Kicking it Since 1976: Minnesota Soccer History

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No matter what you call it—football, calcio, fußball, or soccer—the beautiful game is a gift that the world has been sharing in one form or another for thousands of years, depending on which historian you ask. While its influence is more obvious in some areas, its impact and presence can be felt in almost every corner of the world, even right here in Minnesota.

Minnesotans have been kicking the ball around longer than you may think, creating a rich history of professional soccer that continues to fuel Minnesota United FC to this day. Let’s turn back the clock to see how the beautiful game found a home in our home state.

Minnesota Kicks (1976–1981)

In 1976, the North American Soccer League’s Denver Dynamos decided to relocate after playing just two seasons, and the Minnesota Kicks were born. They played their home matches at the Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, averaging more than 23,000 fans per game in their first-ever season. The numbers only went up from there, as the team’s success on the field fueled crowds in excess of 30,000 in the years to come. When Pele’s New York Cosmos came to town, more than 45,000 excited fans packed the stadium. Soccer was fresh and new to the Minnesotan fanbase, but it was an immediate hit in the North Star State.

Though the team only existed for six seasons, the Kicks were a force to be reckoned with. They won their division four years in a row from 1976–1979, advanced to the 1976 Soccer Bowl and reached the playoffs in every season they played. Star players Alan Wiley and Patrick "Ace" Ntseolengoe stood out, not only for the Kicks, but across the league, giving the squad valuable goalscoring firepower and talent. Tim Twellman was another Kicks standout, playing in all but one of the franchise’s seasons. His son Taylor went on to do the Twellman name proud, becoming an MLS and USMNT legend.

Their run was short-lived due to financial difficulties in 1981, but it should only be seen as a success. Without the first steps taken by the Kicks, professional soccer in Minnesota wouldn’t be where it is today. The end of the Minnesota Kicks wouldn’t be the end of soccer in this state; in fact, it was just the beginning.

Minnesota Strikers (1984–1988)

The NASL returned to the Twin Cities ahead of the 1984 season when the Fort Lauderdale Strikers relocated to the Metrodome in Minneapolis. They narrowly missed the playoffs before watching the league fold in 1984, forcing the team to get creative to continue operating. A move to the Major Indoor Soccer League appeared to be the best option at the time, and the Strikers joined the league alongside three other former NASL clubs.

Minnesota found mixed success in the MISL, ultimately folding after the 1988 season when the owners were unable to find new buyers to take over. Once again, L'Etoile du Nord was left without a soccer team.

Minnesota Thunder (1990-2009)

After two relatively soccerless years, the Minnesota Thunder emerged. What began as an amateur team in 1990 would blossom into a professional team by 1995, playing in several editions of what would eventually become the United Soccer League (USL). With the formation of the Thunder, pro soccer made the move to the National Sports Center in Blaine, and the sport was officially here to stay.

The club was spearheaded by the efforts of Head Coach Buzz Lagos, who managed the team for the first 16 years of its existence. During his tenure, the Thunder went to four championships, winning it all in 1999. When he retired in 2005, the club hired their all-time leading goalscorer, Amos Magee, as his successor.

For almost two decades, the Thunder laid the foundation from which soccer in Minnesota could build. Tailgating in the NSC parking lots, a win against the LA Galaxy in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup, and several successful seasons helped to build a consistent following for both the team and the sport, creating a soccer culture that was uniquely Minnesotan. The club folded in 2009 when financial difficulties suspended operations, but they wouldn’t stay down long.

Minnesota Stars (2010-2013)

When the Thunder ceased operation, the National Sports Center stepped in and started a new club to replace them: the NSC Minnesota Stars. They played in the revived NASL, winning the championship in their first season. They would drop NSC from the name in the 2012 season, just before a change in ownership would change the trajectory of the club and the sport in our state forever.

Minnesota United (2013-Present)

In late 2012, Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the Minnesota Stars. He quickly got to work making changes to the team, introducing a new name, crest, and ambition. Now known as Minnesota United FC and finally donning the iconic Loon, the team continued to grow with each passing year. Familiar names like Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez helped bring attention to the squad, as well as a 2014 NASL Spring Championship.

With the team on the rise and Major League Soccer looking to expand, a vision began to take shape. Among a host of other bids to join America’s top flight, Minnesota United was selected to be the 22nd club in MLS in 2015. The Loons joined the on-field action in 2017, playing their home games at the University of Minnesota while they awaited the eventual completion of Allianz Field in the Midway neighborhood.

The rest is, as they say, history. Minnesota United is currently in their seventh season in MLS, seeking their fifth consecutive playoff berth. They hosted the 2022 MLS All-Star Game, showcasing just how far the game has come in this great state. Life is good for Minnesotan soccer enthusiasts.

There’s no doubt that this is the world’s game, and there’s equally little doubt that the good people of Minnesota have made it their own. But this is just the beginning. The game is growing across this country, with more international stars filling up rosters across the league and MLS academy’s producing more and more talented first-team players every season. There’s no telling how big this sport might get in the North Star State in the years to come.