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Expansion team hammered 5-1 by Timbers in its first MLS game, but both sets of fans have seen worse

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Minnesota United fans walk to the Timbers stadium from Yur's.

Around 150 Minnesota United fans came to Friday night's game versus Portland at Providence Park. The two teams have played each other many times in the lower leagues, but this was Minnesota's first game in MLS, 2017-style, the sport of high-def crowd cams showing bearded men with baby slings and polyglot banners in all kinds of fonts.

Around 2 pm Friday, United fans gathered in Yur's, a dive bar in Northwest Portland beside I-405. They got free Spread the Darkness scarves and sang a few songs, and most seemed overjoyed by the occasion. As longtime fan and Du Nord blogger Bruce McGuire put it, although these fans have plenty of other pro sports action to follow, Minneapolis-St Paul soccer fans have paid their dues and deserve the big- time.

Minnesota soccer has changed hands many times. It's been rebooted and rebranded and nearly expired. It's been the Minnesota Kicks, Minnesota Strikers, Minnesota Thunder, Minnesota Stars and now Minnesota United.

McGuire said he and his Dark Clouds supporters group, which was formed in 2004 and now consists of the elder statesmen at the club after the emergence of the True North Elite (2015), have a kinship with the Timbers Army. They have a charitable arm, which has done relief work in Haiti and would like to involve other groups, just as Portland's Operation Pitch Invasion has spread to other cities.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - United owner Bill McGuire was looking forward to the game and the passion.

Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire, former CEO of UnitedHealth Group, was in Yur's, too.

"Soccer has a long history in Minnesota, we've seen the ups and downs, seen it resurrected, and now to see it in the top tier, it's a big deal for us, important, very emotional, very exciting," he deadpanned.

He told the Portland Tribune he has known former treasury secretary Hank Paulson for years and consulted with his son, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, and with Timbers exec Mike Golub, when he was considering buying into Minnesota soccer with a view to take it to MLS.

"This is one of the top soccer places and events in the country, with the fans and the connection and the passion, so what better place to ask?" Bill McGuire said.

He said he wasn't going to address the team before the game, that he was not that type of owner.

"It's such a great game, such a game of today and the future in North America. I think when people get exposed to that, it'll be fine," he said.

And Bill McGuire's prediction for the game?

"No prediction. Two teams on the field, that's my prediction. We have a credible team, and you guys have a really fine team."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Collin Solberg, a software consultant, and Kathryn Yaeger, a pharmacy technician, were in Portland for a day for the game. They had modest expectations.

Collin Solberg, a software consultant, and Kathryn Yaeger, a pharmacy technician, were in town for 24 hours with their spouses for the game.

"Realistically I hope we can be in contention for a playoff spot. My deepest fear is we just embarrass ourselves, I'd really like to avoid that," Solberg said.

Yaeger said "I'd like to win it all but realistically I'd like to go 50-50," meaning winning half the games.

For James Norungolo (an Italian name reconfigured at Ellis Island), it was his first time in Portland. "We've had great coffee, we did the food carts, Powell's, bought some Leonard Cohen ... and we went to Cider Riot with the Timbers Army," he said. "We sang chants back and forward. They were very welcoming."

As for the game, he predicted the first 30 minutes would be crucial to his team. "The intensity of the atmosphere, all the attacking weapons the Timbers have, we're gonna have to figure out a way to withstand it," he said.

And if Minnesota were to crack in 30 minutes and let in two goals? "Then it's a learning experience," he said. "There's goals for both sides in this game, but I think we may be overwhelmed by the circumstances for the first match. I'm not going to predict a point, but if we can keep the score line respectable that would be a good result."

Let's go

Around 5 p.m. the United fans marched to the stadium, with a couple of Providence Park staff keeping them in line. They sang about the black and blue and being loons and made the locals look.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - United fans preparing to leave Yur's where they gathered on Friday afternoon to prepare for the 6.30pm kick off.

Inside the stadium, as he waited under by the concessions for his group to pass through the metal detectors, Ben Pfutzenreuter, 29, stood out for being 6-5 and having a very loud voice.

"I've watched this club for 10 years. I grew up watching hockey and they played next door," he said. He is from Minnesota but has lived in Oakland for the last three years and knows people in the Timbers Army.

"I've been coming up here for years and singing your chants," he said.

But now he was ready for some competition. "There are many fans here who have been fans of soccer for a long time, for longer than the Timbers. Today is a big deal. We want Minnesota to be associated with soccer. I'm here to compete, I want three points. I'm just really excited to be here for the first time not as a friendly fan."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - 150 Minnesota United fans got in early to the stadium to warm up their voices.

The game hit all the reassuringly familiar notes: the national anthem sung by the fans, lashing rain, an oblique tifo featuring TV painter Bob Ross and the legend Happy Little Trees, and Diego Chara (the dirtiest player in the league last year) getting booked for a foul.

Nerves that this could be one of those nights where the Timbers can't perform were eased with a 14th-minute goal and banished with a second around 47 minutes. The fourth and fifth goals made it a rout. There was no denying it, Minnesota United didn't look threatening, and toward the end their defense collapsed.

Ben Lindblad, from Minneapolis, was in for the weekend. "Do I usually go to away games? There's no 'usually' for us. It's a new game here. We've got 150 people here and that's never happened before," he said. He was not disappointed by being 1-0 down at halftime. "Two months ago, we had just two men, meaning everyone else out there tonight has come together in the last two months," he noted.

Excited about the fun the fans were going to have, Lindblad nonetheless wasn't getting his hopes up too much on the field.

"We know how it's going to be this year," he said. "It's hard to be an expansion team in MLS."

Lining up at halftime for food, Julie Svensen was in from Minnesota, and Brett Flores was from Minnesota but has moved to Portland to work for Nike in purchasing at the employee store.

"The only good thing is it's raining and we've got covers," Flores said.

He said he also follows the Timbers a little, because it's a local phenomenon and he lives just across Burnside Street.

"The first half was a little sketchy," Svensen said. "But it's our first professional game."

The second half was history. It was a bit like Portland's first MLS game, away to the Colorado Rapids in March 2011. The Timbers hardly got a look in, save for the crumb of comfort of Kenny Cooper's deflected free kick goal. (The club tuned that goal video into a flip book and gave it away at the next home game.)

Christian Ramirez's well-taken 79th minute goal will go down in history in similar fashion for Minnesota United.

After the game, three Minneapolis residents and season-ticket holders stopped to talk as they left the stadium.

"The last 12 minutes were rough," said Mark Mortensen. "Up until that point I was quite happy, I thought we held our own."

Jim Wolford said the first half was "rough, no offense, didn't spread the field out. Second half we made some adjustments, it was better, but we lost a little in the last 12 minutes." He didn't think Minnesota's players were less fit than the opposition. "No, it was 11 single guys who had never played together before."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Minnesota United fans Yagya Mahadevan, Jim Wolford and Mark Mortensen had fun in the suite, enjoyed the atmosphere and think United can improve.

"I gotta say that was the liveliest sports atmosphere I've seen in the U.S.," Wolford added. "That's compared to basketball, hockey, any of them."

They watched from a suite with all Minnesota fans, looking right at the Timbers Army. Their friend, Yagya Mahadevan, was beaming. "It was excellent, excellent fan support." Not just the TA. "The whole stadium was great."

Wolford thinks the team will get better and that Friday night's "shredding" can be fixed.

"I think if we split the season we'd be pretty happy. We need these guys to gel together. We've got 20 guys, and I think four have played together before."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Another oblique Timbers tifo or banner display, this one celebrating TV painter Bob Ross.

They are fans of other Minnesota sports, including the Wild, the Timberwolves and the Twins.

Asked if they have the capacity to follow another sport, they all say yes. And they believe there are enough soccer fans in the Twin Cities to keep the franchise viable. (They're expecting 35,000 for their home opener next week.)

Mortensen predicted United would eat into the baseball market. Wolford disagreed.

"It's the youth," Mortensen said. "The young ages are already moving away from baseball to soccer. I'll tell you, I'll get rid of my Twins season tickets."

  • Bruce McGuire's Du Nord blog: http://dunord.blogspot.com

    See also: http://fiftyfive.one


    Joseph Gallivan
    Reporter

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