Crazy as Loons: How die-hard MN United fans keep soccer alive in Minnesota

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Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune

Loons midfielder Johan Venegas caught the ball near the center circle all alone.

A rare luxury up to that point.

Yet there he was roaming freely in the 79th minute on the rain-soaked grass under a gloomy Portland, Oregon, sky.

Venegas glided with the ball at his feet down the middle of the Providence Park pitch, untouched for 10 long strides. Up ahead he spotted Christian Ramirez, and a chance to change Minnesota United FC’s fortunes after they had gone down 2–0 to the hometown Timbers. Venegas deftly slotted Ramirez a perfect pass just outside the 18-yard box.

Receiving it like a precious gift, Ramirez, a fan favorite holdover from the franchise’s minor league days, took a half step back and gently knocked the ball 18 inches with one touch of his left foot. He pirouetted to face the net and took aim at just a sliver of space past two Timbers’ defenders. Launching a low, hooking liner, Ramirez sent the ball whistling toward the bottom right corner of the goal mouth.

As the ball evaded the diving goalie and rocked the back of the netting, time paused. Shocked silence settled over the sellout Portland crowd. In the next instant, Ramirez’s teammates mobbed him, celebrating the Loons’ first-ever goal in their first-ever game in Major League Soccer, North America’s premier league in the sport.

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Phil Cross and Ben Krouse-Gagne Colin Michael Simmons

Directly above the celebration, in the top corner of section 223, an explosion of sound echoed off the overhang of the converted minor league baseball stadium roof as 150 of Minnesota soccer’s most ardent supporters released years of pent-up anxiety.

 

SAVE AFTER SAVE

The fact that the Loons would go on to give up three more goals in the final throes of that game, eventually losing 5–1, was a minor barb for a fan base that had suffered far worse.

Ramirez’s 180-degree turn toward the net and ensuing shot signified the turnaround of professional soccer in Minnesota on the sport’s grandest stage.

That day in early March, hours before kickoff in Portland, Ben Krouse-Gagne greeted Minnesota soccer supporters just inside Yur’s Bar, a seedy dive a half-mile down the road from Providence Park. While handing out free scarves and drink tickets, Krouse-Gagne, a member of United’s oldest supporters’ group, the Dark Clouds, assessed the occasion.

“There’s nothing like a game on the road. Nothing. Like. It.”

To revisit the history of professional soccer in Minnesota, one could argue there’s nothing like any game. Period.

The ill-starred journey of the state’s most passionate soccer fans begins with Minnesota United’s predecessor, the now-defunct Minnesota Thunder. While the Thunder existed as barnstorming amateurs for their first four years, the team eventually fielded professional squads starting in 1995. Small but consistent crowds of 3,000–4,000 fans per game grew used to success, too, even if “success” meant runner-up finishes in something called the Sizzling Nine Championship.

After winning the league title in 1999 and making six championship game appearances, the Thunder stopped scoring.

From 2005 to 2009, the team competed with little success in the United Soccer League-1, two rungs below Major League Soccer. At the close of the 2009 season, after several years of failing to finish higher than seventh in the league standings, rumors surfaced of financial trouble.

Owner and real estate developer Dean Johnson downplayed the team’s struggles, publicly displaying confidence in the direction of the team and future financing, but reports emerged that players, staff, and vendors were going unpaid. In early November 2009, the website insidemnsoccer.com reported, “The Minnesota Thunder have no general manager, no coach, three employees and a boat load of bills. Will they survive, and will Dean Johnson ask for help?”

Just two days later media and fans learned that all players had been released from their contracts.

Johnson vanished. The club existed in name and on debt ledgers only. Then-general manager Djorn Buchholz achieved folk-hero status among the longtime faithful after he put the travel bill for the club’s final road game on his personal credit card.

In 2010, with a growing fan base but no team, the future of professional soccer in Minnesota looked as bleak as ever. 

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That is, until the nonprofit National Sports Center in Blaine announced its intention to own and operate a new team for the following season. Though the NSC Minnesota Stars would play in the same stadium as the Minnesota Thunder, this was a clean break. The Stars would take the field in the temporary USSF Division 2 Professional League.

More changes would follow. A year after the team’s rebirth, the Stars climbed to the North American Soccer League (NASL), one rung below the MLS. When the sports center ownership group could not meet the new league’s financial requirements, the NASL agreed to take over ownership of the Stars for three additional years.

The ups and downs took their toll in the stands. Despite the Stars’ surprising run to the championship in 2011, attendance dwindled to under 2,000 per game, one of the lowest averages in the league. In 2012, with no new owner lined up, the Minnesota Stars again reached the championship final under a clouded future.

Then, just like that, professional soccer in the state of Minnesota was saved again.

 

UNITED AT LAST

After a year away, Buchholz returned to the Minnesota Stars in 2011 as the CEO, GM, and team president, tasked with keeping the franchise afloat as it looked to usher in a new era.

Finally, in November 2012 at an introductory press conference that Buchholz would call “one, if not the most important day in the history of Minnesota soccer,” the Stars and the NASL welcomed new owner Bill McGuire. The billionaire and former UnitedHealth Group CEO was new to soccer, but familiar with the challenges of a small, fledgling business, after taking over the small UnitedHealth Care firm in 1989 and building it into one of the largest healthcare providers in the world.

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The Dark Clouds in front of their charter bus before heading to Chicago

Though known almost as much at the time for a large corporate buyout under a shroud of legal issues in 2006, McGuire had nearly disappeared from the public eye for years. Buying the United gave McGuire a chance to publicly reshape his much-maligned image.

The team was also rebranded, as the Minnesota United FC (the Loons). Attendance skyrocketed, year after year, to the point where crowds of 8,500-plus were the norm for the final three seasons at the NSC.

In October of 2015, McGuire and the city of St. Paul announced plans for a $150 million stadium for the team. McGuire’s stadium gambit advanced the process of bidding on an MLS expansion franchise with the help of a collection of investors, including Twins owners the Pohlad family; Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor (who also owns City Pages); and former Minnesota Wild investor Glen Nelson and his daughter Wendy Carlson Nelson, of the Carlson hospitality company. In 2016, the group won the bid over not only other potential expansion cities, but a competing proposal from the Minnesota Vikings.

Because the soccer gods seem to delight in the torment of Minnesotans, the team’s very name and logo were almost immediately in jeopardy. MLS officials worried adding a third “United” moniker to the league — following D.C. United and Atlanta United — would make one too many. When the MLS filed the trademark “Minnesota FC” in early 2016, many also worried that the crest, a loon staring up at the North Star, would get shot down. 

After months of deliberation and the persistence of diehard fans, MLS agreed to let the franchise keep its name and logo. The Loons were officially a major league team.

 

“THIS TEAM SUCKS”

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The MLS announcement breathed new energy into the fan base. However, the coaches and front-office staff faced the daunting task of simultaneously managing the final season of the NASL campaign while preparing to field a competitive roster to compete in the MLS.

The result for Minnesota was a bunch of young draft picks thrust into the spotlight, plus holdover NASL players making the leap to the big leagues. Several players signed up so late, they had not visited Minnesota before joining the team on the road for preseason camp in warmer climates.

To no one’s surprise, an expansion team with the 19th-lowest payroll in a 22-team league failed to stir the imagination of the national media.

And if the first performance in Portland did little to inspire, the following match against Atlanta United FC further tanked expectations.

Though Atlanta had also joined MLS ahead of the 2016 season, the team had nearly three years to build toward the MLS before playing a match. Atlanta had instant momentum in the stands, selling more than 30,000 season tickets before their inaugural home game — approximately three times the number Minnesotans purchased. And the Atlanta front office rewarded this early loyalty, spending on a roster ranked eighth-highest in the league that could compete immediately. 

Atlanta could score immediately too, as they did twice in the first 13 minutes, blowing by Loons defenders who slipped and slid on the snow-covered TCF Bank Stadium turf.

Adding injury to insult, Minnesota lost its starting goalie John Alvbage to a gruesome laceration above his knee. He would never play for the Loons again. The Loons lost 6–1.

Matthew Eides, his girlfriend, and a couple of older supporters affectionately referred to as Grey Clouds, were watching that game at a bar on the East Coast. Knowing they’d be seeing the Loons play live in a couple of weeks when the team traveled to New England, they contemplated how to announce their presence in the stands.

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Abe Opoti

“We would just watch our team melt down,” he said. “And we knew they were probably gonna get plastered in New England. So what do we do?”

They briefly considered hoisting up a banner that read, “This Team Sucks,” before scrapping that idea and landing on six simple words, printed in white on a black background. This past March, the banner rippled through the cool breeze and mist in a corner of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, underneath a dozen black- and blue-clad Minnesota fans.

“We’re Just Happy to Be Here,” it read.

But were they, even after the Loons suffered another humiliating early-season loss at the hands of the New England Revolution?

Eides’ other sign idea would not have been wrong: The Loons Do Kind of Suck. Despite a modest uptick from those gloomy days in March, they’re still hovering near the bottom of the league standings. They could for the foreseeable future.

“People know us for putting up with immense heartbreak and resiliency,” Eides says of the fans who’ve been through this before. “And the prestige is spreading.”

The banner became an instant hit on social media. Eides had T-shirts made and sold them online, with all the proceeds going to the nonprofit Immigration Equality.

Eides describes himself as “very proudly Minnesotan,” while speaking on the phone from his adopted home of Washington, D.C. His enthusiasm bubbles over to the point that he’s apologizing repeatedly for his excitement. In 2011 he started following the painful drama of the NSC-owned Stars and decided to ramp up his support through the “dying gasps.”

“I just sort of decided to become the East Coast supporter for Minnesota soccer,” he said.

That included attending away games in earlier days with limited company. He’d show up with “usually one or two fans with a giant Minnesota flag pissing everyone else off.”

Now, as an unofficial leader of the East Coast contingent of Dark Clouds that spans from Massachusetts down to South Carolina, Eides gathers fans to watch and attend games on the eastern seaboard.

Back here, MN United officially lists three supporter groups on its website, and they’re known to have varying affiliations with each. The legacy Dark Clouds are most closely connected; however, the team has also embraced the more aggressive, passionate support of the newer True North Elite.

Several unofficial supporter groups also exist, including the Mill City Ultras, a group that broke from existing fan clubs over fears that those groups blurred the line between fans and PR shills.

How long will the fan clubs last if the team continues to suck?

Eides is not concerned. “I don’t think the hardcore people will ever leave.”

 

DRINK 90 DRINK

The 45-passenger coach bus stocked with coolers of donated local craft beer and a keg of nitro coffee leaves St. Paul bound for Kansas City at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning in June.

A police escort meets United supporters, led by Krouse-Gagne, at the bus for the walk toward the Cauldron, Sporting Kansas City’s supporters’ group.

A voice from the Kansas City camp shouts seemingly the only marching orders needed:

“United! There’s plenty of beer. Get some in your cups!”

This deliberate outreach from an archrival’s fan base, called “Drink 90 Drink,” seems unprecedented in major American sports. The official trip rules remind United supporters to “not be an asshole” as the Cauldron rolls out the welcome wagon.

A twentysomething guy sporting a personalized baby-blue road jersey from United’s NASL days talks of coming down from the North Shore because he knew he couldn’t miss the first bus trip. Two buddies who grew up on Minnesota soccer came along to strengthen their bond after one moved away from the Twin Cities to Duluth. Despite standing at about 6-foot-4, another supporter is barely recognizable because, for once, his young son is not attached to him in a Baby Bjorn. Instead he’s hauling a growler full of a Belgian Dubbel that he’s happy to dole out. A young entrepreneur has no problem selling off-brand scarves featuring the red eyes of a loon, despite Kansas City’s sweltering mugginess.

In this new MLS era, Minnesota’s legacy fans are like early adopters, who stuck through the glitchy early stages of the product. Newcomers are part of the beta test. All are encouraged to buy in, to see where pro soccer in Minnesota goes next.

“Trying to get everyone who travels with us to feel welcome is not always an easy feat to accomplish,” Phil Cross says. “Some don’t know very many people or are hesitant to reach out and begin a conversation with others.”

Cross, caretaker of one of the many expertly coiffed beards on the bus, relies heavily on those legacy United supporters in these situations.

“[They’ve] met so many different kinds of people that they know how to reach out and make a newcomer feel that sense of welcomeness that we want every traveler to feel,” he says.

“It’s a very grassroots community,” says Teresa Petersen, member of the Dark Clouds and copyeditor for FiftyFive.one, a website devoted to Minnesota soccer news. “You get to meet new people, even from other teams. It’s a very basic level of bonding and connecting.”

Petersen’s loyalty came by way of a different kind of football.

“Growing up a Vikings fan, then moving to Seattle I couldn’t see the Vikings on TV, and I wasn’t going to be a Seahawks fan because that would be wrong,” Petersen says. “So I had this sports void in my life.”

She happened upon soccer when she started dating a man whose parents emigrated from Germany.

“He said, ‘OK, there is this tournament coming up where there’s soccer every day for a month and you can either watch with me or I’ll see you when it’s over.’ So, I said show me this soccer stuff.”

That tournament, of course, was the World Cup, a global spectacle watched by hundreds of millions internationally, but only a blip on most American sports fans’ radars in 1998. Petersen watched during the wee hours of a West Coast morning as the tournament played out in France.

Soon she was the one waking up her boyfriend so they could get to the bar before early kickoffs.

She cites the pace and beauty of the game and the way the action fills up the 90 minutes as causes for her quick adoption of the sport.

Years later, when the Thunder traveled out to the West Coast for its Cascadia Tour, Petersen, by then a full-on fanatic, caught up with some Minnesotans in Seattle who joined her tailgate for a game versus the hometown Sounders. Within a month she was moving back to Minnesota, and those same fans welcomed her immediately. She has been involved with the Dark Clouds ever since.

“It’s so much more than the final score,” she says. “It is hard to describe it without saying it’s like a religion.”

 

A BAND OF MISFITS

After 140 boozed-up supporters pose for a photo, they enter the stadium together. Early-arriving Kansas City fans look on with bewilderment and rapture as Loons fans beat drums and aggressively wave dozens of blue-and-black flags while marching and chanting their way toward section 124.

Minnesotans who earlier that day had stared at each other in silence outside the bus locked arms and swung back and forth as a “capo,” or head cheerleader, roared into a megaphone.

“M! N! U-F-C!” “M! N! U-F-C!”

“The fact that [all fans] feel they can jump in on that [rallying cry]? This is their way to get their foot in the door,” Jeff Reuter says.

Reuter covers the action for MLSSoccer.com as a writer for United home games. He also lends expert commentary to the FiftyFive.one podcast. But here, he’s just a spectator, having made the trek down with his family.

“You could see Sporting [KC] fans weren’t used to such a loud supporters’ section,” he says. “They were covering their ears and leaning away to avoid going deaf. It was really cool to see just how into it the traveling fans were.”

Krouse-Gagne eventually makes his way to the top of the supporter section, looking exhausted as he surveys what he’s helped create. He estimates that he and Cross have put in 20 hours of volunteer time and explains the coordination going on behind the scenes between the supporter groups, trip sponsors, the front offices of both teams, and MLS, planning each step down to the minute.

“At the end of the day, the success of the whole experience won’t rest in a victory,” Cross says. “But in keeping all traveling supporters safe and content from the beginning of the trip to its conclusion.”

MLS and its teams have actively worked to combat the intentionally unruly and violent behavior that persists in European and South American leagues. That means rules are stricter and vary from stadium to stadium.

“You’re a traveling band of misfits because you have to recreate your support every time,” Eides says.

Is it worth it?

It is to “people who want to stand with others having fun at a match, rather than sitting around like a bunch of wet blankets.”

Krouse-Gagne admits that at times, the game of soccer can be methodical, even slow. However, throughout his years supporting the Stars and the Loons, he started noticing one constant through all 90 minutes: that vocal group of banner-waving, drum-beating fans.

“It’s a community for sure,” Krouse-Gagne says of the Dark Clouds. “They welcomed me with open arms.”

Pregame tailgates, postgame libations, and 90 minutes of chanting and cheering in between soon followed. Then Krouse-Gagne, who fundraises for the University of Minnesota’s Department of Neuroscience by day, found his true passion of raising the profile of professional soccer in Minnesota by night. He began participating in the monthly outreach with the philanthropic arm of the Dark Clouds called the Silver Lining, organizing, among other things, relief missions to Haiti. He also traveled to away games, and is tasked with helping create stress-free, affordable options for supporters interested in following the team on the road.

“[On the road] you have a lot of time to get to know each other,” he says. And he believes it makes a difference to the team to have them there.

“The team appreciates that you’re encroaching on rival territory,” Krouse-Gagne says. “For me, it doesn’t matter how the team does.”

He doubled down in a protective tone.

“If you think about your own life, when you need the most support is not when you got a promotion or job, but when you got laid off.”

That mentality gives a built-in advantage to this newest iteration of Minnesota soccer, as it braces for what could be a long stretch of painful results.

 

THE GAME WASN'T CLOSE 

With a lineup heavy on reserves due to injuries, suspensions, and international team duties, United appeared to be playing a step slow against Sporting Kansas City. In the end, the Loons would get outshot 21–3, wilting in the early June humidity.

But the spirit in the stands never withered. Late in the game, Christian Ramirez, dubbed “Superman” by fans, received a pass deep inside enemy territory. A cavernous opening appeared in front of the net. United supporters presumptively cheered the expectant goal, only to collectively groan as the ball sailed over the net.

Even had the ball gone in, it would only have provided a slight cosmetic upgrade to an ugly 3–0 defeat.

Each SKC goal seemed only to elevate the cheering from Minnesota’s band of misfits. United fans broke out in chants of “You’re not singing over there!” taunting Kansas City fans when it became clear the little group tucked in one corner of a nearly 20,000-seat stadium was making the most noise.

“I speak to the players and it does make a difference and they can hear that,” Reuter says.

After the game, United players take their familiar direct route across the pitch to salute their supporters in the corner. Eventually, even members of SKC’s team come over and acknowledge the fans’ efforts.

When you’ve committed your money and 15-plus hours on a bus for a 90-minute game that you know your team will likely lose, it’s fulfilling to see the appreciation from the team.

So are these supporters truly “just happy to be here”? For now, yes. The general consensus is the team has a three-year grace period with the fan base to build a winner.

But for the diehards? You’re consistently reminded of their resiliency.

“[A loss] doesn’t change the way I feel about the team, or diminish the amount of fun I had on the trip,” Petersen says. “We kept singing and cheering because we still care about our team and we want them to know we’re still behind them.”

Which is why the supporters load back up on the bus immediately following the game for the seven-plus hour trek to Minnesota already planning the next road trip.

It must be true, what they say. There’s nothing like it.

Photo 1 and 2 by Aaron Lavinsky, the rest by Colin Michael Simmons


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