Duluth FC find themselves in a position to make history, as any further success by them would make them the first Minnesotan amateur club to do so in the modern era. A win this Wednesday would make them the first to do so in the second round, in addition the first to do so against a pro club. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Duluth’s and soccer’s histories intertwine, albeit very little until recently, and then how the two clubs are approaching this historic opportunity.
A Drop Of Soccer History In Duluth
When it comes to soccer history, Duluth’s roots are admittedly young in comparison to other regions of Minnesota, particularly the Twin Cities. Despite this there are actually recorded instances of soccers journey throughout the northland, with the more recent Duluth Football Club representing a blooming moment rather than a sudden creation.
One of the first signs of the beautiful game in an organized manner start with Adam Jaros, a Bosnian-born Pole who took root in Duluth in the 1960’s. Jaros would proceed to create an amateur, largely hobby, club nicknamed “Jeno’s Jets, which had limited popularity when it competed in a local league including teams based in the Twin Cities. The team was active through the late 60’s before fading away in the 70’s. Jaro’s story, and that of the Jets, largely disappeared from record until the Duluth News Tribune picked it up in 2012.
The elephant in the room if you’re going to talk about northland soccer is the presence of major colleges in the area that field collegiate soccer teams. Ranging from St. Scholastica to Lake Superior College to Northland College, where current head coach Joel Person is based, the local colleges in Duluth, Superior, and other surrounding towns and cities, have long been the biggest column keeping soccer alive in northeastern Minnesota. St. Scholastica’s men’s soccer team have been Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) Regular Season Champions 11 times, a sign of the talent pool often generated in the area. It should come as no surprise that many of Duluth’s players over the past few seasons have come through these programs.
An important part of Duluth’s soccer makeup that figures like Jaros and Tim Sas, the owner of Duluth FC who is of Romanian birth having also lived in Sweden and Canada, should show is the impact of immigration throughout the 20th and 21st centuries on Duluth’s relationship with soccer. Duluth has a long history of immigration from European nations ranging from Finland to Italy and this flow of new ideas and cultures has helped open the gates of Duluth for a new game to compete with the likes of Hockey and American Football.
The Two BlueGreens
One of the lighter notes joked about by the front office of Duluth FC amidst the more serious conversations surrounding how to approach the unique opportunity at history that awakes is the possibility of a rarely played derby of sorts between the two clubs facing in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup, both of which sport the colors blue and green in the badge, kits, and merchandise.
While the derby may be nothing more than a joke in emails and tweets, the fact is that the way the fans of these two clubs view the game and the cup itself will certainly affect how both squads feel when they march onto the pitch May 16th. For Duluth any soccer is a sign of growth and improvement and the idea of facing a pro club in a historic 2nd Round match is as exciting as it gets for the amateur club. The Dakota Fusion match featured a good showing despite poor weather throughout the day and the club’s social media saw strong showings across the board when it came to promoting and discussing the match. If this is any indication of how the fans and club will feel on the day of their 2nd Round game, it’ll be a good time. Without a doubt the front office of Duluth FC feels the match is a major priority, with mentions of the match leaking into just about anything posted on social media.
In regard to Saint Louis FC, the cup match comes at a time when the club is fighting for a playoff position in the USL. Saint Louis has yet to make the playoffs in its three USL seasons, but have started the 2018 with a solid showing, currently finding themselves in the 8th place of the Western Conferece, which is the last of the playoff spots. However, with plenty of season to go, Saint Louis will need to maintain their form to achieve their first playoff match.
For a fan’s perspective I had the privilege of having a word with the club’s main supporters’ group, the St. Louligans. Stuart Hultgren, a long time member, was kind enough to answer some questions:
D: Fours years after the Saint Louis franchise was originally awarded, how would you say supporters weigh the US Open Cup in comparison to doing well in the league, making the playoffs, etc. for Saint Louis FC?
S: The US Open Cup carries a special significance in St. Louis. Any soccer players growing up in the area are constantly reminded of the place that St. Louis holds in US soccer history. While not as romanticized as the Fall River Marksmen or Bethlehem Steel, Saint Louis has produced 10 US Open Cup winners, tied for second as a city being Los Angeles (trailing New York City). The history for the cup is present in the minds of nearly all St. Louis fans.
While Saint Louis FC hasn’t made any particularly deep US Open Cup runs in its first three seasons, it has had some memorable moments. In 2015 the club upset future MLS-bound Minnesota United on PKs and faced Sporting Kansas City in KC. To this day, that away match might have been the most exciting Saint Louis FC game to date. Nearly 20,000 fans packed Children’s Mercy Park, but it was the 500 or so Saint Louis fans that made the lion’s share of the noise. So much so that when Graham Zusi scored the eventual winner, he ran to the away section corner and shushed the crowd. We lost, but it was magical. Everything the Open Cup should be as a lower league fan.
That said, as a club Saint Louis FC has struggled in its first three seasons. Missing the playoffs each year with more disappointing results. Last season was the most deflating for many fans as it started out with the hiring of Preki and his guarantee the club was playoff bound. Instead, the club missed the playoffs and Preki got himself run out of town with his sour antics. Despite the allure of a deep cup run and the thought of hosting another MLS club, with a thin squad that has been wracked by injuries, league play has to be the priority for the club.
D: Keeping in mind your connections to lower league clubs and squads in the past, including Saint Louis’ U23 branch and the Saint Louis Lions, what is the atmosphere among supporters as your club prepares to take on NPSL opposition?
S: The Louligans were formed in support of a NASL club, but the core of the group survived by supporting various lower league clubs. As supporters we have a great deal of respect for NPSL clubs and their fans. It is a fantastic league to follow with incredible grassroots support. Each amateur club that Saint Louis FC has matched against, has played very tough matches. From Des Moines Menace (PDL) in the first season to FC Wichita (NPSL) & Michigan Bucks (PDL) in their tin can last season, all were very hard-fought contests. Part of the beauty of the Open Cup is traveling to venues that fans would never otherwise experience and seeing how those clubs use that home field advantage.
D: Despite not making the USL Playoffs for its first three seasons, Saint Louis FC is widely considered a respected and well known USL club with a strong image and reputation. What do you think stands out about the club and its supporters to keep it popular and relevant despite a series of difficult seasons?
S: The relationship between Saint Louis FC and its fans is very close and personal. Saint Louis FC’s motto this season is “One of Us”, but the family atmosphere dates back to the club’s first season. On our recent trip to Kansas City, the club’s traveling staff, players’ wives (and some injured players) sat with the fans. It isn’t uncommon for the owners to send a cart of beer to a particularly rowdy pre-game tailgate. Saint Louis FC has also partnered with the Louligans on charity efforts, with the club’s owners matching what the group raises at each tailgate (with each tailgate having a different charity). Last season that partnership raised over $20,000.
So there is a lot of fluid interaction between club staff, players, the owners, and fans. Obviously, the results on the field are important, but having that bond with your local club is an incredible experience that is difficult to put into words but is invaluable in crafting an identity. And this identity is what helps players and fans alike endure the tough seasons, with the hope that as long as we strive together, success will eventually come.
What Comes Next
Whoever wins the second round match will face Louisville City FC of the USL or the Long Island Rough Riders of the PDL. Louisville, the 2018 USL champions, would host if they won their match with the Rough Riders, but Duluth/Saint Louis would host if the PDL side triumphed over Louisville.
The chances of at least one lower league club making it to that match are at least tangible and both Duluth and the Rough Riders will hope to take advantage of the tight playoff race roaring in the USL. Duluth will also look forward to the possibility of hosting another USOC match, thus avoiding the various issues that come with long distance travel, a possibility that Long Island now unfortunately have no way of achieving.
I would also like to personally thank the St. Louligans and Stuart Hultgren for their time and help developing this story.