Minnesota football has no offseason

In July 2021, the Minnesota Vixens lost the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) Championship game to the Boston Renegades, 42-26. That scoreline didn’t stop their impressive 8-0 record in the WFA Pro Division. . It’s also a score that lit a fire under the team, with many of them telling Vixen owner Laura Brown that they would return for revenge in the 2022 season.

So many people returned, in fact, that Brown and Vixen player Charlie Barba-Cook decided to commit to a second women’s soccer team – a partial DIV team they called the Minx, in homage to Lake Michigan Minx who started in collaboration with the vixen in 1999.

In short, Minnesota now has two all-female soccer teams for this year’s season. Surprised?

Solidify the foundations

The Vixens have been around for two decades, but the average Minnesotan still doesn’t know who they are — a fact Brown wanted to change by 2020, six years after becoming owners and seven years after playing his first season with the Vixen. She says they haven’t quite reached their goal (COVID has hampered their progress), but each season they’re getting closer.

It’s not about fame and glory. This is an awareness that is rising and rising through the increased attention given to women’s sports.

“We still see a lot of ‘being a human interest story’ and not a sport,” Brown said. “I think a big turning point for us will be when the mainstream media starts broadcasting, ‘In other news, the Vixen won the St. Louis Slam tonight 28-14’ and then move on – as it starts to normalize, where we’re just parts of the sports community.”

The first part of this strategy was to make the team the best it could be. “I wanted to make sure that since our players have to pay fees, they get value for their fees and we give them everything we can,” Brown said, reflecting on how the staff has improved recruiting, l training and practice facilities. “We could spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising and bring a lot of people to the games, but if it wasn’t a good product, nobody would come.” That being said, game day now typically includes food trucks, kids’ activities, and possibly starting this season, the Fox Fire cheer squad.

In the early 2000s and even into the early 2010s, recruiting was all about “bringing a friend or two to tryouts,” along with a few signature outreach events like the Minnesota State Fair and Pride. Since Brown took over, the team has doubled down on their branding at these events and taken full advantage of social media. Just ten years ago, the roster was in the 20s, which can become a safety issue for players who have to fight an entire game. Now the roster is around 60 people, with around 150 women or non-binary people trying to make the team every year.

Brown also attributes the Vixen’s momentum to cultural change in women’s sports. Female athletes are more common, the talent base is higher, and female players often have more football knowledge. As another example of the ripple effect, Brown adds that a DI college athlete understands the commitment it takes to drive the Vixen forward as they fight for league wins and recognition outside of the league. this one.

The human experience

Currently, Vixen players have an almost year-round commitment, Barba-Cook says. Optional strength training begins in the fall and the season runs through July. August, the month off, includes the basic outreach of the State Fair team, after which the days quickly turn into tryouts, other outreach events and contract signings.

At the moment, training is in full swing, which means three days a week, with most training independently two to three days outside of that. Game days can include long road trips and, starting this year, an aerial game, a commitment by all 10 WFA Pro Division teams to elevate the league’s level of competition. By the 2024 season, Pro Division teams will engage in two steal games.

It’s a big commitment for a team that is on average 27 to 29 years old and often juggles day jobs and families. But hard work pays.

In 2016, when the Vixens were DII, they went 8-0 in the regular season and won the Midwest Conference and Eastern Conference titles. In 2018 they played in the WFA DII National Championship, and in 2020, before COVID canceled the season, they returned to the Pro Division after their year-long stint in 2017.

Then, of course, there was the 2021 league game. Their efforts in that last game, however, did not go unrecognized. Beyond their fans, Jonna Tuovinen, an eight-year women’s soccer veteran in Finland and one of the country’s star players in 2019 and 2020, has reached out and is now the first international player to come to Minnesota only. in order to play with the Vixen.

“My goal for the season is to develop my football IQ and learn [the] mentality of a winning team (which by the way is very different from simply winning matches). So I just wanted to join [a] team that supports learning and growth,” says Tuovinen.

Their goals seem to speak to the heart of why people join the Vixen. Brown and Tuovinen mention the pace of the sport and the joy of total effort, as well as the inclusiveness of football’s body and skills. But, Brown also points out, a big draw is the experience of working side-by-side with people you develop a support network with.

“I used to ask myself all the time, ‘Why as a woman would you want to play football? And why would you want to play sports?'” Brown said. “We have in us as human beings this drive to bond with other people, and we want to bond and have that experience. … If you want to know why women want to play football and play sports , you have to take a step back and ask yourself why humans play sports.”

The Minx and beyond

While Brown notes that success breeds success when it comes to the Vixen, it also means the creation of the Minx was even more necessary for developing players or those who want to play less competitively.

A pipeline of players from the Minx to the Vixen may form, but that’s not the team’s goal, says Barba-Cook, who is also the Minx’s offensive coordinator. “On the Vixen, you’ll find that the majority of the team, I would say…I would say even 99% of the team live and breathe Vixen,” she continues. “The Minx, it’s like there’s a couple of people doing that and also people who just want to do something fun. There’s room for both, which is great.”

The team, which plays as a partial DIV team in the WFA, trains only twice a week (no independent training) and has four regular season games compared to the Vixen’s six, with no games. post-season. (DIV, or the Development Division, is a new division from 2022 to help create sustainable women’s football programs.)

Originally, Brown and Barba-Cook only reached out to those who failed to qualify for the Vixen, and they got the 18 players required by the division. Then they decided to hold a real Minx tryout, which brought their ranks up to around 35.

Barba-Cook says the connection to the Vixen and Brown’s mentorship has already been helpful to Minx operations. Something as simple as sharing footballs can save $300 on the bottom line, and personnel-wise, Brown is Minx’s defensive line coach and one of his assistant defensive coordinators. . The Minx also received early support from outside organizations, with their indoor spring training taking place at Lions Gate Academy, which does not charge them rent.

“I’ve never led a sports team or coached or anything like that,” Barba-Cook adds. “But it seems like a very important thing to do, to allow female athletes access to the sport itself and to this community and what it means to me, which is a space to teach women with female bodies how to be confident, dominant women, there’s not a lot of room for that,” she says.

And hopefully the space for women’s soccer will continue to expand in Minnesota.

Brown says, “It’s been really fun to see the growth over the years. I remember the first two seasons, on [Vixen] on game day, I could almost name everyone in the stands. “That is, the parents of such and significant other” – connect them to the players. … [Now] Sometimes I walk into the merchandise stand and ask, “Which team players do you know?” and they say, ‘No one. I’m just a fan of the team.'”

James C. Tibbs