The Minnesota Stars have a 2-0 lead in the NASL championship. If they can hold on to that lead in Tampa Bay on Saturday, they'll be NASL champions again, the only team to win the Soccer Bowl in the league's two-year history. The players will jubilantly hoist the trophy aloft. The traveling fans will likely again fill it with beer and drink from it. Celebrations will be wild and unhinged.
This all could happen Saturday. It could also happen that, by the time the Stars take the field, the league will have voted to disband them for next season.
Minnesota is owned by the league itself, and Saturday, the league will convene to vote on whether to fund the team for another year, in the absence of a potential owner stepping in to save the franchise. If the owners and the NASL board decide that Minnesota is a lost cause, then they'll dump the team - two-time defending league champions or not.
The thing is, pro soccer in Minnesota is not a lost cause. The local team has never had more serious fans than the team right now; nearly 500 people stood in the raucous, flare-lighting supporters' section last Saturday. There's an atmosphere at Stars games now, a serious-about-soccer atmosphere. The traditional crowd at a Minnesota soccer game has consisted of a few die-hards and a bunch of families with kids who are only half paying attention, but that's changed now. You see fans in the main grandstand hurling insults at the linesman now. You never used to see that.
That said, there's no doubt that the Stars face serious challenges. For one, they play in Blaine. I don't have a map in front of me, but judging by my trips up there, Blaine is just on the southern fringes of Duluth, only about an hour or so from the Canadian border. To get from, say, Eden Prairie to Blaine, in order to arrive in time for a 7pm kickoff, you'll want to leave around 12 noon the previous day, and that's assuming you make no stops along the way.
I exaggerate, of course, but for large portions of the metro area it'd be almost as convenient if the team played in Mankato or Rochester. Moreover, downtown there are restaurants and bars and all of the other things that fans do when they go to a game; Blaine has none of these things. It's not fun to go to Blaine, and it hurts the team's attendance.
The team has also been hurt by the goofy ownership situation over the past few years. Dean Johnson presided over the demise of the Minnesota Thunder, a team with a history stretching back to 1990; Johnson ended up skipping town in 2009 as debts mounted and creditors, staff, and players went unpaid. The National Sports Center itself stepped in for 2010 to create the Stars, but as a nonprofit, couldn't continue to meet the strict ownership guidelines laid out for teams. The NASL itself, then, has been left to own the Minnesota franchise for the past two seasons.
That's all well and good, but it's made for a shoestring operation. The Stars have the smallest budget for players in the league. They have virtually no budget to market the team; there are still plenty of potential Minnesota soccer fans who don't even really know the team or the league exist.
It's a team in the middle of nowhere, then, that's short on funds to try to entice folks to make the trip and become part of the Minnesota soccer movement. And yet somehow, more and more fans keep on finding their way up to Blaine, and tailgating outside the stadium, and waving scarves and singing songs and arguing about whether the team's better with two defensive midfielders in the center of the park, or with one sitting back and one going forward.
That's why I don't think the team's going to lose Saturday's vote. I have no inside information, except that I saw league commissioner David Downs at the game on Saturday, and I know he was watching as the Stars turned the ball into the net in stoppage time and the crowd went berserk and the players were buried under a jubilant avalanche of fans.
I can't imagine how the league doesn't want that to last. The Stars don't have an owner, and they play in a bad location, and don't really have the money to turn things around. But they do have a NASL title and the inside track on another. They do have people who are passionate about the team. And I can't imagine that wouldn't be enough to keep them going.
The Stars fans often sing a song about the ownership situation, a song about "the team that nobody wanted." A championship team with a wild fanbase, though - that's a team that everybody wants.