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Jun 11, 2014

Minnesota ramps up push for MLS

In this artist's rendering a Super Bowl logo covers a seven-acre prime space for an NFL tailgate party next to the new stadium, top right, which is under construction in Minneapolis.

With construction underway on their new NFL stadium, the Minnesota Vikings have intensified their pursuit of a Major League Soccer franchise for the facility that team owners designed in hopes of accommodating both sports.

Co-owner Mark Wilf met this week with MLS officials, the latest dialogue between the two parties. The Vikings also announced a partnership with promoter Relevent Sports, a major player in the soccer world that is helping sell an international tournament game between two European teams to be played at the University of Minnesota in August.

"We like to go to new markets," Revelant Sports CEO Charlie Stillitano said Wednesday. "It seems like wherever we go an MLS team follows, and I think it's a good thing."

Most MLS teams, 15 of the current 19, play in soccer-specific stadiums for around 20,000 fans in a more intimate setting, but the Vikings have been touting their plan to classily cover the upper bowl of their new venue and reduce capacity from 65,000 to between 20,000 and 25,000. The translucent roof and five pivoting glass doors on the front of the building -- plus seats and suites close to the action -- give the facility a more vibrant feel.

"There's a real opportunity there, and we really have a lot of respect and admiration for the ownership group," MLS commissioner Don Garber said earlier this year.

Atlanta will begin play in 2017 at that city's new retractable roof NFL stadium to be built for the Falcons, whose owner Arthur Blank acquired the soccer club. Plans there will convert the 71,000-seat football facility to a soccer capacity of 29,000 by only using the lower bowl.

With the regular season starting in March and the MLS Cup held in December, a roof would be ideal for a team in Minnesota. When Sporting KC won the championship game outside last year, the game-time temperature in Kansas City was 22 degrees with a wind chill of 12 that plummeted as the sun set.

The MLS has added five teams in the last five years with a goal of 24, and New York City and Orlando will make 21 next season. Miami has also granted a franchise to former star David Beckham, contingent on a soccer-specific stadium being built there.

That only leaves one spot left, and Garber said earlier this year Sacramento, California, San Antonio and San Diego are also under consideration. MLS executive vice president for communications Dan Courtemanche said there's no specific deadline for awarding the next franchise.

"There is no shortage of demand for future MLS expansion teams, and many markets and potential ownership groups have contacted the league office to inquire," he said.

Criteria for MLS expansion include a committed local viable ownership group with a comprehensive stadium plan it controls, in an appropriate market attractive to sponsors and television networks with a history of strong fan support. The Twin Cities area currently has a team, Minnesota United FC, in the North American Soccer League, a level below the MLS.

"We think our stadium is the perfect fit for MLS. We also think that Minneapolis-St. Paul has tremendous potential for MLS," Vikings vice president for public affairs and stadium development Lester Bagley said.

The legislation authorizing funding for the stadium included a five-year window from the opening during which the Wilfs have exclusive rights to bring an MLS franchise to the venue. That doesn't mean another group couldn't beat them to it at another site. Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire, the former CEO of United Health Group, has been linked with Minnesota Twins owner Jim Pohlad as potential partners in an MLS franchise. But that would require money for and construction of yet another new sports facility in a crowded market.

Vikings officials will use the Aug. 2 match between Manchester City and Olympiakos, part of the Guinness Cup tournament, as an opportunity to gain more knowledge of and grassroots support for the sport. About 20,000 tickets have been sold so far, Stillitano said.

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