On a sunny afternoon in Blaine, Minn., with storm clouds hovering just off of the horizon and the humid tang of wet grass hanging in the air, head coach Manny Lagos and Minnesota United FC are hard at work.
United will take on Flyover Cup rival FC Edmonton at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at NSC Stadium.
One-on-one drills are on the docket today, and despite the lingering threat of a rain-soaked practice, today it’s business as usual for the side affectionately known as the Loons.
Because while Minnesota’s various sports franchises struggle with everything from salary cap issues to errant pitching and spotty quarterback play, Minnesota United, the Twin Cities’ newest professional soccer franchise, is thinking a bit bigger.
United competes in the newly revived NASL, the second tier of North America’s soccer pyramid, right behind Major League Soccer, and has already enjoyed a share of league history, having captured the inaugural NASL Championship in 2011, before reaching the league finals again in 2012.
Now, Lagos and United are preparing for another shot at the NASL’s top prize, and that means practice, even when southern Minnesota’s eclectic weather patterns refuse to cooperate.
Professional soccer has maintained a strong foothold in Minnesota ever since the original North American Soccer League brought the fledgling Kicks organization to Metropolitan Stadium way back in 1976.
The Kicks, led by former Manchester United forward Terry Goodwin, would ultimately fold in 1981, while a series of teams attempted to recapture the local reverence enjoyed by the old club throughout the intervening decades.
Fast forward to 2013, and Minnesota United FC has begun to write its own ongoing chapter in Minnesota’s rich soccer history.
“A little bit like the legacy of USA CUP there’s a great legacy of pro soccer in Minnesota, and it just needs more vision,” says Lagos, recounting his team’s recent history that following that muggy midafternoon practice.
“I think that right now we have an ownership group that wants to give it that vision and we’ve got a community that wants to see soccer grow and thrive at all levels, particularly at the pro level.”
And while Minnesota United and its predecessors have played a huge role in advancing that vision, another piece of the larger puzzle has been one of the country’s premiere youth soccer tournaments, and the largest such tournament in the western hemisphere: Schwan’s USA CUP, powered by Sport Ngin.
Following the conclusion of the NASL’s Spring Championship, United will bring its uniquely Minnesotan brand of soccer back to the National Sports Center, as Lagos and his side take on Flyover Cup rival FC Edmonton in an exhibition tilt, set for Wednesday, July 17 at 7:30 pm.
“There’s a lot of great history in the state of Minnesota with soccer, and USA CUP has to be a part of that legacy,” Lagos said. “It’s inspired so many kids globally to both fall in love with the sport of soccer, and to integrate socially at that age, which is pretty cool.”
The MLS veteran speaks from experience; Lagos is a former member of historic local soccer side St. Paul Blackhawks SC, where he and future Columbus Crew teammate Tony Sanneh spent their formative years competing in USA CUP.
“USA CUP kind of exemplifies all of those things about a sport that I love and care about deeply,” he said, reflecting on his continuing relationship with the tournament. “And the fact that it was a big part of my youth, and then to become a pro soccer player for so many years, and to come full circle and be coaching in Minnesota, I get excited for the guys I get to coach with, I think it is a special tournament.”
And while friendlies aren’t always viewed with enthusiasm by professional soccer clubs, Lagos and his side are committed to putting on a good show for USA CUP participants and their fans.
“Guys will be playing for roster spots and starting spots,” he said. “I think that the game itself will have a lot of energy and a lot of atmosphere.”
Much of that energy will likely come from the team’s uniquely Minnesotan group of supporters, the Dark Clouds, a deeply passionate holdover from United’s predecessor: Minnesota Thunder.
Dark in name only, the group aims to give United plenty of support, and opposing sides plenty of grief.
The Dark Clouds can be found standing in the stadium’s east bleachers, cheering on United through an undeniably impressive collection of songs, chants and friendly jabs aimed at opposing players.
Because while Minnesota United FC might not enjoy the staggering profile of teams like the Minnesota Vikings, the club’s love of the game, and the enthusiasm of its fans, is evident every time that they hit the pitch.
Players and fans interested in purchasing tickets for Wednesday night’s game can do so at final team check-in, or at the NSC box office.
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Tag(s): July 11, 2013