From brink of extinction to MLS, Dr. Bill McGuire leads Minnesota United FC to new heights

MINNEAPOLIS – Dr. Bill McGuire didn’t buy Minnesota United FC in 2012 because of a deep love of soccer.

In fact, before purchasing the club, McGuire will tell you, he had no interest in the game. What the former UnitedHealth Group CEO had was a passion for sports and an interest in saving a Minnesota institution from going under.

And he has an unlikely source to thank for acting on that passion and interest: his daughter Marissa.

In 2011, the North American Soccer League assumed control of the Minnesota franchise, then known as NSC Minnesota and later as the Minnesota Stars FC. The NASL would operate the club while searching for a new owner. During the second season in control, the league decided it could not fund the club any longer, and if a new owner could not be found in time for the start of the 2013 season, the team would fold.

That's when David Downs, then the commissioner of NASL, reached out to Marissa McGuire, who had been a roommate of his own daughter at Amherst College. He inquired if she knew anyone who might be interested in buying the Minnesota franchise.

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Bill McGuire listened to Downs's initial pitch, but was not interested in buying the team at the time. But he was willing to try to drum up another potential local owner.

Several months later, Downs reached out to McGuire again. And this time, McGuire took a more serious look at the club and the idea of the club shutting down after the 2012 season didn't sit well with him.

“David had spent two years trying to get somebody to step in and couldn’t,” McGuire told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “Nobody here wanted to be involved. The heritage of the sport in this city, the demographics of our population, and you look at the community and what its interests are, I could not see letting that go away."

So McGuire didn't let that happen. He finalized his purchase in November 2012, shortly after Minnesota’s loss in the NASL’s Soccer Bowl championship.

"It just didn’t seem like it made any sense to drop it," he said. "That’s why we stepped in. And once we stepped in, it was, 'OK, now let’s make this into something.'”

Along with club President Nick Rogers -- who is married to Marissa -- McGuire quickly began to "make this into something." The business staff was expanded. The club underwent a total rebrand, dropping the Minnesota Stars FC moniker, and becoming Minnesota United FC. The new logo, designed by local firm Zeus Jones and featuring the state bird, the loon, drew rave reviews. 

On the field, the club also thrived. Head coach Manny Lagos – a 10-year MLS veteran and three-time MLS Cup winner – oversaw a successful 2014 season that saw Minnesota United finish first in the NASL’s combined regular-season standings and put a player on the US national team in midfielder Miguel Ibarra.

All the while, though, the club was eyeing a move to Major League Soccer. McGuire began putting together a high-profile ownership group that now includes Minnesota Twins owners Robert and Jim Pohlad and Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. Together, they began pitching MLS on a vision for the future of the sport in Minnesota, with a downtown, outdoor, natural-grass stadium as the centerpiece. 

“This is a great ownership group, one that has very strong management for a club that’s been playing at the second division,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “Part of that, I think, is that Bill always aspired to play at the highest level in our country, which is MLS. So they’ve operated this team as if it was MLS-ready almost from the beginning.”

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On Wednesday, Minnesota United went from being merely MLS-ready to being officially welcomed into the league. The event at Target Field, attended by supporters from the Dark Clouds and broadcast nationally on FOX Sports 1, was an emotional occasion for McGuire, who got visibly choked up during his remarks.

“The emotion comes from pride and satisfaction and gratitude for the people who are part of making this happen,” he said. “This is a great thing for our community. It’s a testament to how great our community is. All the things that would make [MLS] say we want to be in Minnesota next over a lot of other options that were out there, people also with great communities. … When you live here and you raise your family here and you commit a lot to the community, that statement itself makes you feel proud. It’s humbling.”

Now, barely two years after that conversation with Downs -- via his daughter, of course -- McGuire says he is a soccer “diehard” who watches MLS, NASL, La Liga, the English Premier League and Liga MX, among other competitions. 

And after first saving his local club, rapidly improving them, and then taking them to the next level, he’s already aiming to make United the top organization in MLS.

“[We want] to provide a great experience and great product on the field,” he said. “It’s not about being the biggest. It’s certainly not about spending the most money. It’s about being the best.”

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