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Fans Love Minneapolis City SC So Much They’ll Pay to Not See ‘Em Play

The pandemic wiped out an entire season, but supporters of the semi-pro soccer club kept buying season tickets.

Provided; Daniel Mick|

Minneapolis City FC fans cheering on their team.

Pulsing drums split the still spring air at Augsburg University’s Edor Nelson Field. As pink and gray smoke settles to the turf ahead of a recent Minneapolis City SC home game, fans in the vibrating stands wait for the referee’s whistle. 

This isn’t a do-or-die game against a hated rival, just the first group stage match of the inaugural Minnesota Super Cup, a tournament between six Minnesotan lower-division teams. City’s general manager, Matt VanBenschoten, considers it an exhibition game. Yet nobody seems to notice the lowered stakes: Fans packing the sold-out stadium rise to their feet as their Crows take flight. 

Minneapolis City SC, now playing in USL League 2, the semi-professional fourth tier of U.S. soccer, have attracted a uniquely passionate fanbase. “The culture is the biggest thing; the fans, they make us want to be here,” says fullback Wes Lorrens. 

That attitude permeates every level of the club, from the concession stand to the front office. VanBenschoten says management puts players’ development and interests over wins and losses, and that the franchise prioritizes community, whether it’s among players, staff, or above all else, diehard supporters. Crow fans are so passionate that many bought season tickets to keep the team afloat during a 2020 season that featured zero games due to the pandemic.

That culture is what attracted new head coach Carl Craig. A cult figure in the world of Minnesota soccer, Craig left a life of touring with punk bands and coaching in his native Newcastle, England, to lead Minnesota United FC from 2015 to 2016 when they played in the second-tier North American Soccer League. 

Craig has been around City nearly since its foundation in 2017, becoming a consultant the following year. He became an assistant to then-head coach VanBenschoten in 2019 before leaving to coach USL League 1’s Forward Madison in 2020. VanBenschoten shifted away from coaching and into the front office after a chaotic 2022 season; City competed in both the NPSL and USL League 2 that year, and struggled mightily in the tougher latter league. Tasked with hiring his own replacement, VanBenschoten says he hit the jackpot with Craig.

“There are so many high-level coaches that are assholes and douchebags,” VanBenschoten explains. “But not Carl. We’re not curing cancer… it’s like they said in Superbad: ‘It’s fucking soccer, Greg, it’s not that big of a deal.’ He has a down-to-earth, balanced perspective, but to be a consummate professional, like he is? Makes him a perfect head coach for us.” 

While City is a semi-professional club, earning a spot on their roster is fully competitive. As the 2023 season kicked off last month, centerback Jonah Garcia wore the captain’s armband. But before his first season with City in 2019, VanBenschoten had written an email telling Garcia he was to be cut from the team. That email was never sent. Garcia’s competition at centerback didn’t show up to the next training session and, in his place, Garcia showed out. This scenario repeated the next week, and Garcia secured a roster spot. 

“Already I can look back for five years and the time flies, everybody knows that,” Garcia says. “[My] soccer career is just about over and a lot of these guys are looking for pro contracts down the road. So I just remind [the team] that we can’t take it for granted.”

Garcia’s battle to secure a place on the City roster is mirrored in midfielder Aidan O’Driscoll. After once being cut from the first line, he ascended to team captain last season, City’s first in USL League 2. His brother Rory, a one-time Crow, was signed by Minnesota United FC’s reserve team earlier this year. He was one of three City players who were selected in January’s MLS SuperDraft. While Rory O’Driscoll was a college standout and may have expected a pro deal at some point, other Crows receive no such guarantees. 

Loïc Mesanvi was cut from MNUFC academy teams twice. He was almost cut from City as well, but last season he made their U.S. Open Cup roster after some injuries at the forward position cleared a path. In a nationally televised Open Cup match against the Des Moines Menace, Mesanvi made a second-half goal to make the score 2-2. While City ultimately lost 4-2, his career trajectory changed forever. 

“Interest in Loïc completely blew up,” VanBenschoten says. “The day after he scored that goal on ESPN+, we started getting phone calls asking about him.”

Mesanvi went on to score nine goals in 10 matches throughout 2022, and he joined Rory O’Driscoll on the MNUFC2 roster earlier this year. But not every City player aspires to go pro. Why, then, do they flock to Minneapolis for a few weeks every summer, to put their bodies on the line for free?

It might be something about Minnesota. Many of City’s best players—like Garcia, the O’Driscolls, and four-year veteran forward Eli Goldman—are from the Twin Cities. Craig certainly thinks there’s something special here. 

“We move through the seasons. The lovely thing about the summer is people let their hair down,” he says. “[It’s a] bit stoic the rest of the time, but when it comes to summer, it's like, ‘Here we go.’ That's a wonderful treat.”

But for the team, there’s something about playing for City in particular. 

“Guys that have come through the club, they continue to support us, we still see them at training,” Garcia says. “So really, it's just like a family. That's why we keep doing it.”

Dubbed The Citizens, City supporters meet at Murphy Square Park next to the stadium before every home game to share drinks and freshly grilled hot dogs. You’ll find families, college kids, and retirees, all of whom gladly paid between $8 and $12 for tickets to be part of the semi-pro community. 

“They're so local. As someone who was born in Minneapolis, that means a lot to me,” Aidan O’Driscoll says. “And I think there's just a good energy about the place. The fact that we get almost 1,000 fans on a rainy night in May, that kind of sums it up right there.”

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