It’s August 25, 1976 and the Minnesota Kicks are playing for the chance to go to the NASL Soccer Bowl after winning the Western Division and making short work of the Seattle Sounders 3-0 just four days earlier. In their way stood the San Jose Earthquakes, the team they’d lost their first ever NASL game to back in late April when the season began. They’d already set an NASL record for attendance with 46,164 on hand for their June 9 game against the visiting New York Cosmos, but that was just the table setter for this Conference Final match-up.
“We were playing in the old Met Stadium, which is where the Twins played and the Vikings played,” says former Kicks defender Alan Merrick. “We knew the history of those clubs. We went in there unknown because soccer had never been played in there. We had to play with the mound still in in some instances. It was like, ‘Get that thing out of there.’ That bump was a nuisance.”
“The crowd was electric from the get-go,” says former Kicks striker Alan Willey. “You stepped onto the field and from the first whistle the crowd was on its feet. I don’t know if people remember the Met Stadium outfield bleachers — the fans were jumping up and down and you could literally see the stands moving.”
Less than a year earlier, when the Denver Dynamos were purchased by a group of Minnesota investors led by Jack Crocker of SuperValu and renamed the Kicks, no one knew what to expect, least of all players like Willey and Merrick who came over from England. Only a half dozen or so players came over from the Dynamos.
“Nobody knew each other when we first came in,” says Merrick. “In fact, I flew on a plane out of England with four soccer players on that were my teammates and we didn’t know each other. We met at the airport getting off of the plane in the Twin Cities where we were all greeted by the ownership group of the Kicks. So it was totally unknown, it was a brand new slate.”
“It was just a lot of fun,” says former Kicks defender Steve Litt. “With our accents, people were very drawn towards us. It was a lot of fun getting out to the schools, coach the young ones and get the word of soccer out there. The strangest thing, probably, was when we would do any public speaking, you would look at people’s faces and they would all be smiling. I don’t think they understood a word we said. They were just listening to the tone in our voices and the accents.”
The Kicks got off to a rocky start, going 6-8-1 over their first 15 games before going 9-1-0 down the stretch to capture the Western Division title and propel themselves into the postseason. The squad got a boost from the midseason acquisition of striker Ade Coker from the Boston Minutemen and Willey led the team with 16 goals.
“I was not a regular player when I was in England, so I was coming over and playing regularly,” he says. “It was just exciting to come down that tunnel and onto the field. From the moment you walked onto the field, the hair on the back of your neck stood up even in the early days. That was before we even got late in the season and everything was going perfectly.”
By the time of the game against the Earthquakes, things had grown considerably.
“That was probably the biggest crowd I had ever played in front of. Coming from Europe, we had big gates, but not that big,” says Litt. Kicks games had already become well-known for pregame tailgating in the parking lot of the Met. At a celebratory roast of Crocker that first season, the emcee introduced him as “the man who turned Metropolitan Stadium into the Woodstock of professional sports.” But it wasn’t just the pregame festivities that got a bit wild for the semifinal. The Kicks’ 3-1 win over San Jose was just the beginning for both the team and the 49,572 fans in attendance.
“At the moment the final whistle went,” says Willey, “I was on the far side of the field by the bleachers and it took me literally a half hour to get off of the field. The field was absolutely full within a minute of the final whistle. Everyone ran down onto the field.”
“You have probably seen the picture of Alan Merrick,” says Litt. “He ends up with hardly any shirt left and Ade Coker has a boot stolen and we still have one more game to play.”
“We had to run an ad on TV and in the paper begging for them to bring his shoes back because we needed them for the final a week later,” adds Willey.
“They put the sprinklers on to dissipate the fans,” says Merrick.
Don’t expect the sprinklers to come out when Minnesota United breaks the record set at that game when they face off against the Los Angeles Galaxy to close out two years at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, October 21. The atmosphere promises to be just as electric, if a bit better planned, with pregame festivities at the Target Bullseye Fan Zone and postgame fireworks and a performance by Har Mar Superstar. Merrick, for his part, is all for it.
“In 1976 it was a moment of pride for us,” he says. “I think the players on this crew this year for Minnesota United will have that same type of attitude towards it. They are celebrating with the crowd their last home game in the regular season. It is a fabulous occasion to embrace the fans and get the magical feelings going. The hair stands up on the back of your neck.
“It is a chance to make history and it needs to be done,” he concludes. “That record is 42 years old and records are there to break.”