Buzz Lagos washed uniforms, lugged equipment, sold season tickets and courted sponsors. He lobbied media members, handed out fliers and changed the oil in his minivan regularly, anything he could during a lifelong pursuit to promote soccer to Minnesotans who considered the game as foreign as many of the players’ names.
But more than anything, the beautiful game’s most fervent evangelist in these parts was — and still is — a coach foremost.
That’s why he insists he won’t go all sentimental Saturday when he watches from his club seats as Minnesota United open its $250 million Allianz Field. The shiny new stadium in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood is less than a mile from where Lagos and wife Sarah raised eight children, United Sporting Director Manny Lagos included, on a teacher’s salary.
“I want the team to do well; it’s a big year for them,” he said. “I focus on the team. Play well and move the ball. Score some goals and defend well. I can’t get out of my coaching mind how I want the team to do the simple things really well.”
At age 74, he gives no indication he’ll sit Saturday and ponder his pivotal role in Minnesota soccer’s long journey to this moment.
That’s OK because his youngest son already noted it for posterity on one of the stadium’s metal girders.
Seventeen months ago, as the stadium’s construction started skyward, a parade of people important in its creation signed their names on the first beam installed.
Manny Lagos signed for his father rather than himself, writing “The House That Buzz Lagos Built” instead.
Many people helped popularize Minnesota soccer, starting with the Minnesota Kicks’ arrival in 1976 with the pro North American Soccer League that sold out Met Stadium. It planted youth soccer’s grassroots growth that still spawns an international jamboree in Blaine every July. From there, all the way to a team that in various versions was the Thunder and Stars before healthcare executive Bill McGuire bought and named it United in 2013. Two years later, Major League Soccer welcomed it.
But nobody influenced state soccer as did Lagos, who taught math and coached at St. Paul Academy for 25 years. His teams won four high school state titles. From a meeting at a sandwich shop he formed the club that 25 years later morphed into major league United. He coached that team, the Thunder, for 16 successful seasons.
Wherever he went, he produced great players and great teams.
“There’s no doubt many people played important parts, and he’s at the top of my list,” Manny Lagos said. “I’m obviously biased, but the sport would never have evolved as it has without him.”
He performed every task imaginable and once took a 40% pay cut to keep the Thunder afloat. Until he coached the Thunder, he never owned a vehicle with fewer than 80,000 miles on it. He drove one to 280,000 miles.
“You wore all these hats because that’s what you do to make it work,” Buzz Lagos said.
But Manny Lagos said his father never grew discouraged or frustrated trying to sell a global sport he believed his own country eventually would appreciate and embrace.
“I saw what was happening with the World Cup every four years,” Buzz Lagos said. “As the world and our economy became more global, you just couldn’t ignore the World Cup. It was right in your face.”
Along the way, he founded a St. Paul charter-school program designed to teach math and soccer to Muslim girls and boys. He knocked on doors in Hmong communities seeking to introduce their children to the sport.
“He’s a true teacher at heart,” Manny Lagos said. “He’s a true educator. He’s a true builder. He’s a true person who believes the effect he has on people affects our community.”
In the 1970s, soccer was called the sport of the 1980s, but not until Saturday will it fully come of age in Minnesota. Buzz Lagos has seen it all, even this day coming when he’ll the watch the stadium’s first game with more than a dozen family members gathered around.
“I imagined MLS and I imagined a stadium,” Lagos said. “But nothing like this stadium. This wonderful facility, how did this happen? The feeling when you get inside, it’s almost like you’re in another universe, like you’re down at Disneyland.
“But here you are in plain, old St. Paul Midway.”