If you haven't been paying attention in the past few years, you might be surprised to hear that soccer has started to come into the big time in the United States. Major League Soccer was the third highest attended sport last season in the country with teams like the Seattle Sounders pulling in over 30K in attendance per game and television ratings improving every single year. First kick for the league's 17th season is tomorrow, and former NASL squad the Montreal Impact will be joining the league as the 19th franchise.
Why does this matter to the state of Minnesota? Well, they might be getting into the action if the owners of the Minnesota Vikings turn out to be prophets.
Ever since the new stadium deal for the Vikings was confirmed, there has been talk from President Mark Wilf about adding 'Major League Soccer' to the stadium in the future. Though it wouldn't be open until 2016, the Minnesota Stars have been representing Minnesota soccer well since being formed and are one of three teams that seem to be getting the hype for a chance to be the 20th MLS franchise alongside fellow NASL side Orlando City, and the as of right now imaginary New York Cosmos.
The last several teams to join MLS have all been former NASL franchises: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal were all in the lower division before getting 'promoted' as it were to the top league. One of the beauties of that system has been the prebuilt rivalries that have been brought up. The 'Cascadia' match-ups between Portland, Vancouver and Seattle have already become some of the most entertaining in the league. Minnesota would have an MLS rival set up with Montreal already in the top flight -- not necessarily because of a previous hatred but because they're close and would both be new -- and MLS is a league that has been pushing for more solid, fierce derbies very hard in the past few years.
Minnesota have had success as well in their two year existence. They won the NASL in 2011 and will have a chance to make a run for the US Open Cup -- which hasn't been won by a non MLS team since 1999 when the Rochester Rhinos beat the Colorado Rapids in the final -- in 2012 for the first time. A small but fiery supporters group from the old Minnesota Thunder fanbase called the Dark Clouds have taken notice as well, and Stars games are always populated with far better fans than the cliche 'soccer moms' that American matches were populated with in years past.
The biggest hurdle for the Stars joining MLS will probably be the fact that the new Vikings stadium will be an NFL stadium primarily -- essentially, a stadium with well over the 20K seat average that an MLS stadium holds -- and unless it has some way to get cut down significantly in size for MLS game days, it will probably be immensely cavernous. Other than for the Sounders, football stadiums just haven't worked well.
The trend in the past few years has been heavily leaning on MLS teams to all get their own soccer specific stadiums (referred to by most MLS fans by the easy to spell abbreviation SSS) to play in. Only two teams in the league don't have a stadium or have a stadium plan in place, DC United and the New England Revolution.
Unfortunately for Minnesota's chances, commissioner Don Garber seems to be hell bent on getting the old school New York Cosmos to join as the 20th franchise. It makes sense from a marketing standpoint; the Cosmos were the first monster team in the United States, both in terms of marketing and in terms of quality of play on the field back in the old NASL.
The cards may seem a bit stacked against the Stars, but Minnesota is a state rich in US soccer history and they'll surely continue to be in the discussion right up until the very end. Perhaps they could re-brand to something like Northern Lights FC or Twin Cities United as well to get Garber's attention off his pipe dream of a new Cosmos team. Personally, I'd pay money to go watch any team called 'Northern Lights FC' but that's just me.
If MLS ever decides to expand to 22 or 24 teams, Minnesota will probably be an absolute lock to receive one of the four extra teams. That day might be far away assuming that MLS begins slowing down their torrent of expansion very soon, so if the Stars want a chance to play for the MLS Cup they need to make their move ASAP. If Wilf can cough up the expansion fees, it could easy be a reality.