Professional soccer in Minn. could get the boot

NSC game
NSC Stars forward Simone Bracalello tried to save a ball in front of the Portland Timbers goal during a game at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., on Aug. 21, 2010.
Photo by Jeremy Olson, courtesy the National Sports Center

Professional soccer could be heading for its final whistle in Minnesota.

A series of financial missteps and new, tougher requirements for team owners may spell the end for the state's minor league franchise, the Blaine-based NSC Stars.

The team is getting ready to close its season, hopefully with a last-seeded berth in the minor league national soccer championships this fall.

But it's next spring the team is really worried about.

Just a year after the state's last pro soccer team, the Thunder, went out of business, the Stars are facing what some fear might be a sudden-death finish.

Soccer's governing body in the U.S. is upping the financial threshold for minor league owners and teams. They'll have to put up $750,000 to play, and have an owner worth at least $20 million.

"They're tired of the 75 percent fail rate," said Brian Quarstad, referring to the track record for minor league soccer in the U.S.

Quarstad runs Inside Minnesota Soccer, a blog that covers the Stars and soccer's Division 2 league. He says the odds for the team look long.

"The NSC seems to think they can come up with the $750,000, which is due 90 days before the season. But they need an owner that's going to be worth that $20 million," he said. "That's not an easy thing to come up with."

Especially for a team that's drawn only about 1,400 fans a game this year.

First, though, a little background.

Goal keeper
Goal keeper Matt Van Oekel leaps for a ball in front of the goal at the National Sports Center stadium in Blaine, Minn., during a practice on Sept. 2, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Pro soccer has been around Minnesota for decades. First there were the Minnesota Kicks. The team played at Met Stadum from 1976 to 1981. The Minnesota Strikers succeeded them at the Metrodome and the Met Center, but folded in 1988.

The state's steadiest team, the Thunder, started playing in 1990 and moved from venue from venue, finally landing at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

The team was bought by Belgian real estate developer and St. Paul native Dean Johnson in 2007, but went broke last year.

Finally, the non-profit, state-built National Sports Center, which owns the stadium where the Thunder played, took over the team last winter -- in part to keep a tenant at its soccer facility.

Which brings us to today, as the sport's governing body is getting ready to eject the team from the game. US Soccer wouldn't comment about the new standards or the Stars situation.

Stars coach Manny Lagos, on the other hand, takes the team's prospects personally. His dad, Buzz, was the long time coach of the Minnesota Thunder, and Manny is a former major league soccer player himself. He admits he's torn by the change.

Lagos says the prospect of having team owners with deep pockets and financial staying power would be welcome relief for pro soccer.

"It's bittersweet when you have these new standards, and obviously, the National Sports Center as a non-profit cannot do it on their own," Lagos said. "But at the same time, there are some positives in that we public have to admit we can't. But we also want to work with partners in any way, shape or form to say hey, this is a great opportunity if you want to be involved in high-level, pro soccer."

Quarstad, who is considered one of the nation's authorities on minor league soccer, hopes someone with $20 million steps forward, but he thinks not just the Stars, but the whole league could go dark.

"The prospects, I think, are not real great, to find someone at that kind of money. And I think that's why U.S. Soccer did it," Quarstad said. "They made it difficult because they are trying to make everyone understand that it does take a lot of money even to run a minor league soccer team, and if you don't have that cash on hand to be able to finance the thing, you're going to be in trouble real quick."

But Stars officials hope there's still some wiggle room.

Lagos says even some Major League Soccer teams have taken the field with an official waiver of pro soccer's financial requirements. And he says some other minor league clubs, like St. Louis and Baltimore, are in much worse shape than the Stars.

And he also says that if the bar is set too high, there may not be enough teams to run a minor league, which might hurt the game overall.

And then there's the Holy Grail of U.S. Soccer still out there: Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said back in 2005 that he'd consider bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Minnesota to sweeten a bid for a new stadium.

But for now, Brett Favre and his NFL teammates might soon be Minnesota's only pro footballers -- of any kind.

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