With 64,101 fans packed quite literally to the rafters, the International Champions Cup (ICC) match was by far the largest soccer crowd in Minnesota history. A question going into the match was just who these fans were. Teams like Swansea and Bournemouth have drawn around 9,000 fans to Blaine, so were all these fans there to look at the shiny new facility? The answer is complicated.
Russ Brown and his friend Chris Carter were both wearing their Minnesota United jerseys as they walked around the stadium. “I’m here because of the stadium,” said Brown. “I wanted to check out the stadium. The game is a plus because it’s always good to see top teams play but I really wanted to see the stadium. A soccer game and a new stadium was a good reason for me to be here tonight.”
Luke Hernandez, from Eden Prairie, came with his mother, Erica, and a group of players and parents who are part of the Minnesota Thunder Academy. The group tailgated in a stadium parking lot before the match. The group of boys and girls of mixed ages mainly sported Chelsea blue. Luke wore a knock-off AC Milan Jersey but carried a Chelsea FC flag draped over his shoulders. Luke said he and his friends were very excited to see top level soccer players he’s watched on TV play at home in the Twin Cities. Despite the glamour of Serie A and Premier League players, Hernandez is keenly aware of Minnesota United and said he couldn’t wait until they moved to MLS and had their own stadium.
There were many more like Hernandez, groups of families, many of them bedecked in the gear of Chelsea or some other (most often) English Premier League side (though I did spy one jersey of the English Championship team, Brighton and Hove Albion). If we judge solely based on wearing soccer paraphernalia as criteria for those there for the soccer (as opposed to just for the spectacle of the stadium), the crowd was at least 80% soccer fans.
And the jerseys represented were like a travelogue, representing every corner of the world. The crowd of 64,101 was certainly one of the most diverse crowds in Minnesota sporting history, a sentiment echoed by whomever runs the Pizza Nea account. And this diversity despite the fact that tickets were outrageously expensive.
This was the most diverse crowd at a sporting event I've seen since moving to MN in 1986. pic.twitter.com/4mBNw498NK
— Pizza Nea (@pizzanea) August 4, 2016
That attendance was so diverse despite the ticket price should be a very important lesson for Minnesota United and neutral observers. There is a pernicious attitude that tends to equate people of color with people without expendable income. And while, certainly this is true on a broader sense, it glosses over the large amount of Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, etc… who the Loons desperately need to reach. Those fans will not automatically show up when United moves to MLS.
The crowd at US Bank Stadium indicates that there is a large well of potential soccer fans waiting to be tapped in Minnesota. These are people who casually watch soccer. They know the names of Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante (these two, surprisingly, earned the largest cheers). They’re not coming to watch professional soccer in Minnesota for whatever reason, but they can be won over.
I should be upfront: I have been very outspoken in my dislike of the new Vikings stadium for many reasons, but I’ll try to be as fair as possible. Many things about the new stadium were impressive. The sheer size of the structure is almost impossible to understand without standing inside or looking up to the stands from the pitch.
For a professional soccer team this would be an atmosphere killer, discouraging the raucous singing of supporters and directing the rest of the crowd toward patient conversation amongst themselves.
The grass over turf solution worked remarkably well. There was hardly a seam to be found, and after the match the coaches heaped praise on the quality of the grass. The size of the pitch was a little small, but not outrageous (at 70 yards wide it was well within regulations). The corner flags, however, were very tight to the wall on one side (about 3.5 feet room).
For these and other reasons US Bank Stadium will never host a major international soccer match for a World Cup or Copa America. But that doesn’t mean that the stadium couldn’t host something like a national team friendly. There are already rumors about the US Women’s National Team playing a friendly there this fall.
The most off-putting part of the stadium experience — and the part that would have been an absolute killer for an MLS franchise — was the effect of the ceiling on the atmosphere. In the old Metrodome, you could feel the sound of your voice dissipate in front of you. Cheering for a team felt like yelling into the void, which given the record of Minnesota sports franchises also felt apt. At US Bank Stadium, the dissipating effect is not the same, but it feels as if you’re watching a game while you sit in an aquarium.
As the game played out, a constant roared murmur spread throughout the stadium like the rolling boom of the ocean. Sound is indistinct and when the ball hits the back of the net, the air saturates with sound like a dripping sponge. For a professional soccer team this would be an atmosphere killer, discouraging the raucous singing of supporters and directing the rest of the crowd toward patient conversation amongst themselves.
There are many fans amongst the Loons faithful who saw the double-booking of an international friendly against the local professional team as a personal affront and I understand this response. For the ICC to schedule an event without even thinking to check if a local team was playing (a team they worked with two years ago to make a double-header) is ham-brained at best.
2018, with a World Cup in Russia and a brand new stadium in Midway, represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the landscape of sports in Minnesota.
But the take-away from the ICC match, for me, was that there are a lot of people who will be coming out to games in coming years, a lot of potential Loons or national team fans. On the pitch, the ICC match perhaps whet some appetites (half of the game was scintillating, half was paint-drying-dull). Off the pitch, the match wasn’t much of an advertisement for how soccer really can be different from most other sports.
Quite often new fans come into the fold during World Cup cycles. 2018, with a World Cup in Russia and a brand new stadium in Midway, represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the landscape of sports in Minnesota. 64,101 is not a realistic attendance for 20 matches a year. But if Minnesota United can capture some of that crowd and build a season ticket waiting list 10,000 fans long, that will certainly validate the brief glimpse into the future that the Chelsea v AC Milan matchup offered.
Brian Quarstad contributed to this report.