By Tyler Jett, Des Moines Register
Kyle Krause is getting his soccer club.
The patriarch of the family best known for the Kum & Go convenience store chain announced Thursday that he has signed a franchise agreement with the United Soccer League, bringing a new professional team to the city.
The announcement puts Krause closer to the goal he first shared in 2019 — a goal that has spurred more than two years of fundraising and secured tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer support.
USL officials have long offered their tentative approval for a new team in Des Moines. But that support was contingent on Krause and government officials building a new stadium.
The land has been cleared and construction is slated to start this fall.
Krause said the newly signed franchise agreement shows that league officials are satisfied with the progress his group has made. Between philanthropic donations and government commitments, Krause+, the development arm of Krause Group, and a foundation have raised $50 million of the originally targeted $75 million.
“The stadium project has come far enough along,” Krause told the Des Moines Register in an interview. … “(The franchise agreement is) that next step in the process.”
Krause announced the USL contract Thursday night at the Greater Des Moines Partnership Annual Dinner, where FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer champion Mia Hamm served as the headline speaker. The stadium for the new, unnamed soccer team is the centerpiece of a $535 million plan by Krause+ to expand the western edge of downtown Des Moines with apartments, hotels, shops, restaurants, breweries, offices, a plaza and an entertainment venue.
The contract will give Des Moines a team in the USL Championship league, the second tier of U.S. professional soccer, one rung below Major League Soccer.
The new team will be a couple of steps up from the Des Moines Menace, which Krause bought in 1998. It competes in USL League Two, the fourth tier. (Krause Group spokesperson Cait Suttie said there are no current plans for changes to the Menace.)
USL Chief Operating Officer Justin Papadakis joined Krause at the Partnership’s Thursday dinner at the Iowa Events Center, saying Des Moines leaders have shown the commitment the league seeks for its new franchises. In addition to a new stadium, he said, USL officials want a lively environment that turns games into must-see events. He said that requires an ownership group that will work with residents to create a fan culture.
“It’s a place that fans can come and be with their friends and family and experience the soundtrack of soccer,” he said. “… You’ll see some championships here. And it will be an amazing experience.”
Next step: Fans can determine name, crest, traditions
The developers appear to be pushing back the construction schedule for the new stadium.
Krause+ Commercial Development Director Nate Easter had told the Des Moines Urban Design Review Board in October that the company expected to start building this summer. But Suttie told the Register this week that the team now expects to break ground in the fall.
She said the builders will do “additional site work” this spring at the location, the former Dico factory Superfund site south of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and east and north of the Raccoon River. Krause said he still expects the 6,300-seat stadium to host its first game in the spring of 2024.
“We’re still designing (the stadium) amongst what we have for a budget, what we can do and what that looks like in today’s world,” Krause said.
In the meantime, he said the supporter group he has dubbed Pro Iowa will build a fanbase. Since Krause announced his intentions to construct a stadium in 2019, Pro Iowa has tried to create a network of followers by distributing fan gear, building miniature soccer fields around the state and renting out theaters to host U.S. men’s national team watch parties.
“We can do it more aggressively now,” Krause said of the fan outreach. “… You’re going to see a lot more activity over the next six months, forming who we are and what the brand looks like and what that is.”
Krause said he wants to hear suggestions from residents about what the team’s name and logo should be. The company has launched a website — uslproiowa.com/team — where people can register for updates and submit ideas.
The company also created a survey on the website, asking questions such as whether the team crest should be influenced by Des Moines’ heritage or its future. Krause said he will host a series of town halls this year to discuss with residents the look and traditions they want to create for the team.
“We want to reach out and have the conversations and say, ‘What do you want this to be?’” he said. “We want to do things from a corporate responsibility standpoint. We want to do things from a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint. But then also, you want to firm up — what does that mean? What resonates? And what is important? That’s conversation. That’s talking to fans.”
Will new MLS league be a competitor?
Thursday’s announcement comes two months after Major League Soccer shook up the lower rungs of the sport.
The league announced MLS Next Pro, a new developmental league that is supposed to prepare younger players for the highest tier of U.S. soccer. Just as professional baseball teams have a network of affiliated minor league clubs where they send their young talent, the teams in Next Pro will be affiliated with MLS teams.
The U.S. Soccer Federation has sanctioned Next Pro as a tier-three league, technically a level below USL Championship. But the new league also is expected to take along with it eight of the current USL Championship teams, according to Sports Illustrated.
Papadakis, the USL’s chief operating officer, told the Register that his league can sustain the challenge.
First, he said, USL Championship teams should still draw promising young talent because the league requires its teams to build top-notch stadiums that hold several thousand fans. He believes the environments of those stadiums will be more fun to play in than what Next Pro offers.
He added that he doesn’t think Next Pro will have an edge just because its teams have a direct pipeline to the MLS. Unlike with basketball, baseball, football or hockey, Papadakis pointed out that the United States doesn’t host the highest level of professional soccer. The teams with the most loyal fans — and biggest budgets — are in Europe.
Papadakis said USL officials hope they can make their young players more attractive to European clubs than Next Pro can. In addition to hosting professional teams around the country, USL has launched an academy league with youth teams that are officially affiliated with local pro clubs.
The model is based on the European system, and league officials believe the best young U.S. players will move up from their youth teams to USL pro clubs before moving overseas.
“The best pathway for them to achieve their pinnacle, in terms of their career, will be to go play for their local club,” Papadakis said. “If you’re from Iowa, go play for USL Pro Iowa. And then, if you can make it to the next level, the next level would be Europe.”
Des Moines team’s Italian ‘big brother’
An academy team is not in the works in Des Moines right now, Suttie said. But if USL Championship wants to prepare players for European careers, Krause is the kind of owner the league needs.
A year after announcing that he hoped to add a new soccer team in Des Moines, Krause bought Italian Serie A club Parma for more than $100 million in September 2020. Krause, whose ancestors immigrated from Italy, also is trying to build a new stadium in Parma.
Among USL Championship’s current team owners, no one has such strong ties to the European game. Miami FC owner Ricardo Silva perhaps comes closest; he previously served as the CEO of the company that broadcast Italian club AC Milan’s games. The owners of El Paso Locomotive FC, meanwhile, are investors in a team that plays in Liga MX, the top Mexican league.
Krause said he believes his Italian club’s staff will make his future Des Moines team better. He said Parma’s scouts can find international talent who would be good fits for the new Iowa club. He also thinks players will like coming to Des Moines, knowing its team has a connection to Europe.
“If we find a player in France this week with Parma, that player may say, ‘Gee, it makes more sense for (me) to go play in Des Moines, Iowa, than come to Parma’ because he’s not ready to play at that level yet,” Krause said.
He also hopes to bolster the Des Moines team’s performance by tapping Parma’s data analytics staff.
Adopting a practice that is routine at Parma and other high-end European clubs, Des Moines players may wear GPS trackers during training so coaches can tell how far and how fast they are running before games. Krause said Des Moines staff could use the same computer system Parma does and take advantage of lessons learned by the Italian team’s researchers to determine training workloads for the Iowa players.
“We’ve got a big brother,” Krause said.
- Estimated stadium cost: $75 million*
- Total funding so far: $50 million
- Funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority: $23 million**
- Funding from Polk County: $5 million
- Funding from private donors: $22 million
* Source: City of Des Moines’ April 2021 presentation to the Iowa Economic Development Authority
** The authority gave the project a preliminary award in 2021, contingent on the city providing a more detailed presentation this year.
Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at [email protected], 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.