Though the arrival of MLS in Minnesota will mark a new era for soccer in the state, support for the game has existed for decades. From the big crowds of the late 1970s heyday to the championship team of 2011, soccer in the North Star State has often rewarded a strong following with on-field success. Here are a few of the highlights:
History of soccer in Minnesota
Minnesota has a rich history of support for pro soccer in the past few decades, as the sport became a phenomenon with the entry of the Minnesota Kicks into the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1976. That year, the Kicks went all the way to the title game before falling to Toronto, and drew a crowd of 49,572 to Metropolitan Stadium in a memorable playoff victory over San Jose, at the time the second-largest gate in American soccer history. The team lasted five more seasons before folding after the 1981 season.
Another NASL team, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, moved to the Twin Cities and played as the Minnesota Strikers in 1984, the league’s final season. That franchise played four more seasons in the area on the indoor circuit before returning to Florida.
The longest-lived pro team to date in Minnesota was the Minnesota Thunder, who began play in the USISL in 1990 and were a force in the second division of the US soccer pyramid throughout the '90s, winning the USL A-League title in 1999 and regularly challenging in the Open Cup under longtime head coach Buzz Lagos, who retired in 2005. The team dissolved at the end of 2009 after five years of decidedly more mixed results on the field and were replaced by the NSC Minnesota Stars for the 2010 USSF Division II season.
- ANNOUNCEMENT: MLS awards expansion club to Minnesota
One of the Stars’ first moves was to hire one of Buzz Lagos' sons, former MLS midfielder and hometown hero Manny Lagos, who had served as the Thunder’s director of soccer operations since 2006. They continued to play at the National Sports Center 18 miles north of Minneapolis in Blaine. They rebranded as Minnesota Stars FC in 2012, and then again as Minnesota United FC in 2013.
On the field, the re-formed team stormed to early success, winning the inaugural NASL title in 2011 and reaching the final again in 2012. Last year, United won the Woosnam Cup as the team with the best regular-season record in the NASL.
Despite all this success, the state of Minnesota has never played host to a US men’s national team game, in part because it has rarely had a fitting outdoor venue.
Minnesota MLS connections
The Lagos family is the most prominent in Minnesota soccer, with Buzz coaching sons Manny and Gerard for the Thunder in the early 1990s. Younger brother Manny moved to the MetroStars for the inaugural MLS season in 1996 and remained in the league until 2005, playing for Chicago, Tampa Bay, San Jose and Columbus. Manny Lagos won MLS Cup titles with Chicago in 1998 and San Jose in 2001 and 2003 and finished with 27 goals and 36 assists in 170 appearances and earned three caps for the US men’s national team.
Though born in Canada, New England Revolution forward Teal Bunbury represents the US national team and grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs. Perhaps the most accomplished US international to hail from Minnesota is former D.C. United defender and 2002 World Cup veteran Tony Sanneh.
New England Revolution star and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman was born in Minneapolis, though he grew up in St. Louis. Twellman's father, Tim, played professionally for the Kicks in the NASL days.
The current Minnesota United roster, overseen by Manny Lagos (Buzz now serves as an analyst on the team's broadcasts), includes former MLS players like Aaron Pitchkolan, Jamie Watson, Jonny Steele, Pablo Campos, Kalif Alhassan, Tyler Polak and Greg Jordan.
Minnesota United today
There is little question as to who the most recognizable face on Minnesota United is today: winger Miguel Ibarra, who made headlines last fall as the first lower-division player to be called up to the US senior national team since 2005. Ibarra, 25, was a Supplemental Draft pick by the Portland Timbers out of UC Irvine in 2005, but was not signed and caught on with Minnesota. He was named to the NASL Best XI in 2013 and 2014, and won the Golden Ball as the league MVP in 2014, which coincided with his first call-up and appearances for the national team. His first USMNT start came Feb. 8 against Panama. Here’s a sample of his work in a 2015 preseason game against Seattle:
Though Ibarra drew most of the accolades in 2014, his attacking partner Christian Ramirez, who plays at the point of the team’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation, would comfortably collect the NASL Golden Boot, notching 20 goals in 27 regular season appearances. There’s no mistaking Ramirez, who stands at 6-foot-2, for the 5-foot-7-inch Ibarra, but they formed a deadly partnership last year, combining for 30 of Minnesota’s 47 goals.
Steele and Alhassan are among the more recognizable faces on the squad for MLS fans, while there are also six Brazilians on the roster and others have been scouted and signed from locales as far away as Turkey, Italy, Sweden and Australia.