Wednesday October 8th, 2014

For many fans, Miguel Ibarra’s surprising U.S. national team call-up represents their first introduction to Minnesota United. Its Wikipedia page probably is enjoying record traffic. But for the NASL club based in suburban Blaine, about 15 miles north of Minneapolis, this week’s brief turn in the spotlight might be just the beginning. It could become a major player, and soon.

Behind the scenes, the organization is taking steps that could transform it into one of the most well-funded teams in MLS. While the race may be on for the Supporters' Shield and the remaining playoff places, the MLS contest with the most far-reaching implications arguably is taking place in a market that hasn’t had a top-flight soccer club in 30 years.

The Minnesota Vikings have gone public with their desire to field an MLS team inside the $1 billion stadium scheduled to open in the summer of 2016. As a result, United has been forced to consider all options. Bill McGuire, a physician who made his fortune at the helm of health care behemoth UnitedHealth Group, didn’t rescue and rebrand the floundering club in 2012 with MLS on his mind. “Promotion” from the 10-team NASL isn’t necessarily United’s ultimate goal.

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But a competing MLS team in downtown Minneapolis would leave the NASL club’s future uncertain, if not untenable. As a result, McGuire has put together a formidable partnership in an effort to ensure that the best pro soccer in the Twin Cities is played by United, regardless of league. On Sept. 22-23, MLS commissioner Don Garber and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott spent time in Minneapolis meeting with both the Vikings and McGuire, sources have told SI.com.

The Vikings are owned primarily by Zygi Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer, and his family. In this nascent local derby, they’ll be up against some of the biggest names in Twin Cities sports.

SI.com understands that McGuire has partnered on a potential MLS bid with Minnesota Twins owner Jim Pohlad and Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, both of whom were present at the meeting with Garber and Abbott. There also is reason to believe that an investor in English Championship club Derby County has joined McGuire. United visited England and played a friendly against Derby in March.

The Rams’ ownership group is led by Andrew Appleby, who lives in Michigan and once worked with the Detroit Pistons. His consortium also includes Vancouver Whitecaps and San Francisco Giants investor Jeff Mallett and Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, among others. SI.com was unable to ascertain the identity of the Derby investor who may be working with United.

The Pohlad family, which has owned the Twins since 1984, is worth $3.6 billion, according to Forbes. The baseball team moved into Target Field in 2010. Taylor, a printing and marketing entrepreneur originally from southwest Minnesota, is worth $2.2 billion, according to Forbes. He purchased the NBA franchise in 1994.

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McGuire, who appeared on Forbes’ billionaire list as recently as 2006, holds courtside season tickets. Reached for comment, United president Nick Rogers wouldn't confirm the investor group's composition but did say, “We’ve been very encouraged by the interest of a number of significant members of this community who want to be involved in what we're doing."

Rogers brought United and McGuire, his father-in-law, together. Rogers’ wife and the daughter of former NASL commissioner David Downs were college roommates. Formerly known as the Stars and with roots that extend to the early 1990s, United made the move from the USL to the NASL in 2011, when it won the championship. But the finances were poor and the team was on the verge of collapse when McGuire purchased it in late 2012.

It’s now among minor league soccer’s flagship franchises. It draws around 6,000 fans per game to the National Sports Center. Led by coach Manny Lagos, a former MLS midfielder who’s the son of Minnesota soccer legend Buzz Lagos, United has the best record in the NASL. And it has produced the first lower-tier player in nine years to receive a U.S. national team invite. United is doing just fine. It just may have reached a point where it must do more.

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"You've seen a lot of teams out there, whether you're talking about Sacramento, who's probably the most vocal, or some other places, where they sort of fan the flames,” Rogers told SI.com. “We have made a point of staying away from all that. We've taken a very club-centric approach to what we're doing. We care about establishing a high level of pro soccer in this market and that's what we intend to be for a long time. I'm sort of agnostic about whether there's one true league you need to be in to succeed in pro soccer. We've tried to be the best team that we can be within the NASL, and that has enabled us to provide a high quality of soccer for fans everywhere."

The MLS board of governors expects to meet with both McGuire’s group and the Wilfs in December, when it gathers for the MLS Cup final. Although United isn’t in a hurry, the Vikings are facing a time crunch. Lester Bagley, the NFL franchise’s executive VP of public affairs and stadium development, told MLS4MN.com that Garber and Abbott toured the construction site and were shown renderings of a “house reduction system” that would limit the seating capacity for soccer (along the lines of what Atlanta's MLS franchise will use at the Falcons' new football stadium). The Vikings need to know soon whether to build it, and that could speed up the league’s decision.

“We’ve got about 20 months from having the stadium open. So we are at the point in construction were we have to factor this element in. We will be at the point soon on whether to invest or not. We are not there yet,” Bagley told the website.

United has discussed the prospect of moving to a new stadium even if it stays in the NASL, but it will have no choice if it intends to move up. The current focus is on a potential site in Minneapolis’ North Loop, just to the west of Target Field. A group called 2020 Partners, which aims to spur development in the area and has reached out to McGuire, includes executives from the Twins and Timberwolves on its steering committee.

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Twins president David St. Peter accompanied McGuire and Rogers on a tour of Kansas City’s Sporting Park late last year. And the Pohlad family owns United Properties, a developer that’s been busy in the North Loop, where it was involved in a $79 million transit hub that recently opened. If land can’t be secured in the North Loop, United may look south toward the Mall of America, which is served by a rail line that extends north to Target Field.

Either way, the Minnesota sporting landscape may change soon. MLS wants a greater Midwest presence and it wants to be in Minneapolis, at the heart of the country’s 15th-largest media market. It appears that the battle lines have been drawn. The NFL may be the biggest game in town, but it’s not the only one.

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