Over the next few weeks, we plan on bringing you a series of articles exploring the history of pro soccer in Minnesota. We plan on looking at the clubs that shaped the landscape and the players that we can never forget. Today, we start with the unforgettable Minnesota Kicks and the first North American Soccer League.
Who could ever forget the original North American Soccer League? With names like Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Müller, George Best, and of course, Pelé, the league was populated with some of the World’s best players.
But, Minnesota fans had stars of their own. Players like Alan Willey, Alan West, Tino Lettieri, and Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe have their own special place in the history of professional soccer in Minnesota.
The North American Soccer League was founded in 1967 as the result of a merger of two previous leagues. The league enjoyed moderate success in the early 1970s, but it all changed in 1975. The league wanted more recognition and who is better to spread the word of the beautiful game than arguably the best player of all time? The New York Cosmos signed superstar Pelé, and the league reached crazy new heights. (Fun fact: Portuguese star Eusébio was also signed by the Boston Minutemen in 1975, so the Brazilian Superstar was not the only international import.)
In November of 1975, a group of investors bought the Denver Dynamos with plans to relocate. The Minnesota Kicks were born. Clad in that wonderful creamsicle* orange color, the Kicks became one of the league’s most popular teams.
And they were bound to be. They played at the old Met Stadium, wore awesome kits, and had players like Alan Willey scoring at will. Their days were before my time, but the stories that I have been told make Kicks games sound like the most fun experience that people could have in the Twin Cities.
Their first season started slow, but they would finish the regular season in 1st place in the Pacific Conference. They would even go on to the Soccer Bowl, where they would lose to the aforementioned Eusébio and his newer team, the Toronto Metros - Croatia. Alan Willey would have his first of multiple seasons leading the team in goals with 16.
Kicks fans will definitely remember the first leg of the conference semifinals in 1978. Alan Willey scored five en route to a 9-2 drubbing of a Cosmos squad that included Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and Giorgio Chinaglia. In front of a raucous crowd of 45,863 in Bloomington, the Kicks put on a show. (Let’s not talk about the second leg where the Cosmos won 4-0 and because there was no aggregate, they advanced after winning a mini-game. No. That’s not fun.)
The Kicks, unfortunately were not immune to the struggles that the league faced come the 1980s. By the end of the 1981 season, the team had lost around $2.5 million and were up for sale. The team would fold by December of that year and the players from the Kicks were dispersed.
The Kicks averaged some of the largest crowds in the NASL and won the conference their first four seasons. The Kicks made the playoffs all six. Alan Willey continues to be a huge name in Minnesota Soccer (currently doing the color commentary for the Loons.) The impact of the Kicks cannot be understated. And really, I think I speak for all of us when I say that the Loons should really consider having a creamsicle alternate kit.
What are your favorite Kicks memories? Share them in the comments below.
*I admit that I am not sure if “creamsicle” is the right term for the kit color, but I also don’t know what else to call it.