When Minnesota United took the field against Portland Timbers on Friday, March 3, 2017, it celebrated the culmination of years of fervent passion and support for soccer in Minnesota while uniting the many different iterations — Kicks, Strikers, Thunder and Stars — and eras of the sport in the state under one banner.
Just five years after a lack of ownership was threatening to fold the franchise, “the team that nobody wanted,” now led by Dr. Bill McGuire and clad in Minnesota black and blue, was making its debut in MLS — marking an incredible and rapid ascent to the highest echelon of soccer in the United States.
“We wanted to introduce ourselves in a positive way to the league,” said midfielder Collen Warner, who started and played 90 minutes that night. “Everybody was really excited to get onto the field and show that they belonged, that they wanted to be with the club and also to play on the highest stage in America showcasing their skills.”
For midfielder Miguel Ibarra, the debut took on added significance. Ibarra joined the then-Minnesota Stars in 2012 as the franchise was facing questions about its future and in many ways his career path mirrors the club’s own rise to prominence. As a relative unknown he persevered through the lows and made a name for himself as he grew before being rewarded with the ultimate high of pulling on an MLS jersey as he was subbed on in the 88th minute.
“Since I started, I have been with the team since we were about to be folded to now getting an owner and being in MLS,” Ibarra said. “Just knowing that I was on the field with a Minnesota MLS team was a dream come true for this state and for me as well.
“Being able to put the jersey on knowing I was back in the States and playing for the team that gave me the opportunity to be a professional soccer player, it meant a lot,” he added.
From the Loons’ perspective, the opening game was highlighted by forward Christian Ramirez’s goal in the 79th moment, which briefly cut the deficit to one. For the players, that goal meant much more than what it represented on the scoreboard. With a roster littered with former NASL players, outside expectations were not high for MNUFC in its first season. To get that first goal from a former NASL standout proved that the team and soccer in Minnesota, long an underdog in its own right, were here to stay and had what it took to compete.
“We all knew we had enough quality to do better than what everyone was predicting,” Warner said. “Christian’s goal was a signal of that. Not many people thought players like Christian, Brent, Miguel and guys who have been here through the years and played in a lower level could get the job done at this level. I was really excited to see them prove their naysayers wrong.”
Though the game did not fall in Minnesota’s favor, it laid the foundation for all that was still to come. Since then the team has made numerous investments both on the field and behind the scenes. MNUFC has grown its training facility at the National Sports Center in Blaine, built a strong relationship in the Twin Cities community and is preparing to move into Allianz Field, which will be the crown jewel of soccer stadiums in this country when it opens next spring.
“It has been leaps and bounds as far as the club goes,” Warner said. “There has been a lot of investment that has gone on behind the scenes that maybe the fans haven’t seen that has really brought the club along in the last year and a half. That has been great to see.”