The 40-by-50-foot tifo unfurled over the Minnesota United FC supporters' section just moments after the national anthem blared through TCF Bank Stadium. The air was thick with snow as over 35,000 fans turned out for the first top-flight soccer match in three decades, a nationally televised MLS Week 2 matchup with fellow expansion debutant Atlanta United FC.
With nods to Minnesota landmarks, and Alan Willey mid-bicycle kick, the tifo told the story (see below). AJ Jahnig, a member of the Dark Clouds who organized the display (designed by Mike Davis) described it as representing the unity of the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota as well as the long history of clubs.
The “True History” bit was also a “dig at Atlanta,” too, Jahnig says wryly, since both clubs share the “United” moniker. But really, he says, “I wanted to do something ambitious that would represent our state, our culture, and the game we love.”
In the time between the Minnesota Kicks in the original NASL and Minnesota United FC’s debut in MLS, there has been only a brief period without professional soccer in the state. It is a long history that Minnesotans are proud of, and one Minnesota United trumpeted in a pregame celebration.
Before the match, long-time play-by-play announcer Chris Lidholm introduced legends from past Minnesota teams: the Kicks, Strikers, Thunder, NSC Minnesota Stars, and Minnesota Stars FC. These distinguished guests included Kicks striker Alan Willey, US national team defender Tony Sanneh, Dr. Kyle Altman (who captained the Stars team to the NASL title in 2011), and the man seen as the godfather of modern Minnesota soccer, former Thunder head coach Buzz Lagos.
One man who knows that history all-too-well is former assistant coach Kevin Friedland. The ex-defender joined the Minnesota Thunder in 2004 after having been drafted by the erstwhile Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) and he played all of his professional matches in three different Minnesota jerseys before retiring in 2013. During that time, Friedland served as everything from player to coach to the team’s kitman, helping design and even pressing badges on Minnesota Stars jerseys.
After the match, Friedland was humbled: “There are so many people that contributed to soccer in Minnesota and being chosen as one of the former players [recognized] by the team was truly a special moment for me.”
To be in front of a crowd of 35,000, when he often played in front of 1,000 fans at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota, also proved emotional: “I'm not sure I could have ever predicted the potential success of Minnesota in MLS. In my 10 years with the club, we had four owners and four team names. Our crowds were often sparse and we went through many offseasons wondering if we would have a team the following year. It was great to see that Minnesotans showed up despite the snow to show their support and let the league know that Minnesota is here to stay. I couldn't be more proud to be a part of Minnesota soccer.”
The supporters marched to the match through the snow to TCF Bank Stadium, bringing together the various groups of supporters: Dark Clouds, True North Elite, Wolf’s Head, and Red Loons. They then took over the endline almost an hour before kickoff to sing in the wind and snow.
As the kick approached, soccer writer Bruce “du Nord” McGuire – long the state's most prominent Minnesota fan and blogger, even as its teams played mostly below the national radar in the second division of US Soccer – took to the pitch, to perform the ceremonial coin toss.
As McGuire walked out, he says, “I felt a lot of weight and pressure because I felt like I was representing a lot of people. I just felt so humble.”
He took in the entire scene – the snowfall over a bustling stadium – and said: “This is exactly how I would have wanted it. It was ridiculous and beautiful.”
When he reached the referees, he was greeted by a fellow Minnesotan, Fotis Bazakos, who was serving as the fourth official. Bazakos shook McGuire’s hand and asked, “Isn’t this great?” Then, as the first official Ismail Elfath pulled out the coin to toss, McGuire interrupted him. “I got this,” he said, as he thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out the commemorative “Itasca Society” coin that season-ticket holders received. Elfath looked it over, impressed, and then McGuire tossed it in the air.
“We lost the coin toss,” McGuire recalled ruefully, “and the curse started right there.” The Loons dropped the result, 6-1. That's just true history now.