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The Loons are doing it right; Loyal fans will still be there when other club’s glamour boys are long gone

Soccer comes (back) to Minnesota

On March 12th, the Minnesota United took the field for their first home game in the MLS. Against fellow expansion side Atlanta United, the official temperature of 19 degrees Farenheit at kick off made it the coldest game in MLS history.

So there’s one reason to remember it. That and the pre-match appearance on the field by former players of the Minnesota Kicks and Strikers. The match itself was a 6-1 humbling for the Loons. It followed a 5-1 thrashing the previous week away at Portland. Overall, the Loons shipped 13 goals in their first 8 matches before keeping a clean sheet. Along the way, though, they picked up their first win, 4-2 at home to Real Salt Lake on April Fools Day.

Things have steadily improved over the course of the season. August 26th saw the club’s first away win, at Chicago. United won three and drew two of their next seven games, including a dramatic win away at Atlanta, the fellow new boys who had humbled us in the snow back in March.

Play offs were always a bit much to hope for, but United have the foundations of a useful side. Goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth is good enough for any team in the league. In midfield, Kevin Molino has real talent but needs to deliver more consistently. Nathan Finlay is a creative play-maker who, with a little more end product, could really cause teams trouble in this league. Miguel Ibarra has done solid work carrying the ball forwards from midfield all season. Sam Nicholson looks promising. Abu Danladi has started to come good after a few mid-season misfires. Christian Ramirez has scored some excellent goals. If him and Danladi can form an effective partnership – which I have my doubts about – it could really raise the team to another level. I’ve said nothing about the defense. There is work to be done there.

How not to grow a soccer team

As United head into their last game of the season – away at San Jose Earthquakes this Sunday afternoon – the Star Tribune contrasted United with Atlanta.

They have made the play offs and broken attendance records this season. As the Strib puts it, “How Atlanta United achieved that success right from the start essentially comes down to spending money to make money”. Big money has been spent on players like Miguel Almiron, the 12th highest paid player in the league, on a base salary of $1.9 million. United’s highest paid player (excluding the write off that is Vadim Demidov), Molino, is on less than a quarter of that.

But there is a danger for teams like Atlanta in this approach. In the 1970s, the NASL hit on the idea of drawing crowds by bringing over aging European and South American stars on big salaries. For a while, the likes of Pele, Johann Cruyff, George Best, and Eusebio – along with a host of lesser names – drew curious Americans to soccer. But when these players moved on so did the fans and the NASL collapsed. The supporters had been drawn by the players, not any loyalty to the club. Minus the players and absent that loyalty, the fans drifted away.*

And here is where the Loons have the edge on Atlanta. English soccer fans will generally stick with their teams come what may because they inherited it from their parents. As the old joke goes, “You can choose your wife but not your football team”. This is how Manchester City were getting 28,000 fans a week after crashing down to the Third Division 20 years ago.

A trip to the TCF Bank stadium isn’t like a trip to an English ground. But it is probably a better approximation in terms of atmosphere and fan culture than anywhere else in the MLS. And that will stand the club in good stead. They will have bad times in the future, no doubt, but fans loyal to the club will be there. Will Atlanta still be drawing 46,000 a week when Almiron is retired and counting his cash?

To be clinical, this is about building a brand. If your brand is the players, they come and go and so will your fans. If your brand is the club, that stays through thick and thin. And on that score, the Minnesota United have had a result this season.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

*Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer by Ian Plenderleith is an entertaining account of the brief, brilliant life of the NASL.

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