Members of the Dark Clouds and True North Elite march to the inaugural MLS home match at TCF Bank Stadium. Photo courtesy of Brian Quarstad.


The Case For Optimism

by on 28 February 2018

FiftyFive.One’s staff almost all live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, or in close proximity to it. I am the notable exception. Since the summer of 2015, I have lived in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is a big, cosmopolitan city. Depending on how you measure it, the urban area has a population similar to that of the state of Minnesota. It has professional teams in football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, and major college programs in basketball (notably Villanova) and football (notably Temple). It’s also a city with a professional MLS soccer team, the Philadelphia Union.

The Union are, at best, the sixth most popular sports team in the Philadelphia region, and it’s a distant sixth. It’s not hard to see why. First and foremost, they are not very good, and have never been very good. In eight years of play, they have made the playoffs just twice. Their all-time high win total is twelve. For comparison, last year, Minnesota United earned ten wins.

But on a more fundamental level, the Union are screwed. Their owner, Jay Sugarman, lives in New York City and the Hamptons, and has a reputation for not being deeply engaged. They play in Chester, an extraordinarily poor suburb where hopes of a stadium-led waterfront revival have failed to materialize. Their stadium has a roof that doesn’t keep in sound or rain. It takes an hour to reach by public transit, requiring at minimum an expensive trip on commuter rail and then a team-organized shuttle from the station. The team does not market itself at all. In my two and a half years in this city, I have never once seen an advertisement for the Union, and I can probably count on my fingers the number of times I have seen Union apparel on the street.

I bring all of this up, not because I get my kicks by dragging the Union, but because I do not think many Minnesota United fans really understand the complete and utter irrelevancy in which quite a few MLS teams are mired. No longer a new attraction, not consistently good, owned by a disinterested out-of-town billionaire, and yoked to an awful stadium situation, teams like the Union are condemned to struggle until a new paradigm emerges. It’s not possible for them them to rebrand like Sporting KC did. It’s too hard to turn around a perennial loser like Toronto FC without an owner who deeply cares. It’s far too early to start hunting for a new stadium situation.

It can be trite when people talk about different versions of MLS as if they are software updates. But this is what people mean. The Union are stuck in MLS 2.0, and they are increasingly incompatible with a league that is racing ahead.

One of the teams pushing MLS forward is Minnesota United. It may not always feel that way, but it’s indisputably true. The Loons are in a situation that most other MLS clubs aspire towards. They have engaged local ownership. They are building a centrally located stadium that will be among the best places to watch a game in the league. Their brand is strong and their marketing is present in the city. They’ve signed a broadcast deal that will give them a reach throughout the North, on the same station that hosts the other major sports teams in the market.

When I was visiting the Twin Cities last summer for a wedding, I saw more Loons gear being worn casually by people on the street in five days than I have seen Union gear in two and a half years of living in Philadelphia. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but I’m not kidding.

The one thing the club is not doing—at least the way it looks right now—is fielding a particularly good team on the field. Obviously, this is no small thing. This is not a blog about business and twenty thousand people do not travel to TCF Bank Stadium to support a marketing campaign. The competition on the pitch is more or less the whole point.

But it’s also the thing that is the most easily fixed. Players, coaches, and front office staff all come and go. Depending on who your beef is with, you can be sure that they will either come good or move on, and regardless, your support of the club will outlast them. Everything else that the Loons are excelling in? The effects of those are far more permanent.

It’s a cliche by now to say that the team won’t spend on a designated player because they are focused on the stadium. But another city is on the brink of losing their club because of poor bUsiNeSs mEtRiCs and a lack of a suitable stadium. I don’t quite understand why Minnesota United can’t build a stadium and make better personnel decisions at the same time. But given the choice—yeah, I’m taking the stadium.

I write this as one of the chief doomsayers about the Loons’ upcoming season. I think the way preseason has been conducted has been a mistake, and I’m afraid of being proven correct this Saturday. I know I’m not alone. I can see on Twitter, on Facebook, on our comment sections, on Reddit, and beyond, that fans range from disappointed to angry about the state of the team on the field. There’s a lot of bitterness, which I think is particularly unhealthy. But I understand it, I share a lot of those frustrations.

But as we pivot to watching, supporting, and covering the Loons in their second MLS season and the twenty-fifth consecutive season of professional soccer in Minnesota, I think it’s crucial that we maintain a sense of perspective about the club as a whole. We should be specific about what isn’t going to plan and not let that cloud our view of everything else that is. I’m really looking forward to the start of the season, and yet I do not have high expectations. There are going to be nights that are real bummers. When that happens, I’m going to mope, write angry tweets, and curse Adrian Heath’s name. But I’m still going to sneak glances at the Midway stadium live cam during the week, and I’m still going to all of the away games on the east coast and a couple in cities I want to visit.

That’s because I’m an obsessive, but it’s also because in a totally dispassionate, sober analysis, there is a winning case for optimism about this club.

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  • Rob Petterson

    Great article! It is good to reinforce the good while getting ready to look the bad in the face.

    I would be fine with another season similar to last as far as results, but while frustrating at times, they were a fun, fast-paced team. My biggest fear is of them being both bad and boring, turning off the more casual fan that has been brought in by the (now) stellar marketing. I am sure my fears will be proven wrong but my nerves are still there.

  • Pat Cochran

    Thanks for this. I’ve had a lot of this in the back of my mind, but not the front. I do think they’ve squandered some of their good will/first impression that they could have capitalized on better, but they are making a lot of good decisions in the big picture.

  • Dave DuJour

    Things could absolutely be worse. Thankfully the Loons aren’t the Union or the Revolution. Things _were_ almost worse. The Minnesota MLS team almost became owned by the Wilfs and playing in the “People’s (supposed) Stadium.” That didn’t happen. And it’s great that twenty thousand people showed up to games for the Loons first MLS year.

    But how will things look in 8 years? After the MLS and new stadium shine wears off? Unless things start changing on the field, no top level marketing is going to stop the decline into irrelevancy. MNUFC aren’t the Union yet, but they could easily be siblings a few years down the road.

    • Jacob

      I’m okay with giving them another season or two to make the big moves before I try to accept perpetual on-field mediocrity. They have tried to make a big splash signing and I don’t think the cash they have earmarked for roster improvements is going to disappear, it just hasn’t converted yet. And up until the day that we get news of a big signing (or any signing), we won’t have news of a big signing (or any signing).

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I feel as though I addressed this point.

      Everyone, including the ownership and technical staff, knows that things need to change on the field. Now, it may prove that Manny, Amos, Adrian, etc are completely incompetent and need to be replaced. But that can be accomplished overnight. It’s not a permanent situation.

      I don’t expect the team to be this bad for eight years. There’s no reason to suspect that, because the fundamentals behind the team’s not-great performance are easily altered.

      • nathan3e

        MNUFC will never be Union siblings. MNUFC has Chris Wright and Bill McGuire. The Union started with Nick Sakiewicz and Jay Sugarman. Fruit from the poisonous tree.

  • Jacob

    Thanks for the continued, positive realism during #panic season. I’m sure Dr. Bill McGuire appreciates it, too.

    I do have a few negative bits of speculation to toss out, however. First, I realized that one of my reasons for maintaining optimism during all the radio silence is probably bunk. I have comforted myself by speculating that the team is biding its time to make the real splashy moves in conjunction with its move into the new stadium. But viewed from the business side, I think the returns on increased excitement will be rather small. Conversely, a big signing would drum up an awful lot more interest and feed the excitement later, as well. So I don’t think that line of thinking explains a lack of moves.

    Second, I’m concerned about how much of last year’s performance will carry over to this year. I have been telling myself that the team is overall trending upward in performance, but for much of the starting lineup – Molino, Finlay, Ibson, Cronin, Burch, Thiesson – that is probably not the case and for some of them it gets it backwards. A handful of contributors will likely be better this year, but on the whole I’m not comfortable assuming that this team is better than the one that finished last season. That makes the lack of signings all the more worrisome.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I don’t think your expectations nor your concerns are unfounded. I think there’s a pretty good chance we are worse this year than last year. Certainly a better chance than there ought to be.

      I just believe that in the long term, the next year and beyond, the club will be fine.

      • Jacob

        Yeah, roster issues may be the most visible ones for a team, but they are also the most transient and we’re pretty well situated in terms of stadium and ownership. And I am not ready to run the front office out of town on a rail yet, either. But boy, it will be nice to have a better roster situation, hopefully in the near future

  • Troy Kadlec

    Good piece and echoes a lot of things I was saying at the beginning and through the middle of the offseason. The actual MNUFC organization is young and growing. It’s not a particularly “mature” organization as they haven’t figured out how to communicate effectively with the fans. They are improving on that, but the state of the team and the message from the people in the organization say everything going great is a bit disjointing. I think the element you highlight are the part that is going well. What is harder to swallow is that the direction of the team is positive. When you state your goal is the playoffs and its fairly obvious you haven’t shown significant improvement on the field to match that ambition, the messages get harder to listen to.
    I see positives in the attempt to bring in younger players with potential. The affiliate process seems to be moving along. Our youth academy is ramping up. Our scouting has improved even if the results aren’t reflective of that yet. At least we’re trying to sign some talent and we seem to be just missing on the biggest signings. I’m all for not bustig the bank on speculative players, but maybe spend a bit of TAM on starting caliber talent or a trade similar to the one that netted Cronin and Burch as a stopgap?
    Long term, I see the organization being successful. I’d like to see the on the field product make steady progress, not regress or barely hold the same level as the previous year.
    I’ll be there cheering one way or another and I am exceedingly grateful that we have MLS in Minnesota. But I do expect assurances that we will compete to be met with actions that mirror that goal.

  • Zach Eustice

    Dude…great article.

  • Michael Clark

    This article describes why I still look forward to games even when I’m not confident that things will improve over a poor season in 2017. My game experience starts with some time at Surly catching up with family and friends with some great music. We march to TCF and start the pre-game rituals with the Dark Clouds / TNE. We cheer on our players and encourage our coach. We sing, chant and cheer through out the game. (Ok, maybe we do taunt the opponents and the refs, occasionally.) At the end of the match, enjoying a post-game beer, we recognize we are a part of something bigger; a community that enjoys the game of football and knows what it means to be a supporter vs. a fan. Remember, I’m an Aston Villa supporter. Our relegation in 2016 only made me more ardent and more committed.

    So, well said, Alex. We can fix a team, but we can’t fix our atmosphere, our camaraderie and our higher order. I honestly hope our MNUFC leadership remembers that as they shift to more “corporate” experiences at the new stadium. There is a difference when I hold a local Surly and talk with players from my seats vs. holding a Miller Lite (never!) and watching a kiss cam on the big screen.

    • Dave Williams

      Up the Villa!
      I think your points about the community of supporters and the game day experience are great. It certainly makes the crummy days easier to swallow. I have a two hour drive to the matches, but it is usually a nice day out. I enjoy being able to choose a good place in Stadium Village to get something to eat and I anticipate that in Midway as well. In that sense, we are FAR better off than the Union supporters. As Alex says, Chester is a dump and not easy to get too. There is nothing to do unless you drive and tailgate. I’d say we are in a better position than Chicago (also a pain to get to and nothing to do unless you tailgate).
      However I really wish we’d seen just a little better in terms of player movement in the offseason. I don’t need an $8 million signing. I’d just like to see 2 or 3 starting caliber players. That is what bothers me, and causes me to question some in the organization. Alex is right in that change can happen quickly in terms of coaching and front office, but overcoming bad moves (or no moves) can take a bit longer. I think Villa ultimately payed a steep price for the excess of the Martin O’Neill era for example.

  • Travis Kline

    This was great!