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The excitement of coming home

What do we mean when we say we are United?

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April 20, 2021 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United train in preparation to host Real Salt Lake for the home opener at Allianz Field. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

There was quite a bit of excitement Tuesday morning at Allianz Field. Robin Lod was excited: “It’s a huge thing… It’s amazing.”

Coach Adrian Heath was excited: “We’re all excited.”

Ethan Finlay was super excited: “I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t super excited.”

Excited, of course, over the prospect of playing in front of fans again. The loss at Seattle last Saturday was, in the end, quite embarrassing. But there were fans.

“Even though it wasn’t our fans,” Finlay reminisced after practice, “it was great to see people in the stands. To hear real cheers and what real jeers sound like again.”

Tuesday’s practice was only an extended scrimmage, and one without Ramón Ábila, Bakaye Dibassy, Niko Hansen, or Ike Opara, but it was possible to begin to imagine a return to something like normal. As CEO Chris Wright said, something “quote normal.” Not quite normal, but after last season, something close.

“To come off that high of 2019 to 2020 with no one in the stadium,” Wright offered, “it reminds me of how blessed we are to be in this game and that this Saturday we have the opportunity to put 4,100 back inside our stadium.” An opportunity for a kind of homecoming. And so Tuesday was also a reminder, as Manny Lagos added, of “how lucky we are” to have a home like this to return to.

In returning home, though, it was difficult to remain in the excitement. As Wright went on to note,

“there’s many mixed emotions this week ... the covid situation has been very very hard on so many people and I think we’ve got to play our role as a team in how we get our community back to some level of normalcy. I think though with everything that is going on related to Daunte Wright and the Derek Chauvin trial there is another piece to what is going on in our community that is really relevant to our franchise today and to all franchises in town and the meaningfulness of our athletes and the voice of our athletes and how we can help with this societal racism that exists inside our community.”

To be at that home looking anywhere but in was to witness that neighborhood as remaining scarred by the trauma and anger expressed last summer. The burned out buildings and buildings only now being rebuilt offering reminders of the still present feeling and experience of those who are at home in that community. And now that Tuesday, that April 20th, is remembered not for the excitement of games to come but for a verdict long coming. A celebration of something not quite justice. A celebration of the minimum as if it were exceptional, because it too often is.

Which is to ask, who is this we who is so lucky to have this home? Or maybe, instead, what does it mean to be a Minnesota sports team today? Or maybe again, in Wright’s words, what is a sports club’s responsibility in the community of its home?

To spoil the ending, I don’t know. At least in part because I don’t know what a sports club is. Minnesota United is, of course, an entertainment, a business in an entertainment industry, existing within those forms and traditions of pleasure and joy and narrative meaning making that entertainment has become. It is also a sport, an artistic competition, a production of beauty and skill within a logic of effort and reward;

“It is not a sport where the relation between the effort and the success, the effort and the reward, does not exist,” as Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola nicely put it recently.

It is also, though, an identity, a way of belonging when other ways of belonging are not available, a way of belonging to a place as if belonging to a place still matters. And it is a semi-public institution, a privately held franchise publicly supported by taxes and infrastructure, a gathering place and material presence, a generator of revenue and demands. In other words, a political thing. It is also, and in other ways, a community of fans, a collective of labor and players, and a front office of managers and directors and owners. And in some creative and chaotic, often quite frustrating way this, all of this and all these many interests, is together what we so deceptively and simply call in the singular MNUFC.

Wil Trapp was certainly right when he spoke about the players’ decision to wear black armbands for the opening game:

“We as players, we try to, as many people say, leverage your platform for awareness on many things. And obviously the news coming out of Minneapolis this past week was very saddening, very difficult to process and I think anything we can do to bring attention to that is important, while also doing our jobs.”

Or, as Dayne St. Claire said:

We might want to question the timeline and the sharp distinction between speaking in public and doing one’s very public job in Trapp’s comment, but the sentiment from both is right. Athletes are a part of our culture and so belong in our cultural conversation.

Yet for players to respond in this cultural conversation is not the limit of responsibility or of this club.

Allianz Field, as the home of MNUFC, has always been a part of two visions. On the one hand, principle owner Dr. Bill McGuire recently said (in a great interview with Jeff Rueter at The Athletic) that ,

“... the idea has never been to have the area and just plop down some houses or something. From the time (former mayor) Chris Coleman said, come to St. Paul and let’s make a centerpiece for further enhancing our neighborhood, we’ve all wanted to make it a great addition to the area’s history and make it part of a fun place to live. I’d like to see it grow and have not just housing, but a bunch of other things going on.”

This is a rather standard defense of a sports stadium as revenue and tax generating, as a destination, as a desire. Allianz Field is, here, a generator of possibility and the neighborhood is subsumed into this possibility. In many ways it is, as an economic and developmental determination of home and of value, one of the few ways we have of valuing ourselves and what we do.

On the other hand, in an earlier interview (with Andy Greder at the Pioneer Press), discussing design, Dr. McGuire suggested that the stadium,

“needs to be more influenced by this urban village concept. Instead of having it where University (Avenue) is now where everything fronts and faces onto University, we actually want a little more of things facing inward, almost like you have this plaza and space and things are around it. Then you have shops on streets’ interiors and not just on the thoroughfare and looking out.”

A vision of home that is, it seems, similar to that articulated by Wright on Tuesday, when he suggested that Allianz Field was, “built for the people, built for our fans, built for our supporters.” This is a vision of the stadium and the place of the stadium in the community that elevates fandom to an exclusive belonging, a community of believers. The community of the club is the community of supporters, and this home is theirs.

On the face of it, I am not sure there is anything inherently wrong with either of these articulations of Allianz Field, of this home. One may want to argue with the facts of the developmental model just as the deification of fandom often functions as a way to overlook cultural barriers of belonging. But these are also two of the very few ways in which we, as a culture, have learned to value anything anymore, either as economic opportunity or as exclusive and pure identity. These are the values we have been given.

Yet now, and maybe even then, on Tuesday, what we have been given does not feel like enough. The excitement within the bubble of that home felt rather shallow. Rather narrow and only possible by looking away.

Which is a very long way of saying that I still don’t know what responsibility might mean. But if there is to be any responsibility here, in this club, in this home, in this place, it will not come by opportunity or by looking in, but by settling in, opening up, and listening out. By expanding the understanding of the we who call this place home, not as representation but as a sharing of this home. By doing the hard work of sharing lives lived together as a sharing of passion.