Over the last year-plus, it seems pretty safe to say that most if not all of us have done our best to navigate an ever-changing world while hanging onto whatever shreds of normalcy we could. For longtime Minnesota United fans, a part of that has been the game. Even without the ability to go to games in person, fans kept up with the team through their run in the MLS Is Back Tournament and deep into the postseason. It might have been weird to see games in empty stadiums, but if you squinted you could almost see the luminous echo of the Before Times. Sometimes, that was enough.
On the other hand, the last year has had many people reconsidering their priorities, perhaps even re-evaluating their time spent on sports and deciding to invest in the limited personal connections we’ve all been afforded, whether that means neighbors or close family. There’s nothing wrong with feeling like enjoying sports rings a little hollow in the world right now, like following them feels more than a little like going through the motions. More than any other sport, soccer relies on that communal gameday feeling and without it, it loses a little something, inevitably.
It all had me wondering: Is it possible that anyone became a Minnesota United fan in 2020? Well, meet Tim Erkel.
Erkel grew up in Minnesota — Woodbury, “before it was Woodbury,” he says — but after graduating from Macalester College, he found himself unable to get the kind of job he wanted in city government. Then a friend of his from the Macalester track team was leaving a job with the non-profit AmeriCorps doing free repairs for disadvantaged homeowners and pitched him on it.
“I was like, look, I’ve never held a drill before, I’m worthless with my hands,” he says. “They’re like, ‘That’s fine! Just do data entry.’ One day I got asked to be on a job site to just hand out T-shirts and make sure forms are filled. At the end of the day, the homeowner interrupted us and said, ‘Thanks to you guys, I’m going able to take a shower in my house for the first time in a year.’ And that was like, okay, click. This is what I want to do, this is where I want to be.”
That same summer after college was when the seed for his soccer fandom was planted.
“It was the 2011 Women’s World Cup Semifinal game. Brazil and the USA. Do you remember that game at all? Oh, man,” he says. “That was the most exciting sports game I had ever watched on TV and I didn’t know jack about soccer, and yet, I think it was Marta getting carted off, and I was like, ‘She’s faking it! She’s faking it!’ And then when [Megan] Rapinoe just sent that incredible curl into [Abby] Wambach in the 127th minute or something. Me and the person I was living with at the time were just running around the apartment going nuts.”
Erkel spent a year in the Twin Cities with AmeriCorps before going first to Seattle and then North Carolina before eventually landing in Portland with a new non-profit doing similar work. He continued to follow the U.S. Women’s National Team, including going to the Women’s World Cup in France, and so when a friend invited him to the National Women’s Soccer League semifinal between the Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride, Erkel’s response was, “That’s awesome. That’s a bunch of words that put together I’m not sure what they mean, but, let’s do it.” His experience of Providence Park — “Packed to the gills, 22,000 people. Everybody is dressed up. Going nuts.” — quickly led to investing in season tickets for the Thorns, as well as the occasional Portland Timbers game.
But then over Christmas in 2019, his father — who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, a disease sort of like muscular dystrophy that affects the arms and legs — took a turn for the worse and Erkel made the decision to come back to Minnesota.
“I got off the plane March 5. And the plan was just stay at mom and dad’s place for a couple months while trying to find a job,” he says. “And then, you know.” He had already made plans with a friend from Rochester to go to an MNUFC game at Allianz Field on May 23 of last year, but just about none of what he had planned came through in 2020. He began working at the daycare his mom also works at and started following the Loons in earnest, through screens, from afar. His dad, at least — he reports — is doing much better now.
“I really became a Minnesota United fan and an MLS fan in kind of the same moment,” he says about the MLS Is Back Tournament. “It was kind of fun because you could see Minnesota really start to play well together. Whenever I had seen them play the Timbers, the Timbers usually beat them up pretty good. It was like, oh, that team is still an expansion team, huh. And this was like, no, they’re hanging. And then we just kept advancing and, you know, losing to Orlando City in the semifinals was kind of the rare Minnesota men’s sports moment where I was like, oh, we lost, but I feel pretty good about losing to that Orlando team. They were really good.”
He cheered them on as they returned to playing at Allianz Field without fans and he suffered the heartbreak of the Western Conference Final loss to the Sounders along with everyone else who had come along for the Loons’ deepest playoff run. And, like any die-hard fan, he rued his personal choices that day.
“The totally, irresponsible, I should-have-known-better text I was sending when Minnesota went up 2-0 against Seattle,” he says wistfully. “What kills me is you could see it coming, but I didn’t want to. You could see the guys on the field get so gassed and they looked so tired. And you were like, all we gotta do is just hang on. All we gotta do is just hang on. And it’s like, no, Seattle is not a team you can just hang on against.”
But 2021 is a new season and, like the swallows of Capistrano, fans are coming back to Allianz Field. Just a trickle at first, but Erkel has high hopes, both for the team and for his chances to see them.
“I’d love to see a playoff run,” he says, with the understanding that the postseason is never a given. “I’d love to see us take a game off of a team like us. Like a Columbus Crew. Some of the more powerhouse teams in the league. I’d love to see the new kid, [Patrick] Weah. I got big hopes for him, I hope he does really well. Also, I’d love to see Ike [Opara] play. Mostly I just hope whatever he’s got going on, he gets that sorted because he’s a great player. The league is better with him in it.
“And every time that I have an opportunity to go, I’m going to try and be there, because, honestly, I miss it,” he adds, echoing a sentiment no doubt shared with many over the last year-plus. “I can tell you exactly where I would sit in Providence Park. I wasn’t quite with the super crazies but yeah, we would get loud. I miss that. It’s a fan experience that really no other American sport has.”