Major League Facepalm: MNUFC Might Have Its Name Forcibly Changed

by on 17 February 2016

On March 25, 2015, Commissioner Don Garber and his MLS posse rolled into the Twin Cities to welcome the 23rd franchise to the league. Fans crowded into the Target Field Legends Club to watch hype videos, learn of Dr. Bill McGuire & the ownership team’s plans, and celebrate this milestone in Minnesota sports history. The league put up the MLS Cup on display and had notable figures from league history in attendance. (Of course, as the adage goes, it ain’t an American soccer party unless Landon Donovan shows up.) And, proudly, banners and a backdrop proclaimed: “WELCOME, MINNESOTA UNITED FC.”

On July 7th, three and a half months later, MLS’s other new expansion side in Atlanta announced that they were going to be henceforth dubbed: Atlanta United FC. Enter facepalm, stage right. We have long known that the league was deliberating the idea of having a third United in the league. However, today Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus updated MLS fans on Minnesota’s plans, writing that “(i)t’s looking increasingly likely that Minnesota United FC will enter MLS in 2017, and it’s looking increasingly likely that it will do so with a new name.” As our own Alex Schieferdeckerwrote in January, “the infinitely more popular English premier league has three “United”s, and English football itself has fourteen.”

The only reason that Minnesota is seen as the “third” United in the league is due to the recent branding of Atlanta’s expansion team. Chosen through a focus group (much in the same way that Betty Crocker names her latest batch of muffins), Atlanta United FC passed through MLS Headquarters and received public support. At the announcement, Garber stated that he was a little “choked up” at the reception to the team’s new monniker. “Sometimes you just have to step back and feel good about the roots we’re planting.”

However, the league’s strong-handed preference for Minnesota to rename their own team uproots established support for the club. DC United’s take for the name is obvious – as a founding member of the league in the nation’s capital, nobody is asking them to drop the name. Meanwhile, Minnesota United was founded after decades of league-shifting and ownership changes, not to mention the uniting of the two Twin Cities. Atlanta’s claim to the term (per Straus)? “The word ‘United’ has long been associated with the beautiful game around the world,” AUFC president Darren Eales said upon the unveiling. “It has particular resonance for Atlanta, as a transport hub in the Southeast, as a multi-cultural, international city and as a club committed to community.”

What’s in a Name

The jury seems unanimous in the court of public opinion that this decision does not make sense. But those with actual power in this situation might say that a name is a name. That’s partially true – the team has been identified as “The Loons” nationally since their 2013 re-brand. However, the MNUFC front office has been charging forward full speed ahead using this name. After years of toiling in obscurity with local papers and sports fans, United is one of the hottest names in Minnesota right now. The team, the City of Saint Paul, and the league alike have put out press statements updating the public on progress that “Minnesota United FC” is making as they work toward joining MLS. After three years of instilling Minnesota United in the American soccer landscape and eleven months post-MLS expansion announcement, the league is continuing to balk at the idea of confirming the team name once and for all.

The two priorities of the league should be: how can we make every individual market a success and then (obviously related) how can we make the league as a whole a success? The Loons right now are selling jerseys that say Minnesota United, they are selling MLS season ticket deposits that say “United,” and every gear spinning and toiling toward making Minnesota’s debut in MLS is branded “United.” Changing now does not indicate a new dawn, it indicates absolute confusion. It is a serious handicap toward success when you have to sell a very confused brand.

The Past and Future

The league may also imagine that a new name would help them indicate that this is a new era of soccer. Though the United era has been remarkably professionalized and successful, it has still been “minor league” (or one can imagine the MLS BOG believing this). But in trying to force a break with the past, the league is making the exact opposite move.

Since 2009, Minnesotans have seen a professional soccer team under four different names (Minnesota Thunder, NSC Minnesota Stars, Minnesota Stars FC, and Minnesota United FC). Our past is one of uncertainty. And this was part of the reason why Minnesota soccer was not taken seriously. You can’t take a team seriously if it changes name every few years.

Changing the name of the club, then, does not break with that tradition. It does not eschew the past. Rather, it inextricably ties you up in the uncertainty, mess, and unprofessionalism of it all. In other words: you’re making yourselves look like just another one of the failed plans for soccer’s success.

You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

If MLS follows through with their plans to enforce a name change, they are committing an unbelievable blunder. It is not the blunder of ignoring the fans; that kind of blunder I expect and I think the league thinks it would recover from. No, this is the blunder of looking like complete amateurs.

There were three months where the league knew Minnesota United FC was entering the league and Atlanta was deliberating a name. This entire mess reveals a league that either has no central leadership (right hand not knowing what the left hand wants to name its team) or, worse, it has a leader who really has no plan. Forget the logic of who deserves the name United. Let’s just talk about the Benny Hill that appears to be the leadership of Major League Soccer. Quit chasing half-naked women around to silly music and come up with a plan.

Co-written by Jeff Rueter and Wes Burdine