A funny thing happened in soccer last week. The best major league team in the U.S. lured Minnesota's minor league club to Salt Lake City for a U.S. Open Cup match. Real Salt Lake paid the Minnesota Stars to give up home field advantage, so fans in Utah could go to the game—and presumably see an easy win.
Instead, the Stars stunned them, beating Real Salt Lake at home 3-1.
"This is as good a team as I have seen here in Minnesota ever," said Brian Quarstad, a former soccer coach and ardent fan, "except for maybe back in the Kicks days."
Quarstad chronicles the game at InsideMNSoccer.com, a soccer news website that covers the North American Soccer League—the eight-team minor league that includes the Stars. Minnesota won the league championship last year.
"It's a very good team," Quarstad said. "Manny Lagos, on a very, very limited budget, probably the lowest in the league, just does a fantastic job, and his coaching staff as well."
But they may soon face their toughest challenger of all: The Minnesota Vikings.
The NFL team won't ever kick off against the Stars. But the stadium deal the team reached with the state and the city of Minneapolis gives the Vikings owners exclusive rights to a major league soccer franchise in Minneapolis— for five years after the new stadium opens in 2016.
Vikings vice president Lester Bagley said the team's first focus is football.
"We've got a stadium to design and build over the next several years, and so we're probably three or four years away from a serious discussion about an MLS team," said Bagley. "So, while we have a strong interest, it's a back burner issue for us."
That puts Minnesota's incumbent soccer team in a tough spot.
The Stars, whose home field is at the National Sports Center in Blaine, are the latest iteration in 23 straight seasons of pro soccer in Minnesota. They succeed another Stars team that collapsed financially in 2010. Their parent league bailed out the Stars and now keeps it afloat, in part to keep an eight-franchise roster. That's the minimum required by international soccer's rules for pro soccer leagues.
Djorn Buchholz, chief executive officer of the Stars, a caretaker sent in by the league, said the goal was to fix up the team and then put it up for sale.
"I've looked at it a little bit like a house and we've put a new roof on it and new shutters, and now the 'for sale' sign is out in the front yard," said Buchholz.
Buchholz said he's happy that Minnesota seems poised for big league soccer. But the prospect of an MLS franchise moving in just 17 miles down the road — any time in the next nine years — is a daunting prospect for the franchise.
"What that's done for us a little bit is narrowed the potential options out there for owners," he said, "because I think it's difficult for someone to potentially come in and say hey, I'm going to buy this thing now with that looming out there."
Stars fans are hoping for the best. Several North American soccer teams, including the Portland Timbers, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, have made the jump and are now major league franchises. But soccer enthusiasts worry that if pro soccer withers now amid the uncertainty, it could be hard for the Vikings to start a major league franchise from scratch and make it a success.
They're also hoping that the new stadium takes a comprehensive view of soccer— that planners can accommodate top-level international matches.
Dave Laidig, an organizer of MLS for Minnesota, a fan group formed to advocate for soccer, said the soccer should be considered in the design process of the stadium.
"The trend in football stadiums is to have the fans come closer to the field," he said. "But a soccer field's a little bit wider, especially if you have the international standard."
Bagley, the Vikings vice president, said that the team will keep that in mind and would like to host top-level international soccer. But he said that's years away at best.
In the meantime, though, Minnesota's existing pro team has a more immediate shot at the big leagues. They play the MLS' San Jose Earthquakes in Stanford, Calif., on Tuesday night.