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.
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.
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.
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.