Let’s talk about fourth-tier soccer. Oh. Not exciting enough for you? Okay. How about fourth-tier fans? Citizens of the game, if you will. Yes, that will do.
Minnesota’s NPSL presence
US Soccer’s fourth-tier is alive and well in the North. Five of the eight teams in the National Premier Soccer League’s North Conference are based right here in Minnesota (Duluth FC, Med City FC, Minnesota Twinstars FC, VSLT FC, and Mpls City SC) and the competition between them is healthy.
The development-focused amateur league fields mostly collegiate players (former-Loon Brian Kallman is an occasional notable exception on Mpls’s roster) looking to compete and improve in their offseason. This NCAA-compliant dynamic typically draws an NCAA-type crowd of fans as well, with the stands occupied by family, friends, and well-wishers out to enjoy, and maybe learn more about, the growing game. One of Minnesota’s clubs, however, is not so average.
Mpls City SC finds a niche
In 2015, Dan Hoedeman (co-founder of Stegman’s Soccer Club, the state’s largest non-profit amateur soccer organization) set out with a crew in search of a new approach to competitive soccer. The product was born largely from a committed Twitter presence that made no apologies for what critics thought was an outlandish idea bound to fail: a non-profit, member-owned, member-supported club which would field only Minnesotan players and compete at a high level, all while giving back to the community.
Mpls City SC (yes, they dared to call it a Soccer Club, setting themselves apart from the start) played its first season in 2016 in the fifth-tier PLA and earned a promotion to the NPSL for 2017. The self-proclaimed “ramshackle bunch” drew fans from the beginning who bought into the model wholeheartedly and made it their own. While neither the club or its fans take themselves too seriously, the member-owners are serious about their support, turning every knock against them into a part of its heritage.
They took great pride in winning Chris Creamer’s “Worst New Logo” award in 2016, a mention that would make most clubs rethink their branding. Then in 2017, when they were disqualified from the US Open Cup for changing leagues, the club found a way to poke fun at their lost trophy dreams while simultaneously raising funds for an intern battling cancer: by selling t-shirts which said “Undefeated: 2017 Open Cup.”
With critics bashing their logo and rejection by the most storied tournament in American soccer, what was next for the young club and its fans? A golden opportunity, which had been brewing all the while, soon presented itself. With Minnesota United FC’s promotion to MLS, a void in Twin Cities soccer fandom opened up which the people of Mpls City SC were more than happy to fill.
As the fate of the uniquely close fan-club relationship proudly displayed by the Thunder, NSC Stars, and NASL-era United increasingly came into question with the latter’s promotion, City fans were doubly committed to their club.
A number of supporters, including a couple of TDIK’s own Daves, came together to create The Citizens SG with one goal in mind. “The supporters groups used to have a much closer and more personal relationship with MNUFC,” said David Baker, “so we’re bringing that back.”
The Citizens flock to Augsburg’s Edor Nelson Field for the Crows’ home games and a strong contingent travels to away games, sometimes riding along with the players on the club bus. Similar to MNUFC’s supporters groups, the Citizens organize volunteer and charity efforts alongside the club and follow an all-inclusive membership model. While there are paying members (25 in 2017, double from 2016), Baker says, “Anyone who stands with us is considered a Citizen.” The dues collected from paying members, however, fund a gameday experience not possible within the confines of MLS.
With no regulations in the stands, “there is a freedom of support and expression that our fans have – and take advantage of,” stated Hoedeman. A banner reading “The People’s Club” is featured in the stands and the supporters behind it own that statement. The Citizens are self-policed, saying what they want to with their tifos and signs, popping smoke when they feel it is appropriate, and otherwise just doing whatever the moment calls for. The club’s only request, stated in no uncertain terms on their website, is “Don’t be an asshole.” This sentiment is reflected in the SG’s mission statement as well, though in slightly stronger language.
Membership continues to grow as word of the gameday fun gets out and Hoedeman has observed double-digit jumps in general attendance. “We hear over and over that people want to be part of this homemade, supporter-built club that is theirs,” he said. Moreover, the Citizens are drawing the attention of players and officials as well.
At every game, opposing players approach the club’s managers wondering how they can play for City and experience the Citizens’ support from the friendly side. Games with meaning and purpose in the community are a unique sight in the amateur soccer landscape makes for an easy sell. Even referees want a piece of it. One official from Fargo has told Hoedeman he seeks out City games because, “despite the occasional questioning about the quality of his vision, people care, the chants are funny, and it feels like an event.”
That last statement would make a great conclusion, but the story doesn’t end there. Players, officials, and the community all agree that the Crows are a good time. But do you know who else likes crows?
When City found itself explaining, why the Worst New Logo of 2016 looked the way it did, the club – whose founders happen to be advertisers by day – explained each feature of the crest and included in jest the perspective of Grumpy Cat*.
Just as Mpls City SC grew from an idea and a Twitter account, one Grumpy Cat image and a joke about cat supporters ballooned into something bigger. A cat belonging to a founder of the Citizens launched a Twitter account using the handle @MplsCatizens. And, no, this is not a joke.
“This is not a gimmick,” wrote the Catizens’ Twitter administrator. “We are actual soccer CATS. Lower division soccer does not have anti-cat stadium rules like the Loons’ “no pets except service animals.” Service animals. As if. So the choice to follow Mpls City SC was obvious.”
With some tweaks to the club’s logo to reflect its own feline heritage (earning their own rousing endorsement from Grumpy Cat), the Catizens SG took off running on Twitter, as cats do across the internet. It has received widespread attention from Twitter users who, expecting the standard cat clickbait, are surprised to find a serious, established account.**
Like the human Citizens, the Catizens are all-inclusive, though every prospective member is required to Tweet a photo of him- or herself before being granted membership. And they do not confine themselves to the Twin Cities.
From the beginning, the Catizens ran a #ProCATforUSA campaign (not to be confused with the increasing volatile #ProRelForUSA) urging other soccer loving cats to start their own SGs in support of their local clubs. A quick glance at the group’s Twitter feed proves that the campaign is gaining ground just as well as its human clubpatriots.
Looking to the future
The continued growth and success of Mpls City SC and its supporters bodes well for its future. With the possibility of US Soccer adopting promotion/relegation sometime in the future, Hoedeman’s hope, expressed in the season end report, that City can be to Minnesota United FC what the St. Paul Saints are to the Minnesota Twins is not far out of bounds. But the club’s future relies heavily on its fans.
“A club in the lower leagues relies on its fans to define what the club is all about,” Hoedeman said. “Our supporters are not only our lifeblood, they’re our owners.”
Who better to shape the future of Minnesota soccer than the People’s Club?
*Check out the explanatory infographic by giving the club a follow @MplsCitySC
**Seriously. You won’t regret following @MplsCatizens