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.