Dark Clouds: Embedded with Minnesota's misfit fans
It’s not quite noon, and the Nomad World Pub is getting rowdy. Minnesota’s most diehard soccer fans — some of whom have already been here for hours — are knocking back pints of Surly Furious and shots of Jameson. There’s an oversized Jenga game in the middle of the pub, and someone keeps tooting a miniature trumpet.
These are the Dark Clouds, the loyal supporters of Minnesota United FC, the state’s second-division soccer club.
“DARK CLOUDS!” Jim Oliver, a big fellow dressed in all black and wearing a beard fit for a viking, bellows through a megaphone. The bar falls silent. “In the ninth minute, we’re going to sing, ‘Djorn Bucholz is a blue, hates Milwaukee.’ It goes like this.”
Oliver begins to belt out, to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” Djorn Bucholz is a blue, is a blue, is a blue. Djorn Bucholz is a blue, haaaates Milllllllwauukee!
It’s an inside joke, as are most things with the Dark Clouds. Bucholz is the outgoing vice president of Minnesota United, and today is his last game. A blue is a nickname for a fan of the team, dating back to when it was called the Minnesota Thunder. Milwaukee was at one time Minnesota’s biggest rival — they haven’t had a team for years, but the song remains the same.
“Ahhhhhhh!” the Jenga players cry in disappointment as the four-foot tower comes crashing to the bar’s floor.
Looking around, it’s difficult to tell what ties these people together, aside from their adoration for a sport about which most Americans couldn’t care less. The attire ranges from DIY to polo shirts. There are conservatives, liberals, and everyting in between. Wes Burdine, an active Dark Clouds member, is wearing a T-shirt carrying the symbol of the Red Loon — he explains that it represents the Marxist sect of the Dark Clouds.
“One thing I like about the Dark Clouds so much is that it’s a bunch of weirdos and misfits,” says Burdine. “It’s a group of black sheep coming together.”
An hour before the game starts, Oliver addresses the group: “Finish your beers!” he commands through the megaphone. “One minute!”
They do as they’re told and line up outside the bar on Cedar Avenue, raising flags, beating a full-sized bass drum, and sounding trumpets as they march down the street. It looks like Cedar-Riverside is under siege, and a few store owners run outside to investigate. To the tune of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK,” they sing in unison:
I am a Nessie Fan
I am a Minne-so-tan
I know what I want and I know how to get it
I wanna drink beer! And eat hot nuts!
Cuz IIIIII Wannnnnnaaa Beeee
The story of the Dark Clouds begins with a local soccer freak named Bruce McGuire, a 6'4" former A&R rep for Warner Bros. Records with a long red beard. On a recent afternoon, across a dim table at Nye’s Polonaise Room in northeast Minneapolis, McGuire tries to sum up the complicated philosophy of the Dark Clouds.
They’re not like traditional European soccer hooligans, famous for starting fights with opposing fans. In fact, they are vehemently opposed to any violent behavior; in one instance, when a fan in their section did throw a rock at a rival team’s bench, the Dark Clouds carried him out of the stadium. The ethos of the Dark Clouds lies in the difference between being a smartass and an asshole.
“The other team, they’re our total enemy, but the minute the game’s over, it’s over,” explains McGuire. “We go out in the parking lot and hang out with fans from the other team, before and after the game.”
Today, McGuire is among 165 registered members of the Dark Clouds, but throughout the ’90s, he watched soccer alone. In 2001, he wanted to see the World Cup qualifying game in Honduras, but didn’t feel like spending the $50 on pay-per-view just to watch it by himself. He searched out the soccer message board Big Soccer, and found a post from a stranger asking if any other fans wanted to split the cost. McGuire showed up — along with seven others — at the east St. Paul house.
Among his new comrades was Grant Wahl, a Sports Illustrated journalist who was in Minneapolis covering the Final Four. Wahl later wrote an article about the evening, titled, “Feeling Minnesota: The Twin Cities bring out the best in soccer’s diehards.”
“That was the nucleus,” says McGuire. “That’s where it started. And then through that we started going to Thunder games together, and meeting more and more like-minded people.” The Thunder played at the National Sports Center in Blaine, where games were sparsely attended. But in the thin crowd, McGuire’s group noticed a few other regulars, and banded together with them to heckle the other team.
“We looked at each other and just decided, ‘Hey, we should be standing together,’” recalls Andy Wattenhofer. “So we all just relocated behind the visitor’s bench from then on, and it grew from there.”
In a small stadium with low attendance, the games were so quiet that they could hear the players talking on the bench. That meant the players could hear them too. The fans believed that if they were clever enough with their taunts, they could get into the players’ heads. Thus, shit-talking became an art.
“It’s like a stupid little improv theater group,” says Oliver. “You can’t just stand there and say, ‘You suck.’ There’s a standard of ripping guys. It has to hurt, but it has to be funny and cruel.”
In 2004, the Thunder made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament in which NASL teams compete against Major League Soccer clubs. The tournament brought the San Jose Earthquakes to Minnesota, which drew soccer fans from all over the state. Not only was San Jose one of the highest-rated American soccer teams in play, but they had signed Landon Donovan, at the time among the best players in the country.
“They filled the whole section for that game,” recalls Kevin Friedland, Minnesota United defender and assistant coach. “It seemed like that was kind of a turning point, where, if all these guys and girls stand together, the strength and the numbers of their songs and chants and everything goes a bit further.”
The original group of eight or nine multiplied into several dozen. It was around this time that McGuire started calling them the Dark Clouds.
At first, the name was meant to be ironic. They were a group of cheerful, singing soccer fans — nothing like the dreary nickname implied. And the moniker was nothing to be uttered outside the tight circle — more of a secret handshake than an official identity.
“It’s almost like Charlie Brown,” says McGuire. “Kind of a combination of Pig Pen and Linus. You know, the lovable loser.”
On a late-April afternoon in the Metrodome, Minnesota United is tied 0-0 with the Edmonton Eddies after a half-hour of play. The Dark Clouds have work to do.
Before the game, Burdine passed out copies of the “Jackassery Times Heckler,” a sort of hymnal for the Dark Clouds with lyrics to their repertoire. There are the classics, like “Lass from Overseas,” a tribute to their unofficial mascot, the Loch Ness Monster, sung to the tune of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” (In the town where I was born/There came a lass from overseas/And she came to Minnesota/And her name was Nessie). And then there are the new ones, like the riff on Queen’s “We Are the Champions” (Miguel Ibarra’s my friend/And he’ll keep on fighting till the end).
They move from song to song, waving flags and scarves, screaming the lyrics as loud as they can to the boom of the bass drum and the sound of the trumpets.
As is customary, the Dark Clouds have done some research before the game and picked out one target who will be the subject of personal attack. It’s Edmonton’s goalie, Lance Parker, who at one time posed as an underwear model.
“I’ll buy your underpants, Lance!” yells a woman not 20 feet from Parker. “Take off your shirt, Lance! “Lance! Lance! Underpants!”
This is how the Dark Clouds help Minnesota United win matches.
“You have such an impact on the game,” says Ben Pfutzenreuter. “Anyone who chooses to stand in our section is there because they appreciate the fact that, in this sport, you’re going to influence what happens on the field. It’s a pretty exciting and fun kind of power trip.” Back in 2005, the Dark Clouds made the jump from unofficial fan club to legitimate business. They wanted to start selling merchandise, so they created an LLC and elected board members to run it.
Burdine started coming to games in 2010 after spending nights at the Sweetwater Bar in St. Paul watching the U.S. men’s team on a barstool next to McGuire. One rainy day in Blaine, a game was delayed for an hour and a half. Most of the stadium employees went home, including the concessions workers, so Burdine drove to the nearest liquor store, picked up a case of Grain Belt, and walked it into the stadium. “Those of us who remained just sat in the middle of the stands up in Blaine and just screamed our asses off,” says Burdine. “It was kind of ridiculously fun, and that’s what sealed it for me. I thought, ‘Now I get it.’”
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.
The governors meeting was a week away, meaning it might have been the team’s last championship home game, so the Dark Clouds were in full force. They set up a six-foot cardboard cutout of the Loch Ness Monster across the stadium wall, and lit up enough road flares that it looked like the place was on fire. When the Stars scored the game-winning goal in the last minute, the players ran over to the stands, and the Dark Clouds literally spilled out over the wall in celebration, screaming and hugging the players.
“That was my first exposure to the Dark Clouds,” says McGuire. “Seeing these folks chanting and having a good time and singing their songs and smoke going off.”
McGuire was intrigued, but a deal was far from complete. By the weekend of the governors meeting in Tampa Bay, no paperwork had been signed. The Stars were playing the final leg of the championship in Florida, and the meeting was to take place the same day. The reality was clear: The Stars could win the championship for the second consecutive year, and fold the very same weekend.
The Stars ended up losing to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. After the Rowdies finished celebrating, Downs saw Bucholz wandering around the field. Downs was getting ready to retire as commissioner, so he approached Bucholz to thank him and say goodbye.
“He says, ‘David, I just came out of the locker room, and they’re still sitting in the locker room in their uniforms beating their heads against the locker doors,’” recalls Downs. “They think they not only lost the title game in dramatic fashion, but they think they lost the city of Minneapolis a soccer franchise.”
Downs walked into the Stars’ locker room to address the team. There was nothing signed, but he could feel in his bones that it was going to get done.
“Look, we’re really, really close, but I don’t have a deal I can announce yet, so I can’t promise anything,” he told them. “But the fact of the matter is, you’ve done your city proud.”
Less than two weeks later, before the ink was even dry on the contract, McGuire held a press conference at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis to announce that he’d bought the team.
“It was a unique time,” says head coach Manny Lagos. “It was a tough and frustrating time. And I think when you get to a point where there’s so much uncertainty, it’s just overwhelming and gratifying to have somebody who’s not just from the outside, but believes in Minnesota.”
The elated Dark Clouds presented Bill with a care package: an embroidered Dark Clouds scarf and a pack of hot nuts.
Two weeks after the Edmonton game, the Dark Clouds are back at the Nomad, pregaming for an evening match against the Carolina Railhawks. Burdine produces the most recent copy of the Jackassery Times Heckler and turns to a picture of this week’s target, a young defender for Carolina with shoulder-length blond hair.
“Paul Hamilton’s our man today,” explains Burdine. “He’s got Mmbop hair. He also tried to kill one of our players.”
Today’s method of attack is a song from an episode of Flight of the Conchords: Paul Hamilton, you’re so beautiful, you could be a part-time model/But you’d probably still have to keep your normal job.
The Dark Clouds have been on a high since McGuire announced he was buying the team last fall. Though it’s only the beginning of the season, McGuire has already begun to transform the team’s image. He’s built up the front office from six people to two dozen, and launched a widespread marketing campaign to draw a larger crowd, including rebranding to Minnesota United FC and hosting the first five home games at the Dome, rather than the usual Blaine stadium. He’s also scored points with the Dark Clouds by keeping Lagos on as coach and occasionally soliciting them for advice, one time even showing up for beers at the Republic on the West Bank.
But there is still some uncertainty about the future of the team. Since the stadium vote, Wilf has been silent on any plans to bring an MLS team to Minnesota, making fans skeptical that he’s serious. If a team does come to the new stadium, many in the Dark Clouds are hopeful that Minnesota United could make the jump to the upper division league, rather than bringing in a new team.
Asked about the potential Wilf factor, McGuire won’t speculate. “I don’t know,” he says. “We’ll see. Right now, we’re going to put the best product and the best experience out there for the people, and we’ll see what that does. We intend to have a very strong team and a very strong program here.”
Then there’s the stadium problem. McGuire wants to grow attendance from an average 5,000 per game to something more like 10,000 to 15,000, and the Blaine location makes the uphill battle nearly impossible. Many fans, including Bruce McGuire, believe building a new stadium for the team is the only way to accrue consistently high attendance.
“They have to have their own facility if they’re gonna make this work,” says Bruce McGuire. “It’s been proven. Over the last 20 years of soccer in America, that’s the only way to make it work.”
Bill McGuire confirms there has been internal talk about the venue issue, but says it’s too early to seriously discuss the prospect of a new stadium.
“I don’t think that’s something we’re in a position to really talk about right now,” he says. “It’s obvious that we have to figure out the best venues that serve the needs of the fans, as well as what is needed for high-end professional soccer, and our players. So we’re testing various approaches to that.”
Whatever the future holds for Minnesota United, one thing is certain: The Dark Clouds will follow.
“DARK CLOUDS!” yells Oliver, and everyone in the Nomad finishes their drinks and lines up outside the bar. They march down Cedar Avenue, toward the Dome, wearing Minnesota United jerseys, Red Loons T-shirts, or vests they made at home. One fan carries a black flag with a skull and crossbones, another totes a Dark Clouds flag. They play trumpets, and scream so loud their voices crack.
Glory, glory Minnesota
Glory, glory Minnesota
Glory, glory Minnesota
The blues go marching on!
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