Degree's Archives and History
#7 seed Minnesota Thunder
Minnesota Thunder History
On Oct. 16, 1999, the Minnesota Thunder professional soccer club concluded its 10th season by winning the A-League championship with a 2-1 victory over the defending champion Rochester Raging Rhinos in front of 9,987 at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
The Thunder, playing in their fourth national final in six seasons, finished 28-6 after winning their 13th consecutive match. Minnesota's first championship season also included a 1-0 exhibition victory over the Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer (MLS).
The Minnesota Thunder soccer club was founded in 1990 by longtime St. Paul Academy coach Manuel "Buzz" Lagos and Tom Engstrom. Comprised of amateur players and a few ex-pros, the club aimed to give Minnesota's young players an opportunity to compete at a higher level than that offered by the state's amateur men's leagues.
From '90 through '93, the Thunder played an exhibition schedule that grew from five games the first year to 14 in '93. Following the '93 season, Minnesota took foreign tours of Europe, playing games against teams from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Morocco and Zambia, and Costa Rica.
The Thunder joined the United Soccer Leagues (formerly USISL) in '94 as an amateur team and, competing against some professional teams in the playoffs, lost the national final to the host Greensboro Dynamo in a shootout. Minnesota turned pro in '95 and again reached the national championship match, losing 2-1 to the host Long Island Rough Riders on a goal with 6 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Thunder and other top teams from the USL joined the Select League in '96, and Minnesota reached the national semifinals before falling to the eventual champion California Jaguars. During the '96 season, the Thunder lost standouts Tony Sanneh and Manuel Lagos to the newly-formed Major League Soccer.
Competition-wise, the Thunder took another step up in '97 by joining the A-League, which merged the top teams from the Select League with six squads from the old A-League. Despite going 2-2 against eventual national champion Milwaukee, the Thunder struggled to a 13-15 finish - by far the worst in club history - and missed the playoffs by one point.
In 1998, bolstered by the off-season signings of Kevin Anderson from Long Island, Stoian Mladenov of Bulgaria, Constantin Stanici of Romania, Morgan Zeba of Sweden and Garfield Shaw of Jamaica, the Thunder's A-League fortunes improved dramatically. Minnesota scored 52 goals in 28 regular-season games (up from a league-low 22 in '97) and advanced to the playoffs with a 19-9 record.
The Thunder won the Western Conference championship by ousting defending champ Milwaukee in the opening round and sweeping past two-time A-League champ Seatle ('95 and '96) and top-seeded San Diego in a pair of two-game series. In the league championship match, Minnesota's third in five seasons, the Thunder fell 3-1 to the host Rochester Raging Rhinos (30-4) in front of 13,772 at Frontier Field.
In addition to its on-field success - five trips to the national semifinals or beyond in the past six seasons - Minnesota has earned national recognition for helping develop first-division pro stars such as Tony Sanneh (Hertha Berlin), Manuel Lagos (Tampa Bay Mutiny) and Tom Presthus of MLS champion D.C. United. Last season, Thunder goalkeeper John Swallen was named A-League MVP and president and GM Bill Manning was honored as Executive of the Year. Minnesota was recognized as the A-League's Organization of the Year in '97, and Buzz Lagos was named United Soccer Leagues (USL) Coach of the Year in '95.
Lagos was chosen as one of the Star Tribune newspaper's 100 Most Important Sports Figures of the Century, joining a list that included Minnesota icons Kirby Puckett, Bronko Nagurski, George Mikan, Bud Grant and Harmon Killebrew.