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.”