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The vision came into focus for Bill McGuire on a brisk October night nearly three years ago. Before then, he had only a passing interest in soccer, but he watched as a noisy crowd in Blaine — barely big enough to fill a high school football stadium — erupted with cheers and set off smoke bombs as Martin Nunez scored a decisive goal.

The fledgling Minnesota Stars won a crucial game that night and McGuire, one of the Twin Cities’ richest and most enigmatic businessmen, basically decided then and there to buy a soccer team. “Ninety-five percent gut move,” he confessed.

In short succession, McGuire would become the unlikely Pied Piper for Minnesota’s growing soccer community, enlist the owners of the Minnesota Twins and Timberwolves to join him and suddenly scoot ahead of Vikings owner Zygi Wilf in landing a Major League Soccer franchise in Minnesota. On Wednesday it all led to McGuire, a decade after a career-shattering fall from grace as a health care executive, sharing smiles and the stage with MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

McGuire still faces challenges, including getting the outdoor downtown Minneapolis stadium built that he sold to the MLS as part of his vision. He has been silent on funding for the stadium, which he says will seat 18,500 in an area near the farmers market.

Garber, alluding to McGuire’s behind-the-curtain style of operating, jokingly said he would be a “run silent, run deep” owner. McGuire, still somewhat uncomfortable back in the media spotlight, opened up last week in a 90-minute interview on everything from his interest in the migration habits of butterflies to the impact of sports — mainly basketball, rarely soccer — on his life.

He was once a 6-foot-2 high school basketball star in Texas, good enough, he admits with prodding, to have played in the Texas high school all-star game. During his senior year, he won over the girl who at the time was dating the star of the team that McGuire’s own team lost to in the state championship. “I was a reasonable player,” McGuire said. “I beat him” for the girl, who would later become his wife, Nadine, “but the team lost.”

He has long had season tickets to Timberwolves games — Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, is an investor in McGuire’s soccer team — but only occasionally goes to other local sporting events. He thinks athletes make good employees because of their drive “to get somewhere” and, had he not played sports himself, may not have bought a soccer team.

McGuire’s below-the-radar style, combined with his wealth, have made him an oddity since he bought the Stars — a team that at the time was owned by the North American Soccer League and perhaps headed for extinction — and renamed them Minnesota United FC. Brian Quarstad said that McGuire, even though he owns the team, quietly goes to the end of the beer line during games. “He’s somewhat private,” said Quarstad, a longtime soccer blogger. But “he almost always comes to a tailgate [party, and] grabs a can of beer and pops it open.”

Elwyn Tinklenberg was the mayor of Blaine in the 1980s when the National Sports Center — where McGuire’s team now plays — was created. After it was built, and criticized for overselling the Twin Cities’ ability to attract World Cup soccer games, Tinklenberg moved on and dealt with McGuire as Gov. Jesse Ventura’s transportation commissioner. “It’s kind of a surprise,” he said, watching McGuire’s emergence as Minnesota’s Mister Soccer. “But it’s wonderful.”

Growth sport

McGuire was not even in Minnesota for the state’s most enduring soccer memory: the wildly popular Minnesota Kicks games in the 1970s at Met Stadium in Bloomington. Though MLS featured grainy color film footage of the games at last week’s news conference to the cheers of the crowd, the cardiopulmonary specialist and former chief executive at UnitedHealth Group did not move to the state until 1989. “I never quite figured out why it stopped,” he said of the Kicks’ soccer phenomenon. “A whole lot of it was as much about a party as it was about the sport.”

Though he may be a new arrival to soccer, McGuire is doing his homework — and sees himself at the cusp of a fundamental shift in America’s sports viewing habits. “The Minnesota Youth Soccer Association has 75,000 registered players,” he told a gathering of reporters last week. “You’ve got 15,000 — 20,000 — girls and boys playing in high school.

“It’s a global sport. It knows no bounds in terms of socio-economic criteria,” he said. “This is the sport of the future.

“Football is diminishing — we actually know it,” he said, sitting casually in his Golden Valley office a day later. “Interest in hockey is [also] diminishing in many areas.”

Bill and Nadine McGuire have two adult daughters, both former athletes but neither of whom played soccer.

McGuire is no ordinary soccer fan, and of course no ordinary businessman.

Though he has yet to discuss building an open-air soccer stadium in downtown Minneapolis with Gov. Mark Dayton, McGuire seems confident that knowing Dayton from the days when Dayton was a U.S. senator and McGuire was CEO of UnitedHealth Group will help. “We talked about things to be done” on health care, he said.

He also — for now — glides past the question of seeking public financing, a touchy subject for many Minnesotans. He instead points to Gold Medal Park, the green space adjacent to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis that McGuire financially helped make happen. “That was a partnership” that did not involve a traditional public subsidy, he said. “The city didn’t put in any money. We leased the land. We paid for water. We paid for electricity. We paid the city $50,000 a year.”

McGuire and his wife donated $10 million to the Walker Arts Center when it doubled in size a decade ago, the second-largest private gift to the project. Christopher Stevens, the Walker’s chief of advancement, said McGuire became fascinated with performing arts — though McGuire had, like with soccer, not yet developed an expertise — and became fast friends with Philip Bither, the Walker’s performing arts curator.

But Stevens also is among those who never saw McGuire’s interest in soccer coming. “Bill McGuire might not have played a lot of soccer in his youth in Texas, [but] to me it’s an evolution of [him] seeing ways to add value to the Twin Cities,” he said.

No apologies

For Stevens — and many others who now praise McGuire’s soccer initiative — the elephant in the room remains his fall at UnitedHealth Group. “It’s beyond my pay grade,” Stevens said of explaining the McGuire he knows, and the McGuire he has read about.

In a startling series of events in 2006, McGuire was implicated in a scandal involving the dating of stock options, and a law firm retained by UnitedHealth Group found that back dating was “likely.” Two days afterward, and seven months after questions first arose, McGuire was ousted as board chair.

In December 2007, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced a settlement, under which McGuire forfeited at least $418 million to settle claims related to the backdating. He was fined $7 million and agreed to not serve as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years.

In the early 2000s, McGuire was routinely the highest compensated CEO of any Minnesota-based public company. In 2006, before the backdating settlement, he had a total compensation package, which included stock option gains, of $127 million.

As MLS awarded McGuire an expansion team last week, Garber talked of McGuire doing something “to give back to the community.” But McGuire said later that neither his philanthropic work — nor his soccer team — has anything to do with erasing the past. “There’s nothing to erase,” he said. “There’s no need to win credit with anybody.”

Added Garber: “What happened 10 years ago in no way plays into anything [of how] I think about him.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger has known McGuire since McGuire came to Minnesota and said he remains impressed. “He’s a changed man,” said Durenberger. “I would not have expected [soccer] is where he’d be headed, but here’s a guy who’s as smart as heck.”

At Planet Soccer, a sports store in Blaine, co-owner John Melius said McGuire and big-time league soccer should mean good things financially for him. Planet Soccer’s five locations feature products by Adidas, the sporting goods manufacturing giant — and Adidas is a sponsor of MLS.

As for McGuire? “I think it was a risky venture when he purchased United, not knowing if for sure[he’d] be able to get a MLS franchise,” Melius said. “But I guess it’s worked out” for him.

As McGuire talked of the future, holding a soccer ball and posing for pictures in his office, he said he has always believed that all of it — the stadium, the financing and the crowds — would eventually come together. “How can there not be 10,000 — 20,000 — coming to these games? It’s too good. It’s too exciting,” he said.

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388