Minnesota United Dark Clouds supporters in 2016

From the outset, Dark Clouds seemed just a little bit different — from other Minnesota soccer fans, and even from other supporters’ groups. But it’s that uniqueness that’s kept the group going strong behind its team, Minnesota United FC, through years and leagues. In fact, their history harks back to a time where modern American soccer was still decidedly taking shape.

The year was 2004, and the Minnesota Thunder, then a USL team, was regularly facing future MLS franchises like the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, and the Montreal Impact. They had just moved from the National Sports Center in suburban Blaine — a 10,000-capacity home to which they’d return in 2008 — to the nearly 5,000-seat, centrally located James Griffin Stadium in St. Paul.  

And around them, a group of supporters grew organically. As current Dark Clouds president Jim Oliver and founder Bruce McGuire both note, online message boards allowed like-minded fans to communicate, and eventually behind the visitors’ bench during games.

They joked about the stern brand of support that some self-declared ultras brought to Thunder games; their mood manifested decidedly differently. “We’re goofballs who love our team with as much passion as those fans,” says McGuire, “but we don’t bring that attitude.”

And as their numbers swelled, it led McGuire to ask a Detroit-based artist and friend, Davin Brainard, to make him a button featuring a black-and-gray cloud. The “Dark Clouds” concept — manifest in McGuire’s button and a perfectly playful companion to the Thunder brand — proved a suitable name for the fledgling supporters’ group.

After the 2009 season, the financially troubled Thunder folded, and the National Sports Center announced it would fill the void with a USSF team called the NSC Minnesota Stars for the 2010 season. By the next year, that team moved to the NASL, and ownership of the team transferred to that league.

This period of transition and uncertainty spurred Dark Clouds to take themselves considerably more seriously. “We were scared that there wouldn’t be a team for much longer,” Oliver says.

So they looked to the pioneering Chicago Fire supporters’ group, Section 8 Chicago, as a model for structuring themselves. They sold memberships hinging on season ticket sales in the supporters’ section, and became a larger and louder presence as the team itself gained a greater foothold. They also developed a charity arm to the organization. Appropriately named Silver Lining, it’s still involved in charity work throughout the Twin Cities and even as far away as Haiti, where they completed a service project tied to the foundation of Minnesota native and MLS soccer legend Tony Sanneh.

In 2011, the Stars won the NASL Championship, and by the tail end of the next year, UnitedHealth CEO Bill McGuire (no relation to Bruce) bought the team, placing them on their eventual trajectory to MLS. Loons lore even has it Dark Clouds’ enthusiastic support helped spur the purchase.

Club President Nick Rogers, speaking to this, remembers first seeing them in 2012. “They were boisterous, they were loud, they were singing the whole game, and they had some clever things they were saying. There was basically no one else in the building, so you could hear every word,” Rogers says. “If what you’re used to is NBA or NFL games, this is very different, and that for him was kind of a hook.”

Rogers recalls that even as they moved the franchise toward MLS viability, some in the mainstream Minneapolis sports world were still unsure of what to make of supporters’ culture. One time, he says, he brought someone from the Timberwolves’ organization to a United game in Blaine. “Part way through the second half, as the Dark Clouds are still doing their thing, she turns to me and asks, ‘How do you get them to do that for the whole game?’” he remembers. “I just laughed and said, ‘I can’t get them to do anything they don’t want to do.’”

Wes Burdine, the Minneapolis-based writer who created the FiftyFive.One website covering Minnesota soccer, notes that Dark Clouds’ irreverence has set a distinct tone for wherever a Minnesota-branded team has played.

“The Dark Clouds are a soccer supporters’ group, and they love soccer,” Burdine said. “But it is about creating a fun party for people to be at. It’s about creating funny jokes that are not just insider jokes. We’re pretty proud of having weird different songs that we do, like a Flaming Lips cover of a Kylie Minogue song that’s been adapted for the Loons.”

The latter refers to their chant, “I Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” It starts in a drawn-out monotone that declares, “Loons, your goals are all I think about,” before picking up pace with repeated la-la-la-las.

“There’s a concerted effort to do it in a way that’s fun and different,” he says. “Probably half of the songs sung are standard tunes, and then half of them are weird things, like the Looney Tunes song, that are unique to the Dark Clouds.”

While there’s a d.i.y. spirit to Dark Clouds reminiscent of Timbers Army, and a sense of humor akin to that of the Sons of Ben, there’s also a kinship with the Cauldron. Borne of U.S. Open Cup matches through the years, the Minnesota-Kansas City geographic proximity should also lend to a friendly rivalry, and a recognition of their fans being kindred spirits.

“We’re all about being welcoming,” McGuire says. “We don’t bring animosity, because if you’re in another supporters’ group, you’re still one of us — you’re America soccer fans.”

Since their formation, other supporters’ groups have joined them in the stands. They include True North Elite, a younger-skewing group that more fits the traditional mold of American supporters and the Red Loons, a Marxist supporters’ group. There are also the OpuLoons, a parodic supporters’ group for “select and fancy” supporters, whose logo is a loon gazing at a floating bag of money and wearing a top hat.

Meanwhile, the Dark Clouds are looking forward to the Loons’ home opener vs. Atlanta United FC this Sun., Mar. 12 at TCF Bank Stadium (5 pm ET, ESPN2 in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada). They’re also, of course, even more looking forward to the eventual move to the new stadium they’ve already christened “Cloud City.” Yet they also realize that now being in MLS changes their landscape.

“I remember when tailgating meant we’d rent a parking lot from the Comcast office across the street from the stadium,” Oliver says, “and give a guy $500 at the start of the season for charcoal and lighter fluid.”

“There will be a higher level of everything,” McGuire adds. “Some people need the excuse of the major leagues to come on board as fans, and the way we see it, more fans will be a great thing.”

In particular, Burdine sees a great opportunity for the MLS version of the team to attract fans from the Twin Cities’ diverse international population, including their East African, East Asian, and Central American communities. They’re more likely to venture to TCF Bank Stadium or the new stadium, he thinks, than remote-by-comparison Blaine.

Though Oliver acknowledges their new homes will certainly feel different than the cozier confines to which they grew accustomed, the Dark Clouds’ approach won’t change, and their sense of humor will stay intact. “We’re still going to have our light-heartedness and our ability to be self-effacing,” he says. “We’re still, ultimately, 900 adults standing up and screaming at a soccer game."