Editor's note: In this next installment of MPR News' Young Reporters Series, Michael Swearingen reports on Minnesota's growing number of soccer fans.
Neal Logan started hanging out with a dozen guys more than a decade ago to watch Minnesota professional soccer. They'd tailgate Minnesota United games in Blaine and mercilessly heckle opponents.
It was great fun. But at that point, they were a small band of fanatics in a state where the other kind of football was still king.
These days, though, Logan and the Minnesota United fan base are riding a wave of interest in soccer. The Dark Clouds fan group he and others started is now highly-organized with more than 500 members. When the Minnesota United Loons play home games, the fans have their own section and chants to cheer on the team.
As Minnesota soccer works to break into the major leagues, those fans hope to play a part in the team's success. Other fans are noticing their passion, as are Minnesota United's players.
The Dark Clouds acknowledge they're soccer fanatics. Bruce McGuire, one of the original members, says the group's love for the game makes the experience better for everyone.
"Man, I go as high and as low as that game takes me," he said. "I come to these games and it's just in my blood and people are always like, 'Oh you know, it's a minor league sports team.' I don't know why. You don't get to pick who you fall in love with. You just do."
The name Dark Clouds was tied to Minnesota United's former name, the Thunder. McGuire said it was meant to mimic the intimidating names of other international soccer fan clubs, known as ultras.
"It was a joke," he said. "It was a spoof on other ultra groups that had kind of dark, menacing, mean names. We just decided to make a joke out of it."
Early on, the Dark Clouds began to catch opposing players' attention.
Midfielder Jamie Watson used to play in Florida for the Orlando City soccer franchise. During games in Minnesota he says the Dark Clouds had a specific heckle for him.
In one game, Watson fell after a play and they started chanting, "You dive like Jamie Watson!"
He says he had mixed feelings then. "Well, two words: dislike and respect. And I think that's the biggest thing you could say, the best thing you could say about an opposing supporters group," said Watson, who now plays for Minnesota United.
The Dark Clouds still use the same chant, but Watson says it improves his play.
"Oh, 1,000 percent I play better when they're louder," he said. "It adds an atmosphere that you can't replicate any other way, having people who care about you and the team and that support it."
Other fans have started to notice. Spencer Agnu says the Dark Clouds crew have changed his game day experience.
"I just more enjoy watching," he said. "Not necessarily singing myself, but I'm really glad that people who want to do that are doing it because I think it makes the atmosphere really fun."
What started as a bunch of guys behind the visitors bench is now a more sophisticated operation. The Dark Clouds are organized now as nonprofit with a $30 suggested annual membership fee. All the group's proceeds go to either game-day activities like tailgating and travel, or to soccer-related local charities, including the Sanneh Foundation. Board members and operations staff are all volunteers.
The group's waiting now to see if the Minnesota United Loons break into the elite Major League Soccer league. It's a step that will require a new outdoor stadium in the Twin Cities, so it's not clear if it will happen.
Still, the Dark Clouds now have an updated motto to reflect the group's views on the team's future: "Any name. In any league. Dark Clouds will follow."
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