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Meet the Minnesota soccer boosters who helped build Allianz Field

A steel column is moved into place by a crane during a ceremony hosted by the Minnesota United Football Club Tuesday, Nov. 21 at the Allianz Field stadium site in St. Paul. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press 1 / 3
Minnesota Thunder head coach Buzz Lagos turns to the crowd as he reacts to a goal scored by Marco Ferruzzi during a soccer match against Edmonton at Macalester College in St. Paul on July 24, 2004. Sherri LaRose-Chiglo / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 3
Taylor Moore from St. Paul leads fans in cheers from the Dark Clouds supporters section as Minnesota take on Los Angeles in the second half a MLS game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press3 / 3

ST. PAUL -- The most personalized parts of Allianz Field are two steel columns supporting the southeast corner of St. Paul’s new soccer stadium.

In November 2017, the stadium’s footprint was set 17 feet deep and was starting to stretch upward when dozens of people pivotal in the venue’s rise donned hard hats to visit the construction site in the Midway neighborhood. They used black markers to sign their names on the metal.

Instead of scrawling his own signature, United sporting director Manny Lagos penned a tribute to his father, one of professional soccer’s forefathers in Minnesota.

“The house that Buzz Lagos built,” he scrawled on the beam.

Much has and will be made about the $250 million stadium when Minnesota United plays its first game in the new digs at 4 p.m. Saturday against New York City FC. This story, however, is about the people — owners, fans, coaches, players and media members — who helped build the game and set up this moment in Minnesota.

Player

Minnesota professional soccer sprinted out of the gate with the Minnesota Kicks, who played in front of large crowds at Metropolitan Stadium from 1976-81.

English forward Alan Willey, South African midfielder Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, English defender Alan Merrick and others helped ignite fans’ imaginations and spark a love for the game. A vibrant tailgating scene also lubricated fans’ interests.

Willey and Ntsoelengoe were each inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003. Merrick, the club’s captain, was a champion of the game when he first arrived in Minnesota from historic English club West Bromwich Albion outside Birmingham.

“I felt some of that obligation to put (the Kicks) on the map,” he said.

When his playing days ended in the early 1980s, Merrick settled in Lakeville and coached the Strikers — Minnesota’s second pro iteration — in the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1985-88. He recalls the Strikers at times outdrawing the NHL’s North Stars at Met Center.

Now 68, Merrick works for MOTI Sports, a Plymouth-based startup company working on a soccer training app, and is entering his 21st year coaching the University of Minnesota men’s club team.

Merrick’s advocacy marches on. “It’s unfortunate the most popular sport in the states, soccer, in terms of playing population, is not represented at the Division I (level) at the U of M.”

Coach/front office

Manny Lagos’ message placed on the steel was a play off “The House That Ruth Built,” the nickname given Yankee Stadium for the impact Babe Ruth had on New York’s iconic baseball team. And Buzz Lagos’ impact on soccer in Minnesota has also received a mythological status for his relentless efforts to restart pro soccer in Minnesota after a nearly 10-year hiatus.

Lagos, then a St. Paul Academy math teacher, founded, organized and coached the Minnesota Thunder as an amateur club in 1990 and took them to the pro ranks in the United States Interregional Soccer League in 1995.

“Mr. Lagos led this grassroots, missionary type of effort that was almost evangelical in nature,” said Peter Wilt, the general manager Lagos brought on to his bare-bones operation. “He had to do it on a very small budget but garnered attention, corporate support.”

Lagos was similar to legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant; they both lost a lot of championship games. Lagos had five title game losses on the road, but his Thunder secured one crown — the 1999 United Soccer League A-League championship in front of about 10,000 fans in Blaine.

During Manny’s playing days — he played for the Thunder from 1990-96 and then for five Major League Soccer teams from 1996-2005 — he saw the tireless commitment of his father but didn’t fully appreciate it until after his pro career ended and he coached the Stars and United before moving into the club’s front office.

“You realize how hard it must have been for him to push the sport at a time when it wasn’t relevant, wasn’t mainstream,” said Manny Lagos said. “He believed it so much, even when people didn’t want to embrace it with him.”

While the club was struggling financially, Lagos dreamed big. Decades before Allianz Field, he worked on plans to build a stadium in St. Paul, his vision a downtown riverfront venue near the Union Depot.

“I think everyone would agree he was a bit ahead of his time,” said Wilt, who left the Thunder to help start MLS’s Chicago Fire in 1998. “With contributions from him and people like him, we got to the point to where now the audience has caught up to the passion that Mr. Lagos had.”

Media

When broadcasting student Chris Lidholm started play-by-play commentary for Thunder games in 1993, he did it to gain experience. Good thing, because he was doing it for free. With crowds of 100 to 200, the games were moved around to draw fans — from Johnny Cake Ridge Park in Apple Valley to the National Sports Center in Blaine and Macalester College in St. Paul.

“We went so many years there where we didn’t know we’d have a team; that was just every year,” Lidholm said.

When he left the broadcast booth in 2016, the club was drawing close to 10,000 fans per match. On Saturday, around 20,000 fans are expected to be inside Allianz Field. Buzz Lagos has called Lidholm “a pioneer” for the growth of the game in Minnesota.

After a few years, Lidholm wanted “a couple bucks for my efforts” but wasn’t asking for the moon. “That wouldn’t be helping the team, that wouldn’t be helping the sport, so I always worked on the cheap,” he said.

When he packed up his microphone after matches, he wasn’t done working. He would wear Minnesota Thunder gear to many youth, high school, club or college games in the area.

“They would see my shirt and I would talk about them and try to get them out,” Lidholm said. “I would have a couple of tickets available to me for every game. I would give them to these folks.”

While Lidholm is no longer with the Loons, he still works on their behalf. “Even to this day, I feel like I’m an ambassador in Minnesota soccer,” said Lidholm, who has three season tickets in Section 35 at Allianz Field.

Fans

The Dark Clouds supporters group will come full circle in St. Paul on Saturday.

In 2004, the fan club had an impromptu founding with a handful of members when they cheered at Thunder home games at James Griffin Stadium at Central High School.

Now 15 years later and less than two miles away, the Dark Clouds will be more than 1,200 strong and will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other supporters groups behind the raucous south goal when the Loons play at Allianz Field.

Back then, the Thunder were looking to draw more fans to games, so they moved from the National Sports Center in Blaine to St. Paul. The few-and-proud supporters hit message boards to get the word out to other possible fans.

At the first game at the urban high school venue, they set up behind the opposing team’s bench. Bruce McGuire, one of the Dark Clouds’ originators, had buttons made by an artist friend in Detroit. They had a simple gray background and black cloud drawn with simple curved line. “Charlie Brown-ish,” McGuire described.

“I just passed them out,” McGuire said. “They looked at them like, ‘What the hell is this?’ I thought it was funny because they were minimalist and said nothing. I wouldn’t say anything. I was, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’”

Opposing teams didn’t care for their heckling; neither did other Thunder fans, who expected more of baseball game-like atmosphere.

“They said, ‘Can you please ask those Dark Cloud people to not make so much noise?’” McGuire recalled. “The person with the team said, ‘It’s kind of hard to do that. We want the atmosphere.’ ”

When that story was relayed, someone in the group said, “I guess now we’re the Dark Clouds.”

With sarcastic, witty (and sometimes nonsensical) chants directed at opposing teams, the Dark Clouds have tried to be the antithesis to the hooligan and “ultra” groups infamous for going over the line in Europe and South America.

“We are going to be the group that … that everyone is friends with instead of enemies with,” McGuire said. “That’s going to be our thing. We set out to do it, and we blew it out of the park. It’s incredible when we go anywhere, everyone welcomes us with open arms.”

Owner

With a finished Allianz Field as his backdrop, United principal owner Bill McGuire stood at podium in front of politicians, VIPs, media and others at the stadium’s unveiling event March 18. In closing, he said the stadium project, which lasted more than three years, became his baby:

“This is truly L’Etoile du Nord — the Star of the North.”

For many soccer supporters accustomed to lean years and uncertainty, McGuire represented the club’s shining light.

Once the Thunder folded after the 2009 season, the National Sports Center picked up the soccer mantle with the NSC Minnesota Stars in 2010. In 2011, the North America Soccer League bought the club from NSC after they could no longer support it financially.

With the smallest payroll in the league, the Stars won the NASL Soccer Bowl in 2011. The next year, NASL commissioner David Downs openly shared that if the club couldn’t find an indepenedent owner, it would fold.

The Stars then lost the 2012 Soccer Bowl. But with the abyss on the doorstep, McGuire, at the urging of his then-son-in-law Nick Rogers, was exploring a purchase.

During the due diligence phase, Bruce McGuire emailed Bill McGuire (no relation), and Bruce met with Rogers.

“I just told him everything that I love about soccer and how I thought it could work in the Twin Cities,” Bruce McGuire said. “I thought the market was 100 percent untapped.”

McGuire and partners finalized the purchase in 2013, rebranded it Minnesota United FC, made initial investments and secured an MLS expansion franchise spot for $100 million in 2015.

After two years of renting TCF Bank Stadium, Allianz Field’s budget — all privately financed — increased from a $150 million estimate to a $250 million final price tag. The product matches its initial renderings.

Manny Lagos said it’s “surreal” to see this stadium miles from where he grew up in St. Paul but said the ownership group sees this act as the start of the next phase.

“I’m not saying that for the first team and winning championships,” he said. “But to take the community and this new vision of Minnesota soccer … to use it as a way to be more relevant from a global standpoint in Minnesota.”

On the field this season, the Loons are 3-2 after five straight road games. With 29 games to go, they are in early position to make their first MLS Cup playoff appearance this October — thanks, in part, to the green light McGuire has given Lagos to sign five new defensive-minded starters.

Former Kicks player Alan Merrick toured the stadium a few weeks ago, drawing no comparison between Allianz Field’s pristine bluegrass fields to the baseball diamond at Met Stadium, where players had to dodge the pitcher’s mound.

“I was bewildered by it; it’s a thing of beauty,” Merrick said. “I was stumped at one stage talking about it, just going: This place. It glitters. It’s just shiny new. It’s incredibly well-designed. The view lines are spectacular. The field is just exceptionally good. … Bill McGuire and his staff have done an incredible job.”