Apparently MLS would prefer that Minnesota United FC drop the “United” from their name. Why? We haven’t the foggiest idea.
Traditionally when a lower division team has entered into Major League Soccer, the club has undergone a redesign to their crest and tweaks to their colors to bring the club’s identity up to a 21st century, first division standard. The club name, however, has remained untouched. Thus did the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, and Orlando City enter the league, almost all of them having strengthened their brand identities considerably in the process. (Portland being the only exception, having over-designed an already excellent badge).
But while this has been the way things have worked in the past, there’s no real reason why it is a necessary step. Intellectual property can be bought and sold. The new crop of lower division clubs that have started in recent years, even those with no goal to join MLS, have for the most part already developed interesting and/or effective identities. In the case of Minnesota United FC or MLS aspirants Sacramento Republic FC, the names are well-known locally, the crests are beautiful, and the colors resonate with the fanbase. There is nothing significant about either of these identities that needs changing.
And yet, in the case of Minnesota United FC, it appears that MLS HQ is asking for an alteration all the same. As our own Wes Burdine reported on Monday, and confirmed by the Pioneer Press’ Andy Greder on Thursday, both the club and the league are still discussing whether Minnesota United FC will be able to keep the “United” in their name. That’s right, the crest and the colors are safe; at issue is the one part of the Loons’ identity that was previously controversial only because it’s so unoffensive and boring.
This is, to point it bluntly, peak MLS. In the past ten years, MLS has transformed from a league on the brink of collapse to the hottest property in American sports, a league that seems destined in the not-too-distant future to break into the American mainstream in more than just a few weird cities. But throughout its incredible recent growth and success, MLS has maintained an almost-endearing minor-league quality, which is characterized by making baffling decisions, inventing byzantine player acquisition rules on the fly, and being as opaque as possible about the league’s inner-workings. The issue of Minnesota’s name fits perfectly into this Calvinball framework. There is literally no coherent reason why Minnesota should be forced to drop “United” from their name.
Seriously, I can’t believe I’m even writing this right now.
1. Minnesota United FC have been painstakingly building the team’s brand in the Twin Cities for three years, with substantial success.
Minnesota United FC have had the same name and crest for three years now, and have made good use of their time. Team attendances have grown threefold since 2012, the last season of the Minnesota Stars. The club’s crest has been lauded by soccer fans across the country, and recognized locally. The club’s colors are uncommon, and the club’s kits are inspired. Presumably these are all the reasons why MLS is okay with the club continuing on with the same design. As they should be. It’s a credit to MLS to have a team that looks as good as Minnesota as a part of the league.
Well, “United” is a part of that. People have been calling this team Minnesota United FC for three years, and the name has been associated with the crest, the colors, and the kits for those same three years. Hardcore fans, casual fans, and total idiots all know the team by the same name. Minnesota United FC were launched into MLS with that name on the background. Media attention surrounding the team’s move to MLS has been about Minnesota United.
At the risk of sounding condescending, this is the name by which people know the team. If MLS changed its name tomorrow to League One America, that would be idiotic for the exact same reason. Unless you’ve done something truly terrible, or literally nobody knows about you, you don’t change your name.
2. MLS has no problem with having multiple teams named “United”
There is a legitimate argument to be made that having multiple teams with the same name in your league is a bit silly. In MLS, there is already a team named DC United, and while I don’t agree with it, I can plausibly see MLS asking Minnesota to change their name because of a worry about having multiple teams with the same name.
Happily, we know that MLS doesn’t care about having multiple teams in the league with the name “United”. How do we know this? We know this because MLS appears just fine with the chosen name of the 2017 Atlanta club, which is (stop me if you’ve heard this one) Atlanta United FC. The team’s name and logo were unveiled to the public on July 7th, 2015, exactly 104 days after Minnesota had officially joined the league, and 7,031 days after DC United played their opening match. If the league had a problem with multiple teams being named “United”, how was expansion team Atlanta allowed to choose that name when starting from scratch? If the league was okay with two teams being named “United”, but not three because reasons, then how come Atlanta was able to proceed with their name choice?
In other words, it’s extremely baffling that MLS could somehow have a problem with Minnesota United FC, yet they happily okay’d Atlanta United FC. If MLS at any point has feared that having multiple “United”s would lead to confusion, then let’s all acknowledge how stupid that sounds, because the confusion would be entirely of their own making.
And as an aside, one of the lessons of MLS’ past ten years of growth is that achieving success means not patronizing soccer fans. It’s a remarkably insulting idea that MLS fans could forget which United they’re thinking about, when the infinitely more popular English premier league has three “United”s, and English football itself has fourteen.
3. Minnesota United has a decent claim to the word “United”
To cap it all off, Minnesota’s choice of the name United back in 2013 actually makes a good bit of sense. No, Minnesota United FC was not formed as a merger between two clubs, but then again neither were DC United or Manchester United. But Minnesota does lay claim to the history of four other separately named clubs; the Kicks, the Strikers, the Thunder, and the Stars. The team is the renamed entity of the Stars, who were the direct successors of the Thunder, who were the heirs of the Strikers, who followed the Kicks. Names like Lagos, Kallman, and Wiley run through the histories of the present club and these previous clubs. As the present standard bearer of professional soccer in Minnesota, the current club quite literally unites a fractured local history under one banner.
That’s the history. There’s also the geography. Minnesota is historically a homogeneous state, where the main source of tension was between the Catholics of Saint Paul and the Protestants of Minneapolis. While the two municipalities are essentially one city today, there remain remnants of the old rivalry (as everyone saw this past summer), and each has their own downtown. Minnesota United FC’s stadium will be based in Saint Paul, but it is physically about equidistant from both downtowns in an area of the cities called “Midway”. Their future location speaks to what “United” means. And in a Minnesota that is rapidly becoming more diverse, the Loons are a team for the new, international, multicultural Minnesota.
I’m not going to tell you that “United” is the greatest name ever. There’s a reason we all refer to the club as “the Loons”. I won’t say that I would’ve picked it in the first place, or that DC and Atlanta should change instead (although I think Atlanta blew it with a boring name and boring crest and their explanation for the team name is total marketing nonsense, and the fact that they are killing off the existing professional soccer team in the area without so much as thinking about a partnership really puts a morbid spin on the term “United”, but that’s neither here nor there *whistles*). Like many people, I would’ve been totally fine if the team had been named something else.
But this is the problem. It wasn’t named something else. It was named “Minnesota United FC”. That’s the name. That’s the name we’ve had, that’s the name we’re growing into. It makes sense. It’s a classic soccer name, with a crest that inspired a beloved animal nickname. That’s as by-the-book in soccer nomenclature as you can get.
So what is MLS playing at? I have no clue. My best theory is that Atlanta had settled on their name long before they announced it (which made their fan name brainstorming contest a sham—please take notes) and somehow MLS really does have a problem with three United teams. Or else MLS somehow worried that fans will habitually confuse Minnesota United with Manchester United, which has happened before, but somehow we’ve been able to overcome it. Beyond that, I’m drawing a blank. It makes no sense for any good reason that I can fathom. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
The good news is that the club seems to agree with me and is apparently insisting on keeping their name an identity as is. Good for them. It’s a ridiculous request.