The name “Minnesota” comes from a Dakota word for sky-tinted water. History tells us that early Native Americans in Minnesota played a soccer-like foot game.
While the bulk of immigration to Minnesota occurred in the mid to late 1800s, the official rules of soccer were created around 1863 by the English Football Association. It’s likely that immigrants who played the game in the late 1800s and early 1900s were the first to bring soccer to the state. In the Twin Cities, loosely organized teams were formed with soccer tournaments held in the very early 1900’s.
The first mention of soccer which at that time was also called associated football was in the Minneapolis Tribune on September 30, 1906. It was a promotion for a game played at the Steel and Machinery grounds in Minneapolis which is now the Longfellow neighborhood. The Minnehaha Thistles were playing the Minneapolis Hibernians and the article promised a “fast and exciting game”.
“The association football enthusiasts will be out in force and a strong attempt will be made from now on to push the game to a position which will attract the attention of all sports lovers,” the article reported.
“The game in Minnesota started, as in other States, through a number of ‘old country’ boys getting together,” wrote William P. Breingan, Secretary of the Minnesota Soccer Association, Inc. in 1917. Their inbred love of the game soon started them kicking a ball around. Later they formed Into “sides,” and from sides into teams.”
He went on to explain that the game had been played in Minnesota since 1888 with the beginning of the Shaw Cup which was still a competition in 1918. The Thistle F.C was the first to have their name inscribed on the cup, according to Breingan.
Brenigan reports that circa 1917 ‘soccer football’ teams in Minnesota joined the national movement of organized soccer in the US. They affiliated with the United States Football Association (USFA).
Thistle, the club and not related to Thistle F.C., won the cup in 1916, 1917 and 1918.
In his history, Breingan praises a “Scotty” McLaren and Alex Murray for devoting so much time to organizing the early years of soccer. McLaren started the first league called the Northwestern League. It was disbanded after a number of years and the Minnesota Soccer Football Association was started on June 25, 1913. Robert Griffiths, Robert R. Jones, John Davis and Alex McFarland, all of the of Minneapolis, were the incorporators.
Breingan reports that the St. Paul Football Club won the championship and Thistle Club won the Shaw Cup and that five teams were active in the fall of 1918: St. Paul F.C, Albion F.C. Danish A.C, Thistle F.C. and the Eagles.
The MSA secretary left us with one interesting tidbit about a local player who left to play for Montreal. Alex Smith, a member of the Thistles Club, had joined the ranks of the Sons of Scotland in Montreal after scoring 17 of his teams 21 goals for Thistle. He was one of the first Canadian’s to see combat in WW-I and was reported missing in action. He was later discovered as wounded and a German prisoner of war. Eventually he returned to Minneapolis and by May of 1919 was pictured among five Thistle players.
“We also have promoted the game in the grade schools in this city, which have a championship played off every year,” reads Breingan’s report. “In addition a number of the schools now are taking up soccer seriously as one of their physical studies. We have had a team in one State university this last three years and Coach Foster of the University of Minnesota is doing his best to promote the game throughout the colleges of the States of Minnesota and Iowa, having had his team playing Iowa’s State University.”
The University of Minnesota had soccer clubs as early as 1914. One team was led by two brothers, the first foreign students from China. The Pan brothers were known for passing and dribbling skills that surpassed those from other teams. Their team competed with other clubs including the Minneapolis Thistles, a team of Scots and English. American football eventually eclipsed soccer, but many other loosely organized soccer clubs played matches against each other through the first half of the 20th century.
1952 the Kickers, one of the first organized adult club teams, was officially registered. As with most soccer teams of the time, they were created by ethnicity. The Kickers were Germans from the Twin Cities area. The next year, Minnesota Soccer Association (now the Minnesota Amateur Soccer League) was formed. It governed 4 teams and was associated with US Soccer.
By the mid 60s there were many registered adult clubs playing soccer: Andinos (eventually Aztecas – Mexican), Blackhawks (German and mixed), Ukrainians (Eastern Slavic), Vikings (Scandinavian), and Serbia (Serbians from Minneapolis). A team from Rochester, MN of British doctors and a team from Duluth, MN who were principally dock workers of Polish and Croatian descent, all played in the MASL. Games were played locally and teams traveled to Chicago, Milwaukee, Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, Ontario for tournaments.
Players on those same teams helped start the Minnesota Junior Soccer Association (MJSA) in 1968. This was Minnesota’s first youth soccer association and changed its name in 1987 to Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA). The early years saw approximately 20 clubs. Today MYSA has 138 Youth Soccer clubs registered with approximately 70,000 players ages 6 to 19, 13,000 coaches and administrators, and 55,000 soccer families involved with the sport.
In 1985, the Sons of Norway started the first USA CUP tournament which featured 69 teams including 11 international teams with 6 from out of the state. The tournament was the catalyst for the National Sports Center which opened in 1990 on 92 acres of land in Blaine, MN with 25 soccer fields and a combined track and soccer stadium. In the in 1989 tournament a U19 boys St. Paul Blackhawks team, led by a coach named Buzz Lagos, featured future U.S. National Team and MLS stars Tony Sanneh and Manny Lagos who beat Moscow Dynamo from the Soviet Union. Today the NSC sits on 600 acres and has 52 soccer fields. The USA Cup has grown into the largest youth soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere with over 1,000 teams from 22 countries and 15,000 participants. It has a projected economic impact of over $20 million.
On April 2, 2010, Minnesota took another step forward in the areas of youth soccer when both Shattuck St. Mary’s Academy located in Faribault, MN and the Minnesota Thunder Academy, were added to US Soccer’s Development Academy program. This meant Minnesota now had 2 distinct soccer programs participating in the highest level of male youth competition in the US.
In 1961 there were six boys soccer club teams from public and private schools that created an interscholastic league. By 1966 there were 18 teams playing and the Lake Conference had a sufficient amount to form their own league. By 1974, 6 years after the formation of the MJSA, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) accepted soccer as a fall high school sport for boys. Girls were sanctioned in 1980. In 2013 the MSHSL had 244 boys and 230 girls teams participate in high school league play with 16,793 players involved.
With the Title IX act, Minnesota Division I soccer came to the University of Minnesota. In 1993 the Golden Gophers joined the Big Ten Conference in women’s soccer. A year later the team moved into their permanent home, Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, a soccer specific stadium built with help from Debra Olson, daughter of Elizabeth Lyle Robbie. Robbie was the first female owner of a professional sport franchise and moved the team (Strikers) from Fort Lauderdale to Minnesota in 1983. The stadium is one of the finest facilities in the nation built specifically for a woman’s team. Minnesota still does not have a Division I men’s soccer program.
Pro soccer came to Minnesota in 1976 when the Denver Dynamos moved to the Twin Cities and became the Minnesota Kicks. The North American Soccer League team drew crowds of up to 45,000. Struggling with dwindling attendance league wide, the team folded after the 1981 season with a record of 104 Wins and 70 Losses. Even in its final year the Kicks drew an average of 16,600 fans per game. The team made the playoffs all 6 years and played in the “Soccer Bowl” final in 1976. Players like Alan Merrick, Steve Litt, Tino Lettieri, and Alan Willey stayed in the community, with some helping to strengthen youth soccer programs.
In 1984 the Fort Lauderdale Strikers moved to the Twin Cities to play in the last season of the old NASL. The team carried with it some of the former Kicks players and averaged an attendance of 14,262 per game. After the league folded, the team joined the Major Indoor Soccer League the following fall/winter season. The Strikers played four seasons and folded with a winning record of 107 Wins and 97 Losses.
Minnesota’s next outdoor team was the longest running. Buzz Lagos and Tom Engstrom formed an amateur team called the Minnesota Thunder who with the financial help of Medtronic executive Bill George, went pro after 5 years joining the USISL in 1994. The early years of the Thunder saw great success as had Minnesota’s previous soccer teams. Manny Lagos, Amos Magee and Tony Sanneh were three players whose names became known in the league and around the world. Minnesota made it to the finals in 1995 and 1998 and won the championship in 1999.
Over the next number of years the Thunder were passed from owner to owner and moved to from the National Sports Center Stadium to a high school stadium in St. Paul, Central’s James Griffin Stadium. The team struggled from year to year but had an outstanding US Open Cup run in 2005 knocking off 3 MLS teams before falling to the Galaxy in LA in the semi-finals.
The team was purchased again in fall of 2007 by a St. Paulite who had been living in Belgium, Dean Johnson. Sadly, the team succumbed to the financial downturn of 2008 and after many financial miscues from Johnson himself, folded after it’s 20th season in the fall of 2009. After 20 continuous years as a club and 15 years playing in the USSF sanctioned 2nd division, the history book on the Thunder closed.
After it was apparent the Thunder would no longer exist, the National Sports Center announced they would form a team to save professional soccer in Minnesota. Three months and four days after officially announcing a pro team would play at the in the USSF D-2 Pro League for the 2010 season, 11 players for the NSC Minnesota Stars stepped on the field at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, BC, Canada to play the Vancouver Whitecaps with former Thunder player and MLS star, Minnesotan Manny Lagos coaching the squad. The NSC only ran the team for one season. The new financial requirements set out by the US Soccer Federation in 2010 to stabalize second division soccer meant the National Sports Center Foundation could no longer run the team.
Needing a minimum requirement of 8 teams, the newly sanctioned USSF D2 league called the North American Soccer League, took over the team in its first year (2011) and was renamed the Minnesota Stars FC and under long time Minnesota soccer executive, Djorn Buchholz assisted with finding a new logo and new identity for the team. With arguably the lowest budget in the league – something Minnesota pro soccer fans had gotten used to – Manny Lagos team finished 6th place overall and squeezed into the playoffs. With a remarkable late season run that lasted through the playoffs, the Stars won the inaugural NASL Soccerbowl trophy by winning 3-1 over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at home and drawing 0-0 in Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale for the return leg.
While the league continued to look for someone to purchase the Stars to keep their Minnesota soccer legacy alive, the team played one more season under the financial wing of the NASL. Once again under the coaching of Manny Lagos, Minnesota made it’s way to the finals. This time they defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-1 at home but lost 3-1 in St. Petersburg. With the aggregate score tied they played through overtime and eventually lost 3-2 in spot kicks.
Many thought the the Minnesota may have played it’s last pro soccer match, including the players in the locker room after losing in that 2012 final. But little known to them (then) NASL Commissioner David Downs was sitting in the stands with former United Healthcare executive Dr. Bill McGuire that cold mid-October evening. The Dark Clouds supporters who were growing in numbers every year, chanted, sang and screamed their team to that 2-0 victory over the Rowdies. McGuire has since stated that it was the atmosphere that the Dark Clouds created that night that lured him to purchase the team.
Later that fall the fans and players were introduced to the new owner of their team, Dr. Bill McGuire. McGuire named Nick Rogers as President and the two have gone about giving life to soccer in Minnesota at at level it’s never seen since the days of the Kicks. By rebranding, expanding office staff, coaching staff and player personnel, they now have said their goal is to create one of the best soccer teams in North America.
After enduring years of frustration and sometimes drudgery as a pro soccer fan, these are good days to be a soccer supporter in Minnesota. The Loons have one of the best teams in the league fielding the best overall record in 2014 with the the top goal scorer in Christian Ramirez and NASL Golden Ball winner and US National team player, Miguel Ibarra.
On March 25th, 2015, Major League Soccer’s Commissioner Don Garber held a press conference in Minneapolis with Minnesota United FC to announce that Dr. Bill McGuire had been awarded the 23rd franchise. Minnesota is expected to join the top soccer league in the US in 2017.
This article was updated on 8-15-16.
Tags: Alan Merrick, Alan Willey, Amos Magee, Bill George, Bill McGuire, Buzz Lagos, Christian Ramirez, Dean Johnson, Division I Women's College Soccer, Djorn Buchholz, Don Garber, Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, Gopher Soccer, High School Soccer, Manny Lagos, Miguel Ibarra, Minneosta Soccer History, Minnesota Kicks, Minnesota Stars FC, Minnesota Strikers, Minnesota Thunder, Minnesota Thunder Development Academy, Minnesota United FC, Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, National Sports Center, NSC Minnesota Stars, Steve Litt, Tino Lettieri, Tom Engstrom, Tony Sanneh, USA CUP