Minnesota United’s Development Academy is a year into immersing young players from all over the region in a program that provides them a pathway to the pros, but as with any pro sport, there’s more to the game than just the game. For decades, kids have grown up with dreams of pitching in the big leagues or playing in an NBA All-Star Game because the culture of those sports is woven into everyday life. From rites of passage like attending your first baseball game to the omnipresence of NBA jerseys on the street or the stage or the pickup court, those sports are part of the mainstream imagination in a way that soccer is not — at least not yet.
But members of Minnesota United’s supporters groups are doing their part to change that, one Development Academy match at a time.
On a chilly Saturday, members of True North Elite sat near the front of the stands at the National Sports Center stadium for a 9:30 a.m. matchup between the Development Academy’s U13 team and the U13s from Crew SC Academy Wolves. Instead of beer, there was coffee, and instead of more than a thousand screaming supporters, there were just half a dozen, but they made their presence felt.
With the match scoreless and halftime approaching, the supporters set off blue smoke and started waving flags, chanting:
We love United, we do
We love United, we do
We love United, we do
Oh United we love you
While the kids on the pitch were a little busy, the kids on the bench turned and took notice, appreciation mingling with a little giddy embarrassment on their faces. At least a few of them have experienced something similar on a grander scale on match days at TCF, so it’s not surprising that it can be sort of paradoxically encouraging and a little confusing to have it directed at you.
“We want them to get inundated with supporter culture from the moment they start with the Academy,” said True North Elite co-founder and president Nicholas Bisbee. “They often come down and join us on the Wonderwall and come support the first team in the stands. It would be incredible to have the story of a kid starting out on the Wonderwall and then playing in front of it someday. That is the dream.”
Neither the early hour nor the weather — overcast, temperatures in the 50s — could dissuade them from showing up to support the DA.
“This is perfect weather for soccer in my opinion,” said True North Elite member Orlando Ariza. “I have not seen a kid stand around. That is the best part about this. They are always hustling and they surprise you every time."
If you’ve never checked out elite youth soccer, there is much to recommend it. U13 is an age group where kids have clearly worked more on what they do with the ball than without it, meaning that almost every possession holds the potential of an ankle-breaking nutmeg or a long-range shot that sails over the (often short) goalkeeper’s fingers and into the top corner. A lot of these things are habits that will have to be broken eventually, but for now, it’s just fun to watch.
“I think the first time I came out here I saw someone score four goals with like a 30-yard free kick that Messi would have pulled out,” said Bisbee. “I was like, ‘That was amazing and I am coming back.’ They are incredible. There is so much talent out on the pitch and they go hard. One of our midfielders is absolutely insane with sweeping slide tackles. They are on the ground and you look down and the kid has the ball at his feet. It is unbelievable.”
The supporters view it as more than just appreciating the game, though. To them, it’s part of the duty they take on as supporters. The fans, after all, create a culture, and it’s a chance to create something that’s more inclusive and better represents the depth and breadth of Minnesota, starting at the youth level.
“Taking it from just being soccer moms in minivans and taking it away from being a suburban, predominantly white sport is massive,” said Bisbee. “I think supporter culture will play a huge role in it. This is just something you do. If there is soccer to be played and you say you support a senior team, then you support the entire entity.”
That support is unmistakably making an impact on the culture of the team and soccer culture in Minnesota overall, but can it actually affect performance on the field? Hard to say, but the U13s took a 2-0 lead in the second half and hung on to win 2-1 in the end. And neither the U13s or U14s have lost a match since April 29, for what it’s worth.
During the second half, one of the Crew SC players asked one of the MNUFC players, indicating the supporters: “Are those guys here for, like, every match?”
“Yeah,” said the player.
For more information on Minnesota United's supporters groups, click here.