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Aurora, the new Minnesota women’s soccer club, stacking up wins before first game

Minnesota Aurora FC has become captivating like the aurora borealis for which its named.

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Minnesota Aurora FC will debut in the USL W-League on Thursday, May 26, 2022. The new preprofessional women’s soccer club has nine founders, from back row, left to right: Wes Burdine, Matt Privratsky, Andrea Carroll-Franck, Elisa Vicuna, Matthew Bergeron, Rob Spence. Front row, left to right, Andrea Yoch, Allie Reinke, Susan Earle.
Courtesy / Minnesota Aurora via St. Paul Pioneer Press
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Matt Privratsky was bold enough to have the vision for a unique new women’s soccer club in Minnesota but acknowledges now he didn’t allow himself to think big enough.

Privratsky emailed a group of local leaders in October 2020, with the idea that the current summer pathway for college players wasn’t good enough. And since its founding in June 2021, the new club, which became Minnesota Aurora FC in January, has become captivating like the aurora borealis for which its named.

While it’s a second-division team below the professional-level National Women’s Soccer League, they have tapped into a deep well of support and fostered it with novel approaches and execution. Let’s count the ways.

The club is comprised of 3,080 community owners in nearly every U.S. state and eight countries. That’s out of necessity because none of the founders had deep pockets to write a check for a franchise fee to join the USL W League, but this structure also creates a deeper level of buy-in and an army for which spread the club’s word.

Aurora’s set investment goal was $500,000, with a minimum contribution of $100 from its community owners. They doubled that, raising $1 million, with an average contribution of more than $300.

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Aurora has built a sponsorship base with a handful of local businesses and organizations, including front-of-jersey sponsor Explore Minnesota. They are partnering with WCCO’s digital platform to livestream all six home games into June. They report abundant merchandise sales, and supporters have had the brand-new blue, green and orange crest tattooed on their skin before their first game.

Aurora has 3,400 season tickets and announced Tuesday it will sell out the 5,600-seat TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota for its inaugural game against Green Bay Glory at 7 p.m. Thursday. That attendance figure will be on par or better than half the NWSL crowds last weekend.

“It’s certainly well beyond my wildest expectations,” Privratsky said.

Privratsky works in government affairs for a solar-energy company and moonlights as the founder of Equal Time Soccer, an online news source covering the Gophers, as well as other colleges and levels of soccer in Minnesota. In following U players, he saw the lack of options for them to stay sharp in the summer.

Privratsky, of St. Paul, explained why he set his own expectations for Aurora so low. “I just see time and time again, where women’s sports get the short end of the stick,” he said.

Too often college players had to shell out fees as high as $1,000 for a 10-week opportunity and had to find and pay for housing on top of that, Privratsky said. With Aurora’s fundraising, they will cover players’ registration fees and help out with housing.

Aurora’s founders also wanted women to coach the team, and have an all-female staff led by head coach Nicole Lukic. Five of the nine club founders are female, including president Andrea Yoch.

Privratsky’s first email reached about 15 people and a group of them met during the pandemic at an outdoor space near Urban Growler in St. Paul. Five from that group remain, and they added others with expertise they lacked in law, finance and design.

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For community ownership, Aurora’s founders reached out to a similar organization in Detroit City, a men’s club in the USL Championship, for its best practices and to be a sounding board. They joined the United Soccer League (USL), which after establishing tiers of men’s division below MLS, was starting a “pre-professional” women’s league this year. There will be a stunning 44 teams across 20 states this season.

“We wanted a league that was committed to equality and to elevating the women’s game and community,” Yoch said. “And in the very first presentation USL W gave us, those mission statements were included in their presentation to us.”

Aurora is committed to paying “good wages” to its staff — an important note with the U.S. women’s national team’s landmark deal for equal pay compared to the U.S. men, which was announced last week.

“This is the place and time in the world for women to be celebrated and supported,” Yoch said. “So we are just in a perfect moment in time for bringing (this) women’s soccer team to Minnesota.”

With the financial assistance for players, Aurora was able to cast a wide net for players. The most well known among them is Sarah Fuller, the former Vanderbilt goalkeeper who has kicked for the Commodores football team.

On top of monetary help from Aurora, Fuller and others can profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) and still keep NCAA eligibility. Fuller, for instance, might partner with former Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway’s Grey Duck Spirits.

Lukic wants her team to be a joy to watch, with a stout defense and a goal-scoring mindset. “It’s kind of when we lose the ball, we are hungry to attack and win it back,” Lukic said. “We’ve really been working on that mentality.”

Aurora’s roster has a dozen Minnesotans, including former Gophers defender Makenzie Langdok, who produced some stunning goals for the U last year. She is looked to as a leader on Aurora.

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Another top player is South Korean midfielder Sangmin Cha, whom Lukic raved about. “She just moves very differently than players who grew up in the American soccer world,” Lukic said. “She’s got great movement, she finds space, is really good with the ball at her feet, and she likes to be creative and link up and find other players. So she’s really fun to watch.”

The majority of the club’s players are in college, from Division I all the way down to junior colleges. They have a high schooler and one finishing up at the U dental school after playing at Michigan State. They also have a set of triplets from Colorado and individual players from Hawaii and Japan.

Gophers soccer coach Erin Chastain, who just finished her first season at her alma mater, looks for more of her players to go to Aurora in future years. Other current Gophers are playing on different local summer-league options, meaning Aurora is not the first outfit in this space for collegiate players.

“It’s certainly exciting,” Chastain, a Plymouth native, said of Aurora. “The fact that it’s community-owned, looking at how many fans they are going to get at their games. That is kind of what we get at Gopher games. I feel like the community is looking to buy into women’s sports and women’s soccer.”

Aurora wants to be a pathway for players to refine their skills on the field for their collegiate careers or advance their path toward becoming professional in the NWSL or abroad. (The club also wants to assist other players looking for careers off the field, if that is their desire.)

The quality of play in the USL W League is yet to be fully determined, but it won’t be at the level of the 12-team NWSL.

“That (a NWSL club in Minnesota) would be amazing,” Chastain said. “I think this would be a great market for an NWSL team. Aurora has really done a good job of putting the leg work in so that we can show the country, ‘Hey, we can do women’s soccer here at a high level.’ ”

For Aurora, the long-term plans are still in the works.

“We, as a group, have really stopped putting limits on ourselves,” Privratsky said with a laugh and singling out himself. “Because the community has really shown that there is no limit to their level of enthusiasm and support for us.”

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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