Around and around we go, and where we stop will be football recruiting:
I was in the crowd at CHS Field on Aug. 19, 2016 when the official announcement was made that Minnesota’s pro soccer franchise was going to be elevated from the North American Soccer League to Major League Soccer, the top level of professional play for the United States and Canada.
A surprise to me was the joy the fans took when it was announced the team would be able to keep the name “United FC,’’ thus joining Atlanta as the second and third Uniteds in the league.
I had no idea there was a fan base fixated on that title, since the return of pro soccer in Blaine in the early ‘90s was under the brand Thunder (a perfectly fine nickname) and then it held on for a couple of years as the Stars (not so hot).
The United thing started when Bill McGuire rescued the team in 2013. Four seasons aren’t enough to qualify as tradition, particularly when the people cheering the loudest over the continuation as United were the “Dark Clouds,’’ a fan group that drew its name from the days of the Thunder.
We are now 30 percent of the way through Season 2 in the MLS and this struck me:
*I was covering the Twins and paying no attention when the Kicks came to Minnesota as part of the real NASL in 1976, and still knew the names of their standout players after a couple of weeks of the first season.
*I check on the results and cruise through the game stories on United – watch some if I run across a game on television – and remain confused on who is in, who is out, and who is the team’s answer to Alan Willey as a scorer, or Ace Ntsoelengoe in the middle, or Alan Merrick on defense.
The Kicks were starting to play home games in May 1976, and those soon became a phenomenon for both the partying in the Met Stadium parking lot and the high level of talent that team president/coach Freddie Goodwin had put together on the run.
I decided to write a column on the familiarity of local soccer stars – then and now – and talked with Willey and Merrick, both Twin Cities residents. Willey picked up the nickname “The Artful Dodger,’’ and it helped make him a lasting cult figure for Minnesota soccer.
I asked Willey if he brought the nickname with him as a young man from England, or if he picked it up in Minnesota.
“The guy who covered the Kicks for the St. Paul newspapers gave it to me; Charley … what was his last name?’’ Willey said.
Hallman. Charley (Buck) Hallman:
Viet Nam vet, co-found of Twin Tone records, Indy 500 zealot, enthusiast for every Minnesota sports team he covered in 27 years (1970-97) in St. Paul, and the most-memorable character I’ve worked with in what will be 50 years as a Twin Cities sports writer on Labor Day weekend.
Thus, the Willey conversation had Charley still in my mind last week, and then it was revealed that Gophers coach Phil Fleck had received a commitment from Jason Bargy, a defensive end from Illinois and currently the 99th-rated recruit for 2019.
This was exciting news for today’s Gophers fans, since it was Fleck’s first top 100 prospect to commit as he works his third recruiting cycle at Minnesota.
And then came the thought that caused one of those private laughs:
“Dang, if only Charley still was around to cover Fleck, how many players would the Gophers have in the Pioneer Press Top 100?’’
At one time, Charley was covering the North Stars and the Fighting Saints simultaneously. He also covered auto racing – Indy, Brainerd and local tracks – and Gophers hockey.
And when the Kicks came to town, the sports editor said, “Put Charley on it,’’ and soon Willey was the Artful Dodger. Charley loved the Kicks. He loved every team that he covered.
In the mid-‘80s, I’m not sure if it was Lou Holtz’s first season (1984) or second, Charley was turned loose on the Gophers beat. He covered all sports at the university.
He was given a license to produce daily “Gophers Notes’’ and those basically took over the Pioneer Press sports section. When Holtz left for Notre Dame, Charley wrote and lobbied relentlessly for the Gophers to hire John Gutekunst, the defensive coordinator, and that happened.
And soon, out of nowhere, the Pioneer Press Top 100 (nationally, remember) – as researched by Hallman – was being published on signing day. Gutey was getting three or four minimum; might have topped out at six incoming Gophers among the top 100.
I’m guessing, even though Charley would have loved Jerry Kill and become buddies with Tracy Claeys, that eventually he would have been rowing the boat as fast as his thick arms could go after a couple of sitdowns with Fleck.
I sent out texts to Jim Wells and Gregg Wong, two of my colleagues from the St. Paul days, with this message: “If Buck was covering Fleck, and he gave Buck a couple of pep talks, how many recruits would the Gophers have in the Pioneer Press top 100?’’
Wells: “I don’t have a computer right now to calculate such a mind-numbing number.’’
Hallman left the Pioneer Press in 1997 and left this vale of tears in 2015. So, we that worked with the man during those golden years of Gutey’s recruiting bonanzas, can only dream of how great it would have been -- Buck Hallman covering Phil Fleck.