Regular readers may remember the situation of the Minnesota Thunder. Until recently, the Thunder were the area's sole professional soccer team, playing in the USL, which was the second-level (or "Division 2") soccer league in America, below the MLS.
The autumn had not been good to the Thunder, or to the USL. You can read the wonderful InsideMNSoccer.com for all of the gory details (and probably for the info I'm about to provide here), but here's a short summary:
- Half the teams in the USL, including the Thunder, broke away to form a new league, called the NASL.
- It turned out that the Thunder hadn't paid pretty much anyone with whom they did business, and in the process, they alienated pretty much everybody on the local soccer scene.
- Later, the team's coach quit. Then they released all of their players. Then their GM left the organization.
- While all of this was happening, the USL and NASL were taking turns slapping each other upside the head.
- Based on this, the U.S. Soccer Federation - in charge of sanctioning a Division 2 league - threw up its hands and refused to sanction either.
Now, while the league situation may have been worked out, the Thunder still have no players, no staff, no coaches, and no place to play. They also (presumably) have no money, or this all wouldn't be a problem. What I'm trying to say is this: it would appear that the Thunder are dead.
Pro soccer in Minnesota, however, is not. Thursday's league announcement meant that the National Sports Center could officially announce the creation of their hoped-for team and hold a conference call.
Curious about this new franchise, I called in (along with your other, better, local soccer journalists - Brian Quarstad, Bruce McGuire, and "Super Rookie"). Hosting the call were Barclay Kruse, the National Sports Center chief communications officer; Paul Erickson, the executive director of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission; and Kris Bjerkness, the NSC chief administrative officer, and the man who's most in charge of getting the team off the ground.
Below, a few things we learned.
Q: This new league - it's one league with a USL Conference and an NASL Conference? Does that make sense?
A: No. And nobody can quite explain it.
Both the USL and NASL apparently wanted to have their names on the league, which we don't have a name for yet, either. We do know that a bunch of NASL-affiliated teams, including Minnesota, ended up in the USL Conference. We also know that the schedule will be balanced and the playoff structure has yet to be worked out. There is a fair chance that the notion of conferences will be 100% meaningless, except to give the USL and NASL something to name after themselves.
It is currently designed to be as confusing as possible. But there will be a league, and that's the important part.
Q: We don't know what the league is called... do we know what the team is called?
A: Nope! But there are certainly plans, and for now, we can call it "NSC Minnesota."
The NSC will be holding a naming contest, which will likely be announced early next week. They'll be running this online, in conjunction with the Minnesota Office of Tourism, and it'll run for a couple of weeks. Happily, there will be the option of writing in votes for idiots like me who will attempt to stuff the ballot box with traditional names (Minnesota Kicks, Minnesota Strikers, et al).
Q: What about all of the Thunder-related folks who got caught up in the great purge?
A: Not surprisingly, the new team is likely to have somewhat of a familiar flavor. Manny Lagos will be the new team's director of soccer operations, continuing (in a way) his former role as Thunder GM. He and Bjerkness are currently in the process of building the team from the ground up.
The NSC team acknowledged that "one of the earlier decisions we make" would be hiring a coach, something they hoped to accomplish in "the next 2-4 weeks." As for the players Thunder fans came to know and love, Bjerkness promised to take "a serious look" at bringing back those that are interested. He noted that some of those players now live and train in the area, and would be candidates for the base of the new team. Management is also attending the MLS Combine next week, and will be holding local combines at the end of January and again in February, in the hopes of unearthing talent.
Q: So this team is basically Thunder Mark II.
A: Not really. It was reasonably clear that there is still some acrimony between the NSC and the Thunder, the latter of which was rumored to still owe great chunks of cash to the former. Erickson and Kruse acknowledged that, in order to get the local franchise rights for this league, the NSC did not have to pay the Thunder, but there were negotiations of some kind between the NSC and NASL. The group said they were "not at liberty to describe the exact transactions," in terms of compensation for the franchise rights, but that the terms of the deal were "very favorable."
As for potential repercussions from the Thunder, regarding the new team, the NSC was terse: "We're not going to comment on anything the Thunder might do," said Kruse.
I may be reading too much into this, but I would not characterize the relationship between the Thunder and the new team as "warm."
Q: What about the Thunder fans, who presumably will be throwing support behind the new team?
A: I was very impressed by the thought that the NSC has already put into this area. For example: they already have come out and offered to honor any deposit that fans may have put down on 2010 Thunder tickets.
The NSC is also planning a couple of "stakeholder summits", the first on January 21, giving fans a chance to find out about the new team. (Details will likely be available on nscsports.org as they are announced.)
They also promised to bring back the beer garden. Clearly, they know their potential fans.
Q: Will the new team break the bank, or do we have another shoestring budget on our hands?
"We're not going to be like Steinbrenner with the Yankees; we'll do it the NSC way," said Erickson. The NSC Foundation, a nonprofit operating entity, is in charge of the operations at the NSC, and will be the team owner. Erickson hopes that this will give the team a built-in financial advantage, since they're the only Division 2 team in the country that owns its own facilities and already has a large full-time staff that will be working, in part, on the operation of the team.
That said, nobody will expect the team to spend wildly, or over-spend. Said Kruse, "We would not have embarked on this if we weren't confident that we could operate it with financial integrity." Erickson said that the team would likely be in the middle of the pack, in terms of player spending, but would always have a program that was "well-funded."
Q: So when do we start hearing radio ads for the new team?
A: Probably never. The group acknowledged that they wouldn't likely participate in a statewide marketing blitz, instead choosing to focus on targeted marketing plans. If you're a youth soccer coach, I would expect to be hearing a lot from them.
For lovers of the exhibition matches that traditionally coincide with the gigantic USA Cup youth tournament, they promised to continue that tradition, as well.
Q: So really, what's your gut feeling about the new team?
A: One thing that Kruse (edit: it was Erickson) said really struck me. He said, "We want people to know - fun fact - we aren't millionaire owners. This is a unique situation in that it's a nonprofit organization running the team. Nobody involved with the team will receive one dollar more; we're all doing this out of the love of the game. It's a totally different attitude. Our motivation is different than a wealthy individual's interest."
This, to me, has the potential to be the most interesting part of the new team. They will have to be concerned with their bottom line, of course - no NSC program could survive if it lost gobs of money - but ultimately, this venture isn't about maximizing team revenues. It's not about getting a stadium built in St. Paul, or advertising a line of soccer stores - it's about promoting the game of soccer in Minnesota, and tying it to youth soccer around the state.
There's at least the potential that the NSC Minnesota team will be about the soccer and the fans, not about development and ticket sales. It remains to be seen whether this translates to a winning team and a leap forward in fan experience.
Happily, though, the people behind the new franchise are passionate about soccer, and have a financial plan that doesn't involve a wizard stopping by in Year 3 with a hundred million dollars. In terms of stability - something the Thunder obviously lacked, towards the end - they couldn't be better positioned.