The announcement on August 19 that Minnesota United FC would be joining MLS for the 2017 season generated a lot of buzz across the MLS community, but nothing exceeded the cheers of victory around the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. Our cheers weren’t for an MLS move, however, but for the announcement of a name.
Keeping the name “United” isn’t generally cause for celebration—in fact, the announcement of the name was met with a lukewarm response at the start. So why did fans petition both the team and MLS to let us keep such a name? History.
The history of Minnesota soccer goes back 40 years to the original North American Soccer League (NASL) and the Minnesota Kicks, but to imply that United has a storied, 40-year past is misleading. The truth is that in those 40 years, Minnesota has had four separate men’s teams with six different names. Minnesota United is the last of those teams, with a history dating back only to the re-forming of the NASL in 2010.
For nearly twenty years prior, Minnesota had fielded a USL-1 side, the Minnesota Thunder. Like the Kicks, who disbanded in 1981 (leaving the state without a professional outdoor men’s soccer team for nearly a decade) the Minnesota Thunder were an established team with an established brand and an established fanbase. In 2009, they announced that they would join with seven other teams to re-form the North American Soccer League, but that plan failed, and instead the Thunder were forced to disband.
Fortunately, the National Sports Center, an enormous soccer complex north of Minneapolis, created a team of their own—with many former Minnesota Thunder players signing on and the long-time Minnesota Thunder supporters’ group, The Dark Clouds, coming along for the ride. This helped in some ways to continue the momentum built over two decades, but there were problems.
Chief among those problems was that the new team wasn’t the Thunder, in technicality, brand, or, most problematically, name. After a fan-run naming contest, the team was branded the “Stars”—a name well suited to a state with the motto “L ’etoile du Nord” or “The Star of the North.” But the Stars moniker was not without its own issues thanks to an incredibly contentious hockey rivalry that began when the beloved Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas to become the Dallas Stars. To invoke the word “Stars” in Minnesota sports culture is nearly always to incite a fight, or at least a good deal of ill will. Add to this that in Minnesota, hockey is a far more important and recognizable sport than soccer, and marketing a soccer team called “Minnesota Stars” quickly becomes an exercise in confusion and frustration.
For the 2010 and 2011 seasons, supporters of the Stars, nearly all of whom had been avid supporters of the Thunder, worked tirelessly to promote the new club to a community who largely believed that professional soccer had ended with the Thunder. Twenty years of excitement around a team were killed off the instant the team changed brands. Everything that had been done since 1990 had to be restarted—this time with the added confusion of having to explain that we were talking about soccer and not a different sport entirely. The Stars maintained a dedicated fan base, drawing an average attendance of around 1,700 fans, but compared to the 4,000 that the Thunder had drawn it was clear that the change had hurt soccer culture in the state.
In 2011, the Stars did something that few Minnesota men’s sports teams have managed: they won a championship. Still under the confusing brand of NSC Minnesota Stars, the team averaged 1,700 per match, but drew 2,500 for the playoff semifinal and more than 4,000 for the final match of the 2011 season. Success provided a necessary push, and momentum built as the team opened the 2012 season to a crowd of over 8,000 people. To those of us who had been with the team from the beginning, it felt like we had finally overcome. Moving forward, the Stars would be our team.
But there were more struggles on the horizon. The league owned the Stars, but no longer needed them to meet their mandated eight-team minimum. The club needed to make a case for its existence, and it seemed the only hope would be another miraculous run to the NASL championship. The team lost on penalties in the final match, the feeling of absolute defeat shared among the fans as we realized all our work all our work to generate support around the team would almost certainly amount to nothing.
Fortunately, all was not lost for Minnesota soccer. Thanks to the team’s success and the passion that the players and fans inspired in key members of the community, the team found a new owner just after the 2012 season. The future was secure, and we could continue the momentum we’d built.
However, a few months later, we had to face the bittersweet news that although the new owners had big, exciting plans for the team, those plans included another re-brand, this time to “Minnesota United FC.” They gave us the usual line that people who name their team “United” give about uniting the communities—a line that sounded all the more farcical in the Twin Cities, which really are a divided community, with many residents of Minneapolis or St. Paul taking greater pride in their particular city and largely dismissing the worth of the other. Perhaps they had valid points, particularly regarding the confusion surrounding the “Stars” name, but United? It was so boring and generic. It was still confusing. Most of all, it wasn’t our team. Once again, we had a new logo, new colors, and a new name.
Thanks to the new budget, attendance not only remained steady, but increased, as the team consistently drew crowds far greater than the Stars had ever managed. Somewhat unfortunately, for those of us who had been with this team since their inception in 2010, many of these fans had no idea that Minnesota United didn’t just miraculously spawn into existence with that announcement in March of 2013. The dedicated players who had given us a winning season and a second place finish over the past two years had been all but forgotten.
Although there are those who still mourn the loss of the Stars and the soccer history we’d been building, none of us can deny that what Minnesota United FC have built is anything short of positive for soccer culture in this state. It used to be that when I’d wear my Stars scarf around Minneapolis I might run into one person a month who would say “Oh, that’s the new team in Blaine. I should get up there. I used to be a Thunder fan back in the day.” Now, we get regular honks and thumbs-up in response to the Minnesota United crest in the back window of our car, and it seems I can’t go to a public place without seeing someone in a Minnesota United shirt. The United brand may not have been one favored at the start, but there’s no denying it has become pervasive, even though the team has yet to achieve the on-field success of their predecessors.
For four years Minnesota soccer fans have had an identity that we could build a community around. The traditions that the new owners have brought to soccer culture—improved youth engagement, local TV broadcasts, and the annual season ticketholder potluck where fans and players come together around dishes from the players’ home cultures—really give the impression that the team is trying to make an authentic connection to the community. These connections will continue as the team moves to a new stadium in the Midtown area of St. Paul—a diverse neighborhood located between the downtown cores of the two cities—truly uniting several cultures and two neighbors who are often less than friendly rivals.
To change the name and the brand, especially as we once again leave one league for a higher level, would mean starting over yet again. We’ve been through it all too many times. There are far too many of us who remember the fight for identity, the struggles to explain to the community why they should care about a team no one had ever heard of and, as supporters once sang in loving defiance, “nobody wanted.” Although the United name may still not be the top choice of many fans, we have rallied around it, and we cannot deny that it has become ours. No matter what the soccer world throws at us, we stand forever United.