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Iconic Kicks relive past, promote future with Minnesota United’s 50K to Midway

Alan Willey (left), Steve Litt (center) and Alan Merrick (right) pose for a photo at the opening of Minneapolis City SC's club shop on Sept. 22, 2018. (Kyle Eliason/Pro Soccer USA)

On Aug. 26, 1976, the Minnesota Kicks defeated the San Jose Earthquakes 3-1 in front of a record-setting crowd of 49,572 that shook old Metropolitan Stadium.

On the field for the Kicks that day were three Englishmen who’d journeyed across the Atlantic to ply their trade in the North American Soccer League: Defender Alan Merrick had been a regular in West Bromwich Albion’s starting XI over seven seasons spanning England’s first and second divisions. Fellow defender Steve Litt began his career as an apprentice with Blackpool Football Club, but left for the United States after making just a handful of first-team appearances for Luton Town. And forward Alan Willey said goodbye to  Middlesbrough Football Club after scoring seven goals over 49 league contests.

The trio joined Minnesota in 1976 ahead of its first season in the original NASL, and collectively went on to make 402 league appearances for the Kicks from 1976 to 1981. Willey, who scored 80 league goals in that time, earned himself a nickname — the Artful Dodger — and eventually a 2003 induction to the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Pro Soccer USA caught up with the former Kicks on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 22nd, as they made an appearance for the opening of Minneapolis SC’s club shop.

Merrick had offered his services as an adviser to the upstart amateur team when it was getting off the ground back in 2016. Having since made a name for itself locally, the National Premier Soccer League side decided to try its hand at brick-and-mortar retail — and Merrick, Litt and Willey turned up in support.

Vintage Minnesota Kicks promotional postcards featuring Alan Willey (left, Steve Litt (center) and Alan Merrick (right).

While swapping stories and standing for pictures with soccer fans both young and old, conversation turned to another promotional appearance the trio had that evening. The three Minnesota soccer icons would be on field at halftime during Minnesota United FC’s game against the Portland Timbers to help spread the word about the 50K to Midway campaign.

Referencing the neighborhood MNUFC will call home once construction of Allianz Filed is complete, the Loons are looking to break Minnesota’s single-game attendance record that Merrick, Litt and Willey helped set more than 40 years prior. With its final home game of the 2018 season, MNUFC is aiming to draw 50,000 fans on Oct. 21 against the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Technically, the single-game attendance record for any soccer game played in Minnesota was set Aug. 3, 2016, when an announced 64,101 turned out to see Chelsea Football Club best A.C. Milan 3-1 in a preseason friendly at US Bank Stadium. It bears mention that game was the first sporting event held in the then brand-new, billion-dollar facility that would become the home of the Minnesota Vikings.

Another game of note was the Minnesota Strikers’ 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies on May 28, 1984. An announced crowd of 52, 621 filled the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome as a Beach Boys concert followed the day’s soccer.

Thus, MNUFC in a statement released Aug.15 asked fans to,”Come make history and be a part of the record for attendance for a Minnesota soccer team as we open the upper deck [of TCF Bank Stadium] and go for 50,000 before packing up and heading east to Midway and Allianz Field.” Earlier today, the club announced it had reached 50,000 tickets sold and distributed.

With so much on their plates, the three former Kicks still found time that Saturday morning two weeks ago to share their thoughts on Minnesota’s soccer past, present and future.

On that record-setting night in 1976, the thrill of winning a playoff semifinal in front of a huge crowd obscured most details from Willey’s recollection.

“The only thing I can remember about that game was trying to get off the field at the end of the game,” Willey said. “I think it took at least a half an hour to get out from the far touchline into the locker room, because pretty much within a minute of the final whistle I think everyone was on the field. If you saw [Merrick’s] shirt …”

“Ade Coker, they stole his shoes,” Merrick said of his former teammate. “We had to make an announcement in the paper and say, ‘Someone return ’em.’ Because, back then, we used to break new shoes in. Like today, you take them off the shelf, they’re good to go. Back then, you’ve got to wear them in practice, you’ve got to soften them up and do all kinds of stuff with them.”

Litt said someone did return Coker’s shoes, and the Nigerian-American was able to wear them in the 1976 Soccer Bowl a week later, though Toronto Metros-Croatia still defeated Minnesota three-nil.

The trio credited the Kicks’ impressive attendance to the special relationship shared between fans and players.

“They called it a love affair. The fans had never seen players at the end of the game run ’round the field, saluting the fans,” Merrick said. “Normally, the American football players, they just walk straight off, same with baseball. Hockey’s the same, they just head down the tunnel.”

Said Litt, “We were more approachable. They got to know us, and it’s kind of like you’re more of a friend than you are an athlete, and I think that was the biggest thing.”

“We went and did lots of clinics, lots of appearances and were a part of the community,” added Willey.

Continuing on the subject of the crowds at the old Met, Merrick said, “They became very knowledgeable by the end of the [1976] season. They knew how to appreciate good play, and we were just compelled to do well because the were just egging us on. By the end of the season, they were well into it. From the moment you came out of the tunnel and onto the field, they were cheering.”

Former Minnesota Kicks players make an appearance for the opening of Minneapolis SC’s club shop on Saturday, Sept. 22nd, 2018. (Kyle Eliason/Pro Soccer USA)

Lest any accuse the three of only speaking well of the past, the former kicks were also highly complimentary of present-day fans in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

“The fans these days are much more knowledgeable,” Willey said. “You go to the fans in the stands tonight and name any player in the world, and they’ll know who he is and who he plays for. That’s the great thing about it. They’re involved not just in MLS, but with all the soccer around the world. There’s no getting away with any bad play, or commentators trying to make things up, because fans know what’s going on these days.”

“They’re going to get 20,000, maybe 25,000 at the new stadium,” Willey added, referencing the maximum capacity to which Allianz Field can be expanded in future years.

Willey also made note of the Loons’ pronounced difference in form, home (31 points) and away (5 points). Merrick ascribed the latter to mentality and a lack of discipline, but both he and Litt were optimistic the opening of Allianz Field could further strengthen the former.

“The new stadium is going to be spectacular for everybody,” Merrick said. “And they should maintain that home advantage even more so with the new stadium.”

“I think that’s the boost that will get them kicking forward,” followed Litt, pun perhaps intended.

With three weeks to go before the Galaxy come to town, MNUFC has a decent chance of creating an atmosphere to rival the best in state history. Should it do so, the club may have the likes of Merrick, Litt and Willey, in part, to thank.

“I think that Minnesota has always been a soccer state, ever since the Kicks were playing,” Litt concluded. “When we first came here, you didn’t see too many soccer fields around. Now they’re everywhere — they’re all over the place. Everybody’s playing, all the kids are playing. The parents, they were kids watching us play, and are now helping their kids going forward.”

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