Allianz Field sticks out like a strawberry in a bowl of peas.
I haven’t driven by the stadium for months, not since the exterior was still being pieced together. As I exit Interstate 94 onto Snelling Avenue, I’m surprised by how strange it looks.
There are an infinite number of ways to describe St. Paul’s soccer-specific stadium. It looks like a spaceship touched down in the narrow space between a freeway and a McDonald’s. It looks like an ultra-modern fortress, a show of confidence in the middle of a major urban area.
However you choose to describe it, it sure as heck ain’t subtle.
I sit among elected officials, business executives and other assorted VIPs for Allianz Field’s scarf-raising ceremony. As the dignitaries file into their seats, I think of the unseemly juxtaposition laid out before my eyes: a state-of-the-art stadium built on a bus barn and a liquor store, within range of a McDonald’s public WiFi network, and situated on one of St. Paul’s busiest intersections.
Could there be a more fitting setting for Minnesotan soccer to be played?
The Twin Cities make up the 15th-largest media market in the United States. Minneapolis and St. Paul boast professional football, baseball, hockey, men’s and women’s basketball teams, a Power 5 university, and that other sport... soccer. The fifth sport in the five major sports leagues, if you even consider there to be five.
Minnesota United might be playing fifth fiddle, but you wouldn’t know it from one of its matches. The Loons drew an average of 23,902 fans to TCF Bank Stadium last season, their second year in MLS.
The fans at those games were as dedicated and supportive as any in the league, and they put on quite the show for United’s last match before its move to Allianz Field. The club’s 50K to Midway campaign saw 52,242 fans pack into the stadium, more than capacity crowds at the Twins’ Target Field, the Wild’s Xcel Energy Center or the Timberwolves/Lynx’s Target Center.
Soccer has made a statement in the Twin Cities, but it isn’t done yet.
On a national scale, the beautiful game is enjoying its glory days. Major League Soccer is far from a fledgling league. The lower league system, for all of its organizational and competitive flaws, is bursting at the seams with clubs and leagues. Soccer is here, and it isn’t leaving any time soon.
The sport’s halcyon days, in Minnesotan terms, were well in the past. The Minnesota Kicks, part of the old North American Soccer League, captured the state’s attention with players like Alan Willey, Ace Ntsoelengoe, Alan Merrick and Tino Lettieri, until soccer fell off the map.
It was always there, in some form, but no longer a prominent sport, or even one of intrigue. This was a different sort of special time for soccer in Minnesota: a pure, intimate form of the game. It wasn’t always easily accessible, nor was it always the greatest quality, but soccer always was.
Soccer in Minnesota couldn’t, wouldn’t die.
Then, in 2015, came promises of a return to the limelight. Minnesota United would enter MLS as an expansion franchise in a couple years. Later that year came an announcement of a stadium to be built in St. Paul.
On a chilly December day in 2016, a pair of excavators lofted a rendering of then-unnamed Allianz Field as the Midway ground was ceremonially broken.
Fast forward to February of 2018. One year before the expected completion date, I joined members of the media in touring the construction site. We walked across a muddy field and through tunnels of scaffolding, closer to envisioning what the stadium would be one day.
The view from the Wonderwall — the steep home of United’s supporters section — featured mud, assorted construction equipment and the aforementioned McDonald’s. There was a long way to go yet.
Now, Allianz Field is complete. The seats — even the lone red one — are in place. The brew hall and club shop are ready for action. The Wonderwall is begging to be shouted from.
But first, a ceremony.
The dignitaries sit outside as their most important peers address the crowd. It’s a warm-ish, sunny March day — very un-Minnesotan, but a pleasant surprise. Bill McGuire, United’s majority owner, is the first to speak, and he pulls his favorite phrase out of his pocket to describe the stadium behind him: “architecturally beautiful.”
As a CEO, a lieutenant governor, governor, two mayors and a commissioner offer up similar descriptions, it becomes increasingly evident that Allianz Field isn’t a stadium to be talked about. It isn’t even a stadium to be looked at.
For Allianz Field to be appreciated, it must be understood.
The scarf-raising ceremony ends on two different notes. The dignitaries try their best at a rendition of Wonderwall, the Oasis song sung by supporters after a victory. The tradition is beautiful, un-corporate, exactly what a club identity should look like. But, like the stadium, it must be understood.
A handful of suits singing the fans’ song is a touching conclusion for some, glaring appropriation to others. The recognition is appreciated, the tradition hardly understood.
But now, finally, we’ve got a stadium to tour.
“Holy s***,” whispers a local TV personality as we step out of the brew hall, soaking in our first look inside the completed ground. The sun turns the pitch to a perfect shade of green, it showers the Wonderwall in golden light, and this, this is where soccer is meant to be played.
One of Allianz Field’s most prominent features is its clock, mounted at the top of the stadium’s north end. It’s a small homage to Minnesota United’s NASL days, when the club played in the National Sports Center’s concrete stadium. Everyone will appreciate the look, but we’ll understand the reason it’s there in the first place.
Part of appreciating Allianz Field means understanding that it isn’t perfect. The stadium doesn’t sit well with its surroundings, both aesthetically and economically. Perhaps this is how soccer is meant to be: very much present but just a little bit different. It isn’t quite what you would expect. It doesn’t quite fit in.
What Allianz Field lacks in subtlety, it makes up in boldness. Its architecture, its presence, its identity are all out there. In a corporate slogan, it’s the Bold North.
I’m standing outside the brew hall, bathing in the stadium’s aura, as I try to piece together exactly what Allianz Field will mean for me, us, soccer in Minnesota. A loud shout pulls me back into the present. I’m shocked to find that the sound has come from across the stadium, from the Wonderwall.
There, a handful of supporters make their presence known, filling the air with sound, and it’s then that it strikes me. Everyone who has said that Allianz Field will help bring the beautiful game to Minnesota is wrong.
Soccer has been here all along. Allianz Field is just the elegant frame for it.
“This stadium symbolizes this state, this sport and this community in Minnesota,” said McGuire at the event, and he’s correct, well beyond the literal meaning of his statement.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey pointed out part of the stadium’s true meaning when he spoke of the importance of having soccer here. “Until recently, Minnesota kids who wanted soccer jerseys needed to wear other states’, other clubs’ and other countries’,” he said.
But now, we have Allianz Field. Possession, not desire.
Soccer’s thriving, encroaching on the forefront of Minnesota sports, not going anywhere anytime soon.
You’ll have to forgive me for using another brand’s catchphrase in capturing the feeling Allianz Field gives:
This is our stadium. This is our soccer.