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Minnesota United: MLS club will try to help rebuild a community left in pieces by George Floyd's death

2:00 AM GMT+4 12/07/2020
Minnesota United 2020
The Loons will return to action on Sunday intent on playing a small role in the recovery of a city still reeling from tragedy

Soccer, perhaps more than any other sport, is about community. The game's foundations were built by local clubs representing local people and local causes.

In the game's early days, clubs represented occupations, cities, beliefs and local pride and, even if commercialization has taken that away in some ways, this game is still largely about representing the place you call home.

Over the past few months, there isn't a community that has hurt more than Minneapolis.

The death of George Floyd propelled the city straight to the forefront of the great debate surrounding racism and police brutality, sparking protests in cities and countries all over the world. A city unfamiliar to most outside of the U.S. rapidly became the launching point of something much, much bigger.

However, that debate left the city and surrounding areas in pain. Property was destroyed, buildings were burned, people were arrested or injured. A community was left broken for the entire world to see.

The process of rebuilding that community will take time. It won't be healed by one event, especially not a soccer game. But, on Sunday, some form of normalcy will return to Minnesota when their local team, their community team, Minnesota United, take on Sporting KC.

The Loons will be the first Minnesota-based team to return to play since Floyd's death and the outbreak of Covid-19. The intersection of those two issues has made the past four months feel like four decades for many, with those months filled with heartbreak, destruction and, ultimately, sadness. 

Based in nearby St. Paul, Minnesota United has felt those emotions. St. Paul and Minneapolis are affectionately known as the Twin Cities, the pillars of Minnesota. The two are, by and large, one metropolitan area, Twin Cities with twin hearts.

As a result, this tragedy and the ensuing response have touched Minnesota United. Players and coaches, ultimately, are members of that community too, with feelings, beliefs and connections to those around them.

Jacori Hayes visited the site of Floyd's death to pay respects and has since spoken out at length about the fight for equality.

Ike Opara also visited the memorial site, acknowledging that seeing the place where this current movement began left him "f*cked up". The club's supporters' groups have come together to clean up and rebuild, while the team held a benefit concert to raise money for The Official George Floyd Memorial Fund.

"I want to be optimistic, but I’m afraid that racism is so ingrained in the fabric of the United States that the issue will always persist," said Hayes in a powerful essay

"As a country, we have to address our whole history, acknowledge how this country built its wealth, how this country has failed African Americans consistently, and its citizens who are consistently marginalized before we can ever say, without hypocrisy, we are the shining country on the hill. 

"And so, the journey to end racial prejudice and social injustice must continue."

That fight and that journey has continued, even if the protests have died down. As cities rebuild, conversations are still being had with the aim of creating larger change.

Still, there's sadness. There's no erasing what happened in Minneapolis and no amount of conversations will change what happened to Floyd. This community saw the ugliest side of itself over the past few months, and it will take some time to reckon with that.

However, the hope is that, on Sunday, for a bit, that sadness can be put on the backburner, at least for 90 minutes. A soccer game seems small in comparison but, as discussions continue and coronavirus keeps everyone locked down, maybe those 90 minutes can serve as a valuable distraction.

"Well, the first thing I will say is I'm incredibly proud of the way our players have handled themselves during this difficult and traumatic and emotional time for some of them," said head coach Adrian Heath. "You know, we had players who were right in the middle of it downtown and it has affected some of them."

For example, reigning MLS Defender of the Year Opara has opted out of the MLS is Back tournament for personal reasons.

Minnesota was one of the best in MLS prior to the coronavirus-caused break, scoring eight goals in two matches to start the season with wins over the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes.

Having joined MLS in 2017, and putting together one of the worst seasons in league history in that expansion season, Minnesota has been building towards this season, one where they very much looked like a team that can contend. With Opara leading the charge alongside MLS All-Star Roman Metanire and veterans like Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino, things had been finally falling into place.

Last season, Minnesota made the playoffs for the first time, losing in the opening round to the LA Galaxy. That match was the last time they played at home in front of their fans, and the wait for the club's return to Allianz Field will go on for quite some time as play continues inside the MLS is Back bubble in Orlando.

Since the restart of play with the MLS is Back tournament, emotions have been on full display with a number of demonstrations and statements. The Black Players for Change organization put together a stunning protest prior to the tournament's first match, creating a powerful moment featuring players from every MLS team.

That demonstration, featuring over 170 players, coaches and staff with fists raised, will be one of the defining moments of this tournament which, at that moment, became about much more than soccer.

It wasn't the only display, though. The Philadelphia Union wore the names of those killed by police on their jerseys, honoring those that sparked these ongoing discussions and fights for change.

Thierry Henry, one of the most famous athletes on this planet, knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds to start the Montreal Impact's first match, mirroring the amount of time that officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck.

In the weeks leading up to this match, Minnesota United have made their own statements. The club took a knee and raised their fists upon their first training session back and, like all MLS clubs, have repeatedly expressed support on social media.

“It was unbelievable for me, being a black male on the team and just seeing us all come together as one for a common goal, a common cause, which is the Black Lives Matter movement," said forward Mason Toye ahead of the tournament

"All of them just coming together and really getting behind the cause and being open to listen and to learn. I’m really proud of all the guys on the team for what they’ve done so far and what they’re going to continue to do to help this movement get going.”

However, according to winger Ethan Finlay, the players haven't decided on what they'll do on Sunday evening.

"When it comes to making a statement or any type of social stand, we've seen some teams and things like what Philly has done," said Finlay. "What happened on opening night, led by the Black Players Coalition was very, very powerful and really something that I give them a lot of credit for coming together and doing that themselves and making a real strong statement.

"You heard in Justin Morrow's comments afterwards about how he thought they need to be at the front end to lead and I thought that was a really, really powerful moment. I think when we look at Sunday's game, we have a great opportunity for Minnesota and Kansas City to do something. If it comes, if there's a moment for us to be able to do something. I think you'll see that."

Heath added: "I'm not sure what we're going to do before the game, if they are going to do anything, but certainly from my point of view and from the club's point of view, we will support any actions that the players want to show."

Far from the place they call home, the Loons will take the field in muggy Orlando with expectations of a deep tournament run. After starting so well, there's reason for optimism going into this tournament.

And the hope is that that optimism will lead to excitement and that that excitement will lead to healing, even if just a little. For a community still reeling from one of the most historic periods in a lifetime, perhaps a soccer game can make things better, even if it's just a little.

"It's just, it's one of those things that we don't know how you're going to react until we get on the field," Heath said. "On Sunday, you know it's been nearly four months since this group played. It's a long, long time not to be playing football. It's like a double offseason.

"So, until we've had that game on Sunday, I can't honestly tell you how I think we're going to be. All signs are trending positively. They've trained exceptionally well until they run out. I'm not sure how we're going to be."