There is a story among the longtime Dark Clouds who used to gather to tailgate outside the National Sports Center in Blaine before Minnesota Thunder matches. In those days, the Dark Clouds would stand around the grill and share drinks and stories with front office staff and even the team president, Dean Johnson.
“What kind of millionaire has only one pair of shoes?”
Johnson had purchased the Thunder in 2007, showing up in his native Minnesota as something of a white knight. He promised a new downtown Saint Paul stadium and a new skyscraper. The real estate developer rode into town with an air of mystery. One of the Dark Clouds, Tim Hayes, noticed that every time Johnson came to the tailgate, he wore the same pair of shoes. Whether he was dressed up or more casual, it was that same pair of brown hush puppies.*
“What kind of millionaire has only one pair of shoes?” As “Two Shoes” Johnson’s legend grew, no one seemed prepared for the level of financial mismanagement that eventually killed the Minnesota Thunder.
In the two years of his ownership, almost everyone involved with the Minnesota Thunder was affected, being asked to put company purchases on personal credit cards or simply going unpaid. Most of those former employees do not want to speak about that period of their lives, but Brian Quarstad captured the club’s final moments on Inside Minnesota Soccer.
When Johnson left Minnesota, he left a club saddled with debts that was forced to fold. In its wake, the National Sports Center started a new team, NSC Minnesota Stars. The team would eventually become Minnesota United FC.
A year after absconding for Europe, Johnson purchased the Belgium club RFC Liège in the Belgian third division. Johnson had lived in Belgium for a number of years and returned to it with a familiar refrain. He offered the once-great club a return up the table and a shining new stadium. A number of Minnesota soccer fans attempted to warn journalists and Liège supporters, but Liège was desperate. Unfortunately for them, as with the Thunder before, Johnson disappeared on the club, leaving it in financial dire straits.
Four years later, Johnson reappeared. This time time in Spain. Elche CF, a struggling club in the Spanish second division, faced financial catastrophe. With a debt of roughly €38 million, the club was in danger of oblivion. The club needed €4 by midnight. In walked Dean Johnson, attempting to save the day. This time, Quarstad and other Minnesota fans were able to contact journalists and raise a red flag faster. Marca ran an article calling Johnson a “vulture,” circling Spain for clubs in trouble. Elche was eventually saved without Johnson’s help.
Last month, a Polish journalist reached out again to FiftyFive.One for background on Johnson. This time, Johnson showed up in Wrocław, Poland as part of a group looking to purchase Śląsk Wrocław. Śląsk plays in the Polish top flight in the gigantic 42,771-capacity Stadion Miejski, but has come upon hard times recently. Despite its large stadium, the club’s mediocre results made it difficult to bring in fans.
The city of Wroclaw owns a majority of the club, and three ownership groups have been looking to take over. At one point, Johnson seemed poised to take over the club. In the past week, Grzegorz Ślak emerged as the top candidate to purchase the club, though an initial deal has fallen through.
At this point, everything surrounding the club seems to be in disarray with lawsuits being threatened. However, Johnson has disappeared from the newspapers as a potential suitor. As long as the club remains desperate, though, Johnson will be circling in the air above.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dean Johnson only had one pair of brown loafers. This has been corrected to one pair of “brown hush puppies,” per the recollection of Bruce McGuire.
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