There are two expansion sets readying to enter to MLS this year. Chances are, you’ve heard plenty about one of them.
Maybe it has something to do with Donald Trump and John Lewis, but all of the sudden, everything is coming up Atlanta.
The Falcons are in the Super Bowl. The TV series bearing the city’s name just won a Golden Globe. And Atlanta United FC, the city’s new soccer team, is about to enter MLS in an extraordinarily strong position.
Consider: Arthur Blank’s soccer club is putting the finishing touches on a brand-new, $1.5 billion stadium that it will share with the Falcons. The club boasts three Designated Players, some 27,000 season ticket deposits, and a manager with Barcelona and Argentina on his résumé.
In short, Atlanta’s rollout has been a Seattle Sounders-esque tour de force. It’s even gotten Ric Flair interested in soccer.
Meanwhile, just one month out from its own maiden MLS voyage, Atlanta’s expansion counterpart Minnesota United continues to fly well under the radar.
In stark contrast with its southern rival, Minnesota has announced that it won’t be signing any Designated Players before the start of the season. The club hasn’t yet released its jerseys or, with an issue with city government unresolved, broken ground on its St. Paul stadium.
Minnesota has – by some margin – the fewest Twitter followers in the league, and, perhaps not unrelatedly, a fairly muted presence in the Twin Cities.
Fair to say, it’s been as quiet a ramp-up to an MLS debut that we’ve seen in some time – and, in some respects, a gamble bigger than the one Atlanta is taking with its massive financial investment and resultantly high expectations.
That’s not to say that Minnesota United is in a state of distress. The club has, in an understated way, done plenty right over the last seven months since it announced it would begin play in 2017.
The question is whether, in this era of MLS – and in a market with the University of Minnesota plus four other major pro sports teams – such a delayed, low-key rollout can lead to commercial success.
First, the good news.
Unlike several MLS clubs – hello, NYCFC – United will have a privately financed, soccer-specific stadium of its own at some point.
Adrian Heath, who just built an expansion team in Orlando and is as engaging a coach as you’ll find in MLS, was the right managerial hire. Minneapolis-based Target was a big get as a presenting sponsor.
The club also, importantly, paid homage to its roots – bringing back its two most popular players, Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez, and fighting hard to keep the “United” moniker associated with the NASL side against MLS’ original wishes.
Minnesota already has a dedicated supporters’ culture going for it, with the Dark Clouds expecting to take a contingent of more than 100 fans to Portland for the season opener in March.
The existing culture around the club – something Atlanta does not have – extends to excellent independent coverage of the team through fiftyfive.one and the Star Tribune, one of just a handful of local papers to have a fulltime MLS beat-writer.
There’s a reason that MLS jumped at the chance to expand into the Twin Cities last year even with so many markets across the country interested in the league. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a success story.
That said, the stadium situation is concerning. United had hoped to break ground on its site – which is located in the Midway area of St. Paul – last summer, but that didn’t happen.
A proposal to give the club property and construction material sales tax breaks was and remains stalled in state government. Although there was a ceremonial groundbreaking on the site in January, substantial work on the stadium is yet to begin.
Also on hold are plans for a public plaza around the stadium, which will be in what currently is a fairly rundown area of St. Paul. The club has yet to acquire the roughly two acres of land it needs for the structure from its current ownership.
The delays mean that United will be at TCF Bank Stadium, home of Minnesota football, will be MNUFC’s home through at least half of the 2018 season – and while TCF’s location in Minneapolis is a good fit, the scale of the 50,000-seat facility is not.
Even if the Loons can regularly fill the lower bowl – which would be an impressive accomplishment in and of itself – the scene is still going to feel somewhat minor league.
How the team plays will be important. Minnesota, sports-crazed and without a championship since the Twins in 1991, badly wants a winner – and United didn’t exactly break the bank to make that happen.
That’s not to say that MNUFC is opposed to spending big money – its brass is adamant that it isn’t – but the club clearly going to be frugal. That’s not a great starting position in a league where spending is rapidly increasingly.
The idea that Minnesota will be one of the worst teams in league history seems farfetched. The club has assembled enough talent to be competitive, and Heath’s teams have always scored goals. But it’s hard to think they’ll threaten the playoffs.
Both Atlanta and Minnesota will be add to the league and be fun to watch this year. The clubs will also, whether they like it or not, provide a referendum on how to build an MLS team in the league’s third decade.
From Sacramento to St. Louis to Tampa, there will be no shortage of interested parties.