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Why Minnesota United Football Club decided to host an actual football game at its fancy non-football stadium

St. Thomas and St. John's officials
MinnPost photo by Pat Borzi
St. Thomas and St. John's officials announce 2019 football game at Allianz Field. Left to right: St. John's Coach Gary Fasching, St. Thomas Coach Glenn Caruso, St. Thomas president Julie Sullivan, and Minnesota United chief revenue officer Bryant Pfeiffer.

If you’re wondering what prompted Minnesota United FC to host next fall’s St. John’s-St. Thomas football game at soon-to-open Allianz Field, look no farther than United executive vice president and chief revenue officer Bryant Pfeiffer. He’s a Johnnie, Class of 1994. This has been on his mind since he joined the Loons last year as a senior vice president of sales and strategy.

But on Tuesday, posing for photos overlooking the snow-covered field with St. Thomas president Julie Sullivan and coaches Glenn Caruso of St. Thomas and Gary Fasching of St. John’s, he wore his two-sided, red and purple souvenir scarf with the Tommie purple facing out, in deference to the game’s home team.

“We’re looking to attract big events to the venue,” Pfeiffer said later as light snow fell around him. “This was one I had a personal connection with.”

Pfeiffer didn’t play football at St. John’s; the closest he came was assisting in athletics marketing his senior year. He sought the 89th edition of the Johnnies-Tommies extravaganza for the same reason the Twins booked the 2017 game at Target Field: a serious payday. (It helped that Twins president Dave St. Peter is the son of a Johnnie and father of a Tommie.) The Division III record crowd of 37,355 that afternoon surpassed even the most optimistic expectations, and set a standard for future games. Fans, players, coaches and university officials on both sides raved about the venue and the atmosphere, and many expect it to be even better Oct. 19 at the more intimate Allianz, capacity 19,400.

Still: Is scheduling a football game in a soccer stadium around the time of the Major League Soccer playoffs really a good idea?

The Allianz Field arrangement had been rumored for months. Sullivan conceded two years ago this annual Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference matchup had outgrown UST’s St. Paul campus and aging O’Shaughnessy Stadium, even with temporary bleachers augmenting the 5,000-capacity grandstand. The game drew 12,483 when UST last hosted, in 2014, with several thousand standees milling around with limited views of the field. Not great. (A 2015 Division III playoff game at UST attracted about 8,000.)

Clemens Stadium at St. John’s, one of the best small football stadiums in the country, can handle overflow much better, with space to accommodate 15,000 to 17,000. Pfeiffer would love if Allianz became the game’s permanent site, but Fasching said the Johnnies aren’t leaving Collegeville when it’s their turn to host.

“We have a great venue, Fasching said. “I wouldn’t favor taking it off campus.”

Some Loons fans grumbled when the game was announced, feeling the club might be subtly conceding the season. MLS hasn’t revealed its 2019 schedule, but there is speculation the regular season might end earlier in October than it has, with the playoffs beginning around Oct. 19. United missed the playoffs their first two MLS seasons. A Loons spokesman said the club was confident the field would be “pristine” before and after the football game, and it would not have scheduled the game if there was any doubt.

Playing football in a baseball stadium is more about spectacle than comfort. Even in iconic places like Fenway Park or the latest Yankee Stadium, the sight lines are lousy; fans are too far from the field. That shouldn’t be the case in soccer-specific Allianz. “The field sets up nicely for football,” Caruso said. And though Allianz can’t handle as big a crowd as Target Field, Pfeiffer said “we’ll squeeze in as many as the fire marshall will let us.”

For those who can’t get tickets — they aren’t on sale yet — the stadium’s Great Lawn will be set up for a viewing party, with large television screens and food trucks. Tailgaters, however, may be out of luck. Pfeiffer said “parking will be at a premium,” as in limited and expensive, and he encouraged fans to take public transportation. Metro Transit’s light rail Green Line stops at Snelling and University Avenues, steps from the stadium, and the Bus Rapid Transit A Line lets off passengers right along Snelling.

There’s some history to this Midway neighborhood, too. In 1901, the Johnnies and Tommies met for the first time a few blocks down University Avenue at the old Lexington Park, home of the original St. Paul Saints.

St. John’s leads the series 52-35-1, though St. Thomas had won four straight and seven of nine before the Johnnies prevailed 40-20 last Oct. 13 in Collegeville, six days after the death of former Coach John Gagliardi. The 12-1 Johnnies went on to win the MIAC, ending the Tommies’ run of three consecutive titles, and advance to the Division III national quarterfinals, where they lost 21-18 to Mary Hardin-Baylor. St. Thomas finished 8-2 and missed the D3 playoffs for the first time since 2013. The best rivalries feature evenly-matched teams like these, and a slick new venue bumps it up even more.

“It’s a great opportunity for our young men to be part of something special,” Fasching said. “The game at Target Field, our guys still talk about that. But that was on a baseball field. This will be a much different atmosphere and a much different experience. It’s a chance to highlight and showcase what these two schools are about.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/07/2018 - 04:39 pm.

    This is super lame. Really disappointed in MNUFC for this nonsense.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 12/08/2018 - 06:22 am.

      It’s a win for everyone. Soccer needs the money, the larger venue allows more people to attend, the players get to play in a big stadium. Don’t be poopy

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/08/2018 - 09:16 pm.

        They have refused to let it be used for other soccer games, but are going to let it be torn up for Football?

        I guess if we can replace some golf courses with soccer fields it will all even out.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/08/2018 - 08:01 am.

      These modern day sports palaces provide great experiences for fans. But they are very expensive to operate. A sellout is a sellout and it’s hard to turn one down.

    • Submitted by Lawrence Funderburke on 12/08/2018 - 09:19 am.

      What’s lame about it? Seems like a great way to utilize a new venue.

    • Submitted by Michael Wozniak on 12/13/2018 - 11:44 am.

      The whole by line of the article is unfortunate. We know that “actual” football is a game played with the “feet”. Unfortunately in the United States we have to call our game “soccer” because because a game that is more like rugby, co-opted the name. Whatever, we call our sport it is in fact the “beautiful” game. As an MNUFC season’s ticket holder for many years, I hope the College Football Players do not tear up our “pitch” too much. If it helps highlight our stadium and raises some money to advance our growing sport, maybe its a good thing. Also, as an “older” guy, I am pleased with the growth of our sport at the professional level. MLS and USL are expanding leagues. The teams all have international squads as well as some fine American Players. And we will have a beautiful new stadium with real grass which we have missed for the last couple of years. Things are looking up for our game, their is no need to be “thin skinned”. Although we can now watch televised or internet broadcast games from all the top leagues around the world there is nothing like going to a live Match and joining your fellow supporters of your team. If it is good business to do other events in Allianz Field than so be it. Remember, the first event held in US Bank Stadium was an International Champion’s Cup (Soccer) Match featuring AC Milan and Chelsea that attracted around 65,000 attendees. Our game has a firm foothold in our region and North American in general. Let us enjoy the ride!

  2. Submitted by Kyle Anderson on 12/08/2018 - 08:40 am.

    Our expansion sibling Atlanta is in the MLS cup final. MNUFC finished season with 4 straight losses and dumped fan favorites Ramirez and Thiesson. I renewed tickets for 2019 but there is a good chance that unless something improves this will be my 5th and final year as a season ticket holder.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/08/2018 - 08:41 am.

    Personally, I think St. John’s should be moved up to the Big Ten, and thet the UofM should play in the MIAC but apart from that, I just hope they don’t tear up the field too much.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 12/08/2018 - 09:22 am.

    It is going to be a beautiful place to spend an afternoon or evening. The primary benefit is getting a lot of sports fans to see the facility. After they know how easy to get there, particularly for Tommies, an easy place to go, they will turn out at United Matches. Over time, soccer is going to build as it is more of a participation sport both for men and women. Unlike the Vikings, it is family friendly in terms of costs and violence. Compared to other professional athletes, soccer players have not in the US been in the crime reports

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/09/2018 - 07:35 pm.

      Since the age of 12, I’ve been hearing that a big boom in soccer interest is right around the corner. I’m 52. It’s been a long corner to turn.

      “When the kids that are playing soccer now have kids, their kids will play soccer and the sport will really take off.” That generation, mine, is now having grand kids.

      So I’ll not hold my breath.

      • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 12/11/2018 - 11:49 am.

        You must have missed the fact that soccer is one of the largest youth sports in the US. It is played by more than 13-million people of all ages, making it the third most played sport in America ahead of hockey and football. So I guess that boom came and you just missed it because maybe you weren’t looking hard enough.

  5. Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 12/10/2018 - 09:49 am.

    And I am so tired of hearing comments like Franks. There is no big boom but there has, is and continues to be a steady growth in the game. The soccer playing kids have grown up, their children and their grand children are playing the game. The US is turning out great players – both on the women’s and men’s side. Are we turning out Messi caliber players. No. But players like him come along maybe once in a generation. The mark most knowledgeable people have set is for the US to be able to generate outfield players (not keepers) who can play in the top leagues in Europe. Guess what – we are doin that!

    MLS is a strong league that is drawing serious developing talent, particularly from Latin America while continuing to grow home grown talent. Are we still selling off matured talent? Yes. But that is the same throughout the world. As a noted in an article today in the Guardian (discussing Atlanta United’s success) every football team in the world with the possible exception of Barcelona is a selling team.

    Perhaps you or others see renting the new stadium out for the Tommie – Johnnie game as a bad sign. A sign of the financial weakness of MLS and the Loons. That ignores the fact that every successful sports franchise with its own stadium or arena rents out the space for other events. Letting a facility sit idle on non-game days makes no sense. Franchises in any sport have to maximize the revenue coming in from their facilities in order to be successful.

    Finally, and this is just me being cranky – don’t pitch yourself as some sort of grey haired eminence just because you’re 52. I suspect many of us on this comment chain are far older than that.

    No need to hold your breath either. The growth and development of soccer in the US has happened with out you noticing and without your help.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/10/2018 - 10:57 am.

      Please, help me out. Where did I disparage holding the football game there? Here is my post on that: “These modern day sports palaces provide great experiences for fans. But they are very expensive to operate. A sellout is a sellout and it’s hard to turn one down.”

      In no way did I disparage the game of soccer. I merely stated for about as long as I can remember, I’ve been told this game is about to explode. It hasn’t exploded. Slow growth? Sure. But nothing explosive. Enjoy it. It’s probably better for the game long term ,as opposed to a brief surge of interest.

      What I’ve always found curious about soccer enthusiasts is how thin skinned they can be. They seem very invested in convincing the rest of us why we really need to be fans too. I’m a very mild follower of sports in general, but I’ve not noticed fans of basketball, baseball, football, or hockey to take such offense when someone says something that is even mildly derogatory, or maybe not even derogatory at all. An NFL or college football player seems to get arrested about once a month, and it doesn’t seem to bother those fans, though perhaps it should, given how often those incidents involve domestic violence.

      The game of soccer is doing better than it ever has in the US. Have fun and ignore people who aren’t fans.

      As for telling I’m still a young whipper snapper, I can only say “Thanks!” I’ll take that any day.

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