By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
The Dark Clouds were growing, and the team was winning, but behind the scenes, the franchise was falling apart. Facing financial troubles, the owner of the Thunder walked out. The National Sports Center started a new team to fill the void, called the NSC Minnesota Stars. But the NSC couldn’t meet the United States Soccer Federation’s ownership standards, which mandated each team have a principal owner with a net worth of at least $20 million. Before the 2011 season, NSC announced it couldn’t continue to own the Stars. Per its regulations, the league was already at its minimum capacity for active teams, so instead of letting it fold, the league took ownership of the team. Djorn Bucholz was appointed the team’s CEO, and made plans to sell it as quickly as possible.
In 2012, bad fortune turned to imminent doom. In negotiations for a new football stadium, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf ended up with a clause that gave him a five-year monopoly on bringing a Major League Soccer team to Minnesota. Wilf didn’t have a team lined up, but now he had first right of refusal.
Later that summer, a New York franchise called the Cosmos announced it was launching at the beginning of the 2013 season. Now there would no longer be any reason for the league to own the Stars.
At the time, the Stars were the reigning NASL champions, on their way to another tournament. But if they didn’t find a new owner by the league’s October governors meeting, they were going to fold.
“At the time, we were thinking, ‘Our team is going to die,’” says Burdine. “We need people to understand why someone should come in and buy this team.”
McGuire, Burdine, and others decided to form a grassroots lobbying group to help find a new owner. They sent a petition to every team in the NASL, urging owners to keep their stake in the Stars. They began attending stadium commission hearings and meeting with city leaders, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Shortly after the Cosmos announcement, McGuire woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. The team had been in trouble before, but this appeared to be a death knell. “This is it,” he thought to himself. “This is for real.”
He sent an email to Burdine at 3 a.m., saying they had to step up their efforts. If they didn’t find an owner, soccer could disappear in Minnesota, and it could be another decade before it returned.
A couple of months before the governors meeting, it seemed all hope was lost. They had stirred up interest, but no one was buying.
Then, during a home game against the San Antonio Scorpions, as McGuire was walking around the stadium concessions, he saw something that couldn’t be coincidental, and a shred of hope returned: Bill McGuire, a wealthy businessman and former CEO of United Healthcare, was in attendance.
Bill McGuire came into the orbit of the Minnesota Stars by sheer coincidence. McGuire (no relation to Bruce) made his money working as an executive and eventually CEO of United Healthcare from 1988 to 2006, when he left under a stock-option backdating scandal. By the time he resigned, he’d turned United into a $70 billion company, and in 2010 MSN Money named him one of the top 10 best-paid CEOs of the millenium.
McGuire is a sports fan, but never took a particular interest in soccer, let alone the prospect of owning his own team. But McGuire was linked to the Stars through a personal connection. His daughter, Marrissa, had been college roommates with the daughter of NASL Commissioner David Downs. When the team was first in need of an owner, Downs asked Marissa if she knew anyone.
“I figured that was roughly a field effort to ask, was I interested,” recalls McGuire. “I thought about it and said, ‘No, I don’t know anybody.’”
In April 2012, Downs tried to appeal to Marissa again in an email: “I apologize for writing to you like this out of the blue after it has been over a year since I last saw you (at Ashley’s wedding, I believe), but I just came back from a fantastic weekend in Minneapolis and thought about you in connection with our NASL soccer team there.”
He wondered if she could recommend someone. The price, he promised, would be modest.
McGuire’s son-in-law, Nick Rogers, was a longtime soccer fan, and urged McGuire to consider the offer, even though it seemed like a long shot.
“It’s a tall order going to somebody and saying, ‘Why don’t you buy a professional soccer team?’” says Rogers, now president of Minnesota United. “Let’s just say I wasn’t optimistic.”
McGuire agreed to hear out Downs. In August, McGuire, Rogers, and Downs attended a game together. They went to another match in October, the first leg of the NASL championship against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.