Patrick Reusse
See more of the story

Minnesota United FC will be playing the fourth home game of its second season in Major League Soccer on Saturday. The opponent will be Vancouver. There will be holes to fill in the lineup due to injuries.

The latest player to fall was Christian Ramirez. I was discussing that with a radio guest this week and tossed in this aside: “He’s the guy that will be playing for Costa Rica in the World Cup, right?”

The guest paused and said: “No, that’s Francisco Calvo, and he’s also hurt.”

Shucks.

I try to maintain a loose knowledge of what’s happening with our soccer club; obviously, I’m not trying hard enough.

In my defense, it’s too dang complicated. Transfer openings and closings; endless roster gobbledygook that gives we nonexperts no chance to know who’s who from who knows where.

It was so much simpler when Minnesota first tried an excursion into the North American version of big-league soccer in 1976. First of all, they were the Kicks, and there weren’t two other teams in the NASL called the Kicks, as there are two other teams in the MLS called United.

“Are the Loons and United the same team?” a Bloomington resident said to me this week. “If you want to be called the Loons, then call yourself the Minnesota Loons.”

The gentleman making this comment was Alan Willey, the scoring star for the Kicks during their six summers of existence from 1976 through 1981. He’s worked for the same non-sports business in Bloomington for over two decades.

I’ll reach into my bag of soccer knowledge and pronounce that Willey was in the spotlight for what remains the greatest moment in Minnesota soccer history:

Aug. 16, 1978, Kicks vs. New York Cosmos (Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer), 45,803 at Met Stadium, Kicks win 9-2, with five goals scored by Willey.

“It was an amazing night,” Willey said. “It was a 2-of-3 playoff, unfortunately, not total goals. We went to the Meadowlands two nights later, lost the regulation game 4-0, and then lost the minigame.

“We should have been back in the Soccer Bowl. That was our year to win it.”

The Kicks went to the 1976 Soccer Bowl in their first season before losing 3-0 to Toronto. The stars of that team — Willey, Ron Futcher, Ace Ntsoelengoe, Alan Merrick, etc. — were the same in 1978, the same almost to the end.

The Kicks’ first home game was played 42 years ago, on May 9. They let a couple of thousand people in for free when the ticket lines remained long at game time.

The official attendance was 17,054, and the combination of free parking and waving in people for free was a monstrous PR triumph.

“The owners were from the grocery business and knew how to operate aggressively with a small profit margin,” Merrick said. “And Jim Ruben from General Mills … he was a marketing genius.”

The roster was recruited by team president/coach Freddie Goodwin and was heavily from England. Merrick wasn’t sure what to expect when he got off the plane with his wife and two kids on April 7.

“I saw this man with a sign reading, ‘Welcome, Alan Merrick family,’ and it was Don Byerly, one of the owners,” he said. “Another owner was there to pick up Ron Futcher, and another Geoff Barnett. I thought, ‘These people are committed. This is going to work.’ ”

A week later, that seemed iffy. The Kicks’ first match was an exhibition against North Dakota State in Fargo.

“We flew up there and it snowed overnight,” Merrick said. “I was rooming with Ace, from South Africa. He was staring out the window and said, ‘You have to do something, Alan. You have to talk to Fred and tell him I can’t play in this.

“Fred agreed that if Ace scored two goals, he could go back inside. Ace scored twice in the first six minutes, walked to the sideline and said, ‘I will see you after the match.’ ”

Soon thereafter, the Kicks were playing the first home game on that sunny May Sunday.

“We came through the parking lot and smoke was coming up from everywhere,” Merrick said. “We had never seen that in England. We asked, ‘What is this?’ and were told, ‘Tailgating.’ ”

The newspaper beat writers were new to soccer, but also all onboard with this instant phenomenon in Bloomington. Charley Hallman from the St. Paul newspapers came up with the nickname “The Artful Dodger” for Willey, and it lives today.

The radio play-by-play was done by Frank Beutel, a veteran broadcaster and also a soccer neophyte.

“Frank was great, even though he would usually call the 35-yard line the blue line,” Merrick said. “We were asked a few odd questions from Minnesotans new to soccer, but we enjoyed answering them.”

It was such a bond that Merrick, Willey, Barnett (until recently) and Tino Lettieri settled in, and remained more familiar to generations of a certain age than today’s stars.

It’s Calvo for Costa Rica, right? OK, got it.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. • preusse@startribune.com