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Minnesota United awarded MLS expansion team for 2018

MLS announced that Minnesota United FC has been granted an expansion franchise and will join the top-flight league from NASL in 2018.

MLS and Minnesota United made their partnership official Wednesday at Target Field, a couple blocks east from where the club intends to play when it joins the league in 2018.

United, which currently plays in the second-tier NASL, beat out the Minnesota Vikings in the race to bring MLS to the Twin Cities, which last fielded a “first division” pro soccer team in 1984. MLS has coveted the country’s 15th largest media market for some time. United’s commitment to playing in a downtown, outdoor, soccer-specific stadium was key to its selection. MLS commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday that “stadiums that celebrate and honor and revere the sport” were vital to the league’s growth.

MLS and United’s primary owner, Dr. Bill McGuire, signed a Letter of Intent last month. United’s robust investor group, which also includes the owners of the Minnesota Twins and Timberwolves and the Carlson hotel and hospitality company—along with the club’s following in the local soccer community—also were factors in the decision.

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“They are totally committed. They love this game, they love this city and they’ve got a great plan for a building. They represent exactly what we want and what we need to continue this momentum that we have,” Garber said of United’s owners.

Added McGuire: “We do aspire to do some wonderful things. There is a vision in place. We will begin unveiling that and sharing it with people so we can have a smart dialogue about the right way to do this, the best way to do it, on behalf of the community and the future of the sport in this community.”

United will be MLS’ 23rd club. The league currently has 20 teams. Atlanta is scheduled to join in 2017 and Los Angeles FC is supposed to come aboard then or soon thereafter.

One more slot is guaranteed to be filled by 2020, with Miami and Sacramento the frontrunners.

Populous will design United’s stadium, according to MinnPost. The architectural firm also was/is behind the Colorado Rapids’ Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Sporting Kansas City’s Sporting Park, the Houston Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium and Orlando City’s new arena, among others. MLS said Wednesday that United is “working to finalize the plan for the new stadium by July 1.”

The club reportedly continues to seek some sort of public-private partnership with Hennepin County and/or other municipal entities. United holds an option to purchase a piece of property along Royalston Ave., adjacent to the Minneapolis Farmers Market and near Target Field Station, a major light and commuter rail stop that serves multiple existing and proposed lines.

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“We have been focused on the Farmers Market area because it represents a downtown site. We believe a soccer park there can help facilitate the development and expansion of that part of our community,” McGuire said. “It is one of the hubs, if not the hub, of public transportation, which is another thing we think is very vital here. We’ll be talking about that in the weeks to come.”

United’s roots extend back to the early 1990s, when Buzz Lagos, a local youth coach, launched an independent amateur club called Minnesota Thunder. The team joined the USISL, the forerunner to the United Soccer League, in 1994, lost the title game and then went pro a year later, when it won another silver medal.

The Thunder, based in suburban Blaine, Minnesota, spent 1997-2010 playing in American soccer’s second division, which was operated by USL (and the U.S. Soccer Federation in ’10). The club won a championship in 1999 and finishing as runner-up three more times. In 2005, Lagos, in his final season, guided the Thunder to the U.S. Open Cup semis, defeating three MLS opponents on the way.

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The Thunder technically dissolved in 2009 but was immediately replaced by NSC Minnesota Stars, a team run by Blaine’s National Sports Center. In 2011, the Stars joined the NASL, which had split from the USL in order to form a more decentralized second division. Now coached by Lagos’ son, Manny Lagos–a former MLS player–the Stars claimed the 2011 NASL title but continued to face financial hardship.

The Vikings, who were pursuing a new stadium, revealed their interest in running an MLS team but opted not to rescue the Stars. Instead, McGuire stepped in and purchased the club in late 2012. A few months later, the United brand was unveiled and a new vision for Minnesota pro soccer established.

That long and winding road was reflected in a chant sung by fans at Wednesday’s event: “The team that nobody wanted, the team that nobody wanted, the team that nobody wanted is going to MLS!”

United is expected to remain in the NASL until it transitions to MLS. The NASL issued a statement saying, “The developments in Minneapolis only serve to affirm once again that the NASL is building high-caliber clubs, both on and off the field, and playing a leadership role in the evolution of professional soccer in North America. The [United] announcement will not affect how we approach our plans for the future. We are as committed as ever to continuing the growth in our existing markets and expanding into new markets.”

United’s season begins April 11 at the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

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