sports, soccer was a sport I knew very little about growing up (something I’ve wished more and more wasn’t the case), but now I get to learn and hopefully connect more with the sport.
Tonight (3/18), I was able to go to the game between Minnesota United FC (nicknamed, the “Loons”) and the Colorado Rapids. With two major defeats in their first two games (5-1 to Portland and 6-1 to Atlanta) and with Tim Howard in net for the Rapids (the goalkeeper for the U.S. national team), my only real hope coming into the game was that we would score a goal. As I was looking to buy my ticket, I discovered that the stadium had an away section, and after paying a couple more bucks to buy the ticket from the team site instead of a random ticket from a third party vendor, I was not disappointed in any way by my experience.
I would be surprised if I could say there were a “couple hundred” people in the away section – my seat was in row 18, and I ended up moving about 5 rows up to stand at the back of the group. The section is also a wedge shaped section in the corner, starting with about two seats in the front and expanding from there. Even with the small number of fans, we stood for the whole game, singing cheers led by a guy with a megaphone and waving flags all night (legit-sized flags; I brought my state of Minnesota flag and wore it as a cape). The experience made me wish that there were more sports that had an away fans section that I could be a part of.
As for the game itself, the squad played valiantly, if sloppily, for the whole game. The first goal scored came from Colorado off of a misplayed ball from a Minnesota defender. That goal stood as the only score of the first half. In the second half, the teams switched directions, and Minnesota was attacking on our side of the field. Less than five minutes into the half, Minnesota was awarded and scored on a penalty kick, tying the game. We proceeded to take the lead less than 10 minutes later, and held the lead for roughly one minute before the Rapids re-tied the game. Another ten minutes later, and a Minnesota player was given a red card (meaning he was ejected) for spiking a Colorado player in the knee while going for the ball, and Minnesota was forced to play the rest of the game one man down (the ejection is for the entire position, not just the player; a substitute cannot come in for the ejected player). Much of the rest of the game was spent on defense for Minnesota, but the team was able to maintain the draw, finishing with a final score of 2-2. Soccer standings work on a points system – a team gets 3 points for winning and 1 point for tying – meaning that Minnesota secured its first point in its young MLS history.
Between the tie tonight and the 35,000 fans who attended the home opener in the snow at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, this team is showing that pro soccer belongs in Minnesota. Unlike other countries, where teams are promoted or relegated in a tiered professional league system, Minnesota United did not earn its way out of the NASL (the “official” Division II in U.S. pro soccer); it was given a spot in MLS. While this is the way professional franchises come into being in American sports, this is atypical in the soccer world. There also wasn’t necessarily the biggest push from MLS for a franchise in Minnesota; Atlanta’s franchise was awarded first, even if both teams did start at the same time. In addition, the team is playing at the University of Minnesota’s football stadium until a permanent stadium in St. Paul is completed. Even when the stadium is completed, the team will have to compete for attention in a metropolitan area that already has professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, as well as a championship women’s basketball team, a minor league baseball team, and a Division I college sports program.
Even with all of these things that the team will have to fight through, signs are promising for the future. Soccer is growing in popularity in the U.S. – 35,000 fans braving snow and freezing temperatures to watch the first home game in the history of the club points to this in the Twin Cities area. Additionally, not having the fear of being relegated to a lower league will allow the team to grow and build momentum into the future, becoming a better, more competitive team in the process. In all of this, the slogan is true; in soccer, the north is rising.