Minneapolis City: the black sheep of U.S. soccer.

There was a tornado warning in effect. People were warned not to leave shelter if they didn’t have to, for at least another hour or two. It was pouring rain. Big, fat summer rain that came down not so much in sheets as in one continuous stream.

With kickoff of the first ever home game approaching, The Citizens supporter group reeled out of the bar and onto Lake Street for the walk to the stadium led by the group’s founder David Baker.

“We were instantly drenched but nobody gave a fuck. It was great.”

There is a surprising amount of wealth behind lower division clubs in America, with owners like Stockade’s Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, Boca Raton’s Douglas Heizer of Heizer Media, the Brazilian group behind Elm City, and City of Angels’ Sting’s son, who probably has a name but nobody would recognize it. There are also the big clubs with youth systems that support the first team, like Milwaukee Bavarians and Carpathia.

Of course, there is incredible wealth behind professional sports with our own Minnesota United able to rely on the backing on some of Minnesota’s richest and most famous names: Carlson, Pohlad, Glen Taylor, Glen Nelson and, of course, Bill McGuire.

Then there is Minneapolis City.

“We took a sort of start-up attitude toward it all and figured that if we created something that people really liked it wouldn’t matter what little resources we started it with” said club co-founder Dan Hoedeman.

“In other words, we really want to do this and just said ‘fuck it let’s go.'”

The club is a non-profit run entirely by volunteers and, interestingly, not by some old friends or a group united by a shared youth club, but by a bunch of random people who found each other through the internet.

“I got involved because Twitter pulled at my heartstrings a little” said member and Business Director Sarah Schreier. “For real.”

“I saw a club that came off as sort of small time and not really sure what they were doing. I like soccer and know one or two things, so I offered to help with some logistical stuff.”

“From there, my involvement just kept growing into what it is now, and I have my hands in a little bit of everything (whether they like it or not).”

The power of the internet to connect people is an incredibly modern story, but, in this context, a group of regular people banding together to start a soccer club is decidedly anachronistic.

The famous old clubs were founded this way, like Aston Villa in the 1880s by a group of guys in a bar, but these days clubs are founded as investment vehicles by the extremely rich and franchises are awarded based on DMA size, ownership influence, and willingness of the host city to spend taxpayer money on a stadium.

“If you asked me why I did, I don’t really have an answer” Schreier explained. “It seemed like fun?”

Tying this disparate group together is a single shared trait: they’re all doers, and they’re all doers who did even though people told them they shouldn’t.

“I found the club through the Minnesota United subreddit” said Baker.

“I saw the traction they were already gaining in the lead-up to the crest reveal and I thought it would be a good idea to get everyone who was going to dive into this headfirst (like me) under one banner. I got a lot of flak for it not being organic and starting a supporter group for a team that hadn’t played yet, but there’s an MLS team that exists because of that so I didn’t listen.”

Given the role of the Dark Clouds in keeping professional soccer alive in Minnesota, there is an interesting throughline to Minneapolis City and, more importantly, another example of what fan power can achieve.

“The response has been bigger than I thought it would be and it’s a lot more work than I was expecting” Baker continued.

“I would absolutely do it again.”

Minneapolis-St Paul is a pro sports town. Or towns. Metro area? In addition to the big four pro sports, in an area where hockey is very much a big pro sport, is Minnesota United, fresh new member of MLS and happily working toward a fantastic new stadium in St Paul’s Midway.

The question is, plainly, why start a lower division team here?

“Because I live here” said Hoedeman “and because Minnesota United’s move to MLS meant that there was a gap for players and for fans that we could fill. We have a great soccer city here, with active knowledgeable fans who know enough to care about the lower levels.”

Which demanded the obvious follow-up question, how can you be successful in the face of that competition? I mean, it’s not like Minneapolis is the size of New York or LA.

“The black sheep is the one that gets noticed” said Hoedeman.

“We worked hard to be the black sheep.”

2016-Worst-Logo-Minneapolis-City-SC
They call it “Award Winning”

Winning Sportlogo.net’s Worst New Sports Logo was a start, as was a social media presence that was brash and funny and weird, and it is interesting to see clubs start to copy that blueprint, and even start to pick up on things like the use of color block design, use of hot pink, and other elements that define the City brand.

“We have a different vision for the club” continued Hoedeman “and are proud that we’re regular people doing and funding this, that we’re Member supported, that we stand as a counterpoint to crony billionaire pro sports and at the same time can be a force for good in our community.”

“All of our players are Minnesotan. We are actively involved with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters Minneapolis, the Y and others that impact kids in our city. We’re idealists.”

Idealists who are getting noticed, both in the metro and beyond.

It doesn’t hurt that they have been outspoken on issue after issue, not the least their unfair ejection from the U.S. Open Cup, but also their focus on local players, their financial and organizational transparency, and their inclusivity.

“Let’s just say that I’m more proud of having a woman in our leadership group than I am of trolling USSF over the Open Cup” said Hoedeman, “but in a world where corporate teams would just let it happen I’m glad we said something. It wouldn’t be us not to.”

So what is it like being a woman in lower division soccer, a bastion of men and almost literally a boys club?

“I’ve certainly had my fair share of struggles being a woman in the workplace, but being a woman in leadership with THIS club is awesome!  I think I can bring a unique perspective that other clubs can’t or won’t” said Sarah Schreier, who, incidentally, was the only woman to attend the NPSL annual meeting in a club management role.

While the aggressive brand is part of the club’s appeal, no doubt the clear-eyed vision and relentlessness with which it is pursued sets City apart. If that makes them black sheep, they are happy to embrace the label.

“We’re off-beat, no bullshit, tongue-in-cheek” continued Schreier.

“We mean well and we like to have fun; we like to make people laugh. Soccer SHOULD be fun and people SHOULD laugh!”

In modern professional sports, they heyday of the milquetoast player interview, that is a sentiment that is all too often lost or, when it isn’t, it’s so hyper-packed in slick video and motion graphics that it may as well be a video game, and for many fans, especially the more casual ones, that’s what they want.

Screen Shot 2017-03-08 at 12.16.03 PM
This was tweeted today as I was proofing this section. I’m the soccer Nostradamus.

There are others who want something different, or at least something supplemental to the corporate razzmatazz of big time sports. In a way, the new interest in lower division soccer, here and across the country, is a drive for authenticity, for something real. It’s a yearning for connection with real people and it can’t be captured on a television screen. It’s a recognition that, for all its merits, modern professional sports are removed from real life and, as accessible as any pro may be, they live in a different world than the fans, and it’s fun to have a real connection to the players.

“My favorite stories are of players from decades back riding the train to games with fans or working a regular job in the offseason” said Hoedeman.

“Not that I begrudge them their paychecks, not at all, it’s just that stories like that make the players more human. I really like humans.”

“I don’t know if I have an individual accomplishment I’m proud of” answered Schreier, when asked to name a highlight of her time with the club.

“I’m just thrilled at how far this club has come in a year. A YEAR.”

From City’s first home game, on that rainy and tornado-threatened Saturday, when the it was fair to wonder what this whole thing was going to be like, it’s incredible that the question has now turned to ‘what’s next?’

David Baker chimed in, “I hope they keep their mission of being a club for Minnesota players. I’d also like to see them expand their developmental and youth opportunities for Twin Cities players. That and growth to the point that we get our own stadium. But that’s a long way off.”

“I want us to grow, to be sustainable, all those things” said Hoedeman. “As long as we don’t lose who we are.”

“I love that we’re a little ramshackle. I like how we speak plainly. Our whole idea was to see what a bunch of regular people can do. We’re seeing it.”

A Minneapolis City game is a different experience to other sports in the Twin Cities. The nearest, the St Paul Saints, are now playing in a brand-new downtown stadium and, while they still have that independent streak, it’s not the weird and run down Midway days anymore.

That’s fine, of course, but it leaves open the space for Minneapolis City. If that sort of experience sounds like you, if the idea of a sporting event without a ton of piped-in noise and PA direction on when to cheer, appeals to you, and if you like the idea of watching local players take on the best the rest of the country has to offer, then City is for you and you should go to a game. Or join the club and make a difference.

When we are compared to professional clubs, or other amateur clubs who have a full time paid staff, at first its infuriating because HELLO we are just volunteers over here with no money trying the best we can, but then I take a breath and realize that to even be lumped in with those clubs is a compliment” concluded Schreier.

“We’ve gotta be doing something right, right?”

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