For a guy standing where he didn’t want to be Wednesday, Minnesota United Coach Adrian Heath was in a pretty good mood. Cold temperatures and an approaching snowstorm forced United inside for training at their National Sports Center practice site in Blaine, and Thursday’s practice scheduled for sparkling-new Allianz Field already had been moved there. Ahh, springtime in Minnesota.
Heath would have liked more outdoor practices, especially on the lush pitch at Allianz, the club’s $250 million new stadium that debuts with Saturday’s home opener. The place holds 19,400, and the 4 p.m. game with New York City FC is a sellout. It may not be as sunny and warm then as it was for United’s only practice there April 3 — the forecast calls for clouds and high of 40 — but a new home is a new home. And Heath and his players are anxious to get started.
“Just calling it home, getting into that stadium … The club has done an incredible job of catering to everything that we need,” Heath said. “I’ve been doing this since I’ve left school at 15. This is as good as anywhere in the world. I know the supporters are going to be impressed with everything.”
This is United’s third season in Major League Soccer, and for the first time they’ve given those scarf-wearing supporters some on-field success to cheer about.
Eight veterans added since the middle of last season helped United tighten up defensively and start well. A club that won one road game all last season tripled that total on its first road trip, going 3-2 and earning nine points. United undertook that long a trip in part to avoid the cold and the NCAA men’s Final Four in Minneapolis, and mainly to ensure Allianz was ready to go. Good thing, too. Workers in yellow vests and hardhats busied themselves with final touches while United practiced there last week.
From Interstate 94, Allianz resembles a spaceship that landed in the Midway neighborhood looking for 3.2 beer. That the exterior, thanks to LED lighting, can change color almost at will adds to the effect. The Allianz opening completes a remarkable period of Twin Cities arena construction that has seen venues built or renovated for seven professional franchises since 2000 — the Vikings, Twins, Timberwolves/Lynx, Wild, Saints and United — plus University of Minnesota football. Allianz was the only one privately financed.
Allianz is exactly what MLS officials preferred when it awarded Dr. Bill McGuire and partners the franchise: A open-air, soccer-specific, natural-grass stadium close to public transportation. With A Line express bus service and Green Line light rail stops a block away, Allianz is much easier to get to than United’s old stadium in Blaine. But drivers, beware; nearby parking is expensive. Expect to pay $20 to $50 at area ramps and lots. It’s $15 at the State Fairgrounds, with a free shuttle to and from the stadium.
“We believe this can be the best soccer-specific stadium in the country when you begin to take a look at the design, the design features, the finishes, the proximity to the field,” said United Chief Executive Officer Chris Wright. “It’s been designed beautifully. It’s been built beautifully.
“We have one or two surprises when we win games, what we’re going to do with the outside of the stadium, how were going to light the stadium for special events, national holidays. That will be a very unique feature of the stadium itself.”
Inside, the worst seat in the top row of the second deck seems close enough to the pitch that players shouldn’t look like ants. One unique feature: The 2,900-capacity supporters section in the south end zone for the Dark Clouds and True North Elite, with room to sing, jump and carry on responsibly. (It probably isn’t an accident that the club put the Brew Hall on the opposite end of the stadium.) The supporters section intrigued defender Ike Opara so much that when United practiced at Allianz last week, he walked to the top row check it out.
“Kudos to whoever is going to go up there,” said Opara, who was acquired from Sporting KC in January. “It’s going to be rocking for sure. I’m scared of heights so it’s too steep for me.
“I want to see every crevice of the stadium, because I think it’s unbelievable. Kansas City, this stadium, LA FC, I think those are some of the best stadiums in this league. That’s what every team should aspire to be. Some of these teams play in baseball stadiums and football stadiums, which is garbage. Every team should want to have a stadium like Allianz.”
Ethan Finlay, the Duluth-born midfielder who grew up in Marshfield, Wis., couldn’t stop raving about it. “You walk out of the tunnel over there and you look around, and you can just kind of see the detail that’s been put into this stadium,” he said. “We were joking about the lights they put in this building, from our locker room to the premium areas to the concourses. They’re beautiful. It’s truly going to be a special place for years to come.”
Heath’s lineup for Saturday remains uncertain. Winger Miguel Ibarra (hamstring strain) sat out Saturday’s 2-1 victory at the New York Red Bulls, didn’t practice Wednesday and probably won’t play. High scoring forward Darwin Quintero missed the Red Bulls game with a groin strain but returned to practiced this week. Mid-week, a cautious Heath said he might rest Quintero again and stick with the 3-4-3 formation that worked so well in New York.
“The one thing about having a good group, we’ve got extended depth now,” Heath said. “We’ve got better players all around. It does gives us a chance to make sure they’re 100 percent fit, because we’ve got people who can contribute when they play.”
Either way, Heath is excited to see how Allianz plays, and how loud it can get. “This is going to be home now,” he said. “And we’ve got to make sure that we make this a fortress, a place people don’t like to come. That obviously starts this week.”