With pro soccer calling, Minnesota Aurora works to keep its summer vibe alive

Fans cheer in the stands.
Ruby Palm, 10, left, and her sister Wilder, 4, celebrate after the Minnesota Aurora score during the second half against Bavarian United SC at TCO Stadium in Eagan, on June 20. The Palm family has been season ticket holders since the Aurora’s inaugural season.
Tom Baker for MPR News

A Minnesota Aurora match isn’t just a game for Ruby Palm. It’s serious business. 

On the day before her 10th birthday recently, all she wanted was to see the team play. She came game-ready with an Aurora scarf, T-shirt, friendship bracelet and blue hair ties. Her family has season tickets and try to make it to every home game. Ruby and her younger sisters Wilder and Ophelia all play soccer. 

A player signs a fan's t-shirt.
Minnesota Aurora defense player Lillie French, left, signs an autograph for a fan after a game against Bavarian United SC at TCO Stadium.
Tom Baker for MPR News

“I want to be on the Aurora team one day,” Ruby said. “I like cheering and getting autographs, and seeing them win. Because they’re really good.”

The Aurora’s worked hard to win that kind of fan love. Undefeated in its third regular season, it’s cultivated a reputation as a community-driven team with players who come to compete, enjoy Twin Cities summers and soak up the love of a dedicated fan base. 

Big changes, though, are on the horizon. The team’s on a path now to joining the National Women’s Soccer League. Going pro will bring more money and a national spotlight, but also a sharper business focus and much tougher competition. 

Team leaders know changes are inevitable but believe they can go big and ride the growing national popularity of women’s sports while keeping the team’s summer-in-Minnesota vibe.

“We just wanted to build a successful team for the community. And after our first season, it became clear we were onto something,” said Andrea Yoch, an Aurora co-founder who now chairs its investor relations committee focused on drawing new money to the team as it prepares to join the NWSL.

‘So many possibilities’

Minnesota Aurora FC plays in the Heartland Division of the USL W, a league made up of dozens of clubs and conferences across the country. Because it’s amateur soccer, the players don’t get paid to play but the team lines up housing for players while they’re here.

The Aurora played its first season in 2022 and has home games at TCO Stadium, the Vikings practice facility, in Eagan. 

And they’re good, really good. 

In 2022 and 2023 they won their division and went to the playoffs. In 2022 they made it to the league final, and in 2023 to the conference final. So far this year they are undefeated. On June 29 they beat RKC Third Coast 14-0 and on July 5, they play the conference semifinal in Detroit against Indy Eleven.

Success came so quickly that team leaders started looking at going pro after the first season. They acknowledged that professional soccer “requires deep pockets” and involves finding higher level investors. They hope to be on the NWSL expansion list for 2026. 

Currently there are 14 NWSL teams in the U.S. with the closest to Minnesota being the Chicago Red Stars. Yoch said that after the Kansas City Current built a new practice facility and stadium, the bar is higher. And politics are important, the League wants women players to be in states where they feel like they have good health care and community support. 

Players give fans reaching over a barricade high fives.
Minnesota Aurora players give fans high fives after a game against the Bavarian United SC at TCO Stadium.
Tom Baker for MPR News

While investors and capital are crucial, Yoch said the team continues to pay attention to the fan base, an effort she calls “the Aurora pipeline.”

This summer the team started its first girls soccer camp and introduced a reserve team, Aurora 2. In the future, they hope to start a soccer academy. 

“There’s so many possibilities, and none of them exist right now in Minnesota all the way from beginning to the end,” Yoch said. “As we continue to grow, we will continue to reach younger girls for them to get into our system.”

She said she wants young female fans to look down on the field and see it as something attainable.

A fan and a player high five.
Talulah DuBay, 9, left, receives a high five from Minnesota Aurora midfielder Mariah Nguyen after a game against Bavarian United SC at TCO Stadium.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Jelena Zbiljic and Mariah Nguyen both grew up in Minnesota and have been with the Aurora since its inception. They said that growing up here they never thought they would have an opportunity to play on this level or to be role models for generations of girls. 

“A little girl made friendship bracelets for a whole team. Never in a million years did I think something like that would happen, or that I would be signing autographs for girls who want to play on this team,” Zbiljic said. “It’s just so wholesome. You can see that they dream to be here. We want to reiterate it — they can be here one day too.”

‘Focus on what we have right now’

Players on the team say they can feel the growing power of women’s sports in Minnesota driven by the success of the WNBA and Professional Women’s Hockey League. 

“People want to watch me play. They want to watch me succeed,” said Saige Wimes, who’s in her first season with the Aurora and plays at the University of Kansas.

“I have never played in front of thousands of people,” she said. The average attendance for an Aurora game is 5,000. “At KU for our home games we maybe have 300 people a game. I feel really humbled and honored to be in this position and this role for younger girls.”

Taylor Kane, one of the original Aurora players, is a Californian who plays for the University of Iowa but never pictured herself in the Midwest. Minnesota summers, though, were too good to leave. Her place is known as the team house, now with lots of lake time and home-cooked meals.

“Everyone here is so welcoming and everyone around sports culture in Minnesota has been so supportive of having a women’s team,” she said. “It’s fun to have our team be able to support the other women’s teams in the community because their girls come to our games, and we can support them back.”

A player signs an autograph.
Minnesota Aurora goalkeeper Taylor Kane, left, signs an autograph for Kenzie Denker, 4, of White Bear Lake.
Tom Baker for MPR News

At their June 20 game, many girls soccer teams were in attendance including the Wave Soccer Club. They described the same sentiments as Ruby but also emphasized it’s just good soccer, and they can’t get enough. 

“They help us be better. They’ve just dominated and that’s why they’re going to go pro — that’s inspiring for anybody in Minnesota,” Twelve-year-old Raelyn Jahn said.

As the season nears its close going pro isn’t on the minds of the players, at least not yet. They’re focused on playing good soccer and soaking up Minnesota summertime for as long as they can.

Players gather to celebrate after a goal.
Minnesota Aurora players celebrate after scoring in the first half during a game against Bavarian United SC at TCO Stadium.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Yoch said the team should know more about their pro bid by the end of the summer.

”All we can do is focus on what we have right now and make it the best possible experience we can for everybody, and whatever is going to happen in the future is going to happen,” she said. “And so let’s all stay focused on the opportunities available to us, and we still need to win a championship.”

It’s the same for fans like Ruby.

“Every summer we go,” she said. “I can’t miss an Aurora game.”

A fan waves a scarf above her head.
Ruby Palm of Plymouth, Minn., waves her scarf during the Minnesota Aurora game against Bavarian United SC at TCO Stadium.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Editor's note: The Aurora's 2024 season came to end Friday afternoon when they lost 2-1 to Indy Eleven in a semifinal match.