Adrian Heath ends every Minnesota United FC home match with a simple gesture that he views as his obligation. Win, lose or draw, the Loons coach lingers on the field long enough to thank fans by applauding them.
He applauds one section. Then another. Then another.
Heath encourages his players to do the same, even for road games.
“You never forget who you play for and who you represent,” Heath said. “That relationship that we have with our supporters should always be special. They pay hard-earned money to come watch us play. We should always be respectful of that.”
United has two remaining home matches — including Saturday night vs. FC Dallas — in their inaugural Major League Soccer season. Lower-bowl sellouts of 22,000 fans are expected at TCF Bank Stadium, which would exceed capacity in their future home, Allianz Field, set to open in about 18 months.
On the field, United has yo-yoed between encouraging and poor performances. Expectations were only ankle-high, so nobody should be surprised that the Loons find themselves ninth in the 11-team Western Conference.
The biggest victory in Season 1 has occurred in the stands, where United has grown its fan base and built a foundation for big-league soccer to succeed in this crowded sports market.
United drew 35,000 fans for its home debut in March, a figure inflated by a gawker factor. The true base has settled in and proved that the organization has established a foothold. United has averaged 20,268 in its home matches, good for 12th-best in the 22-team league.
That support bodes well for when the team moves into its new stadium, a home designed specifically for soccer and soccer fans that will be more intimate.
Allianz Stadium will seat 19,400, including 14,000 season-ticket holders. The farthest seat will be 125 feet from the field, meaning every fan will be reasonably close to the action. The roof will feature an overhang that provides protection from weather but also serves to keep noise from easily escaping the stadium.
The vibe at TCF Bank Stadium is lively. The new stadium in 2019 will feel like a rock concert.
“The magnitude is different,” United owner Bill McGuire said. “The roof, all that noise, playing on grass. That will be a big difference.”
Attendance has remained respectable despite first-season struggles, supporting the notion that Major League Soccer can be a viable enterprise here. One visit to Surly Brewing Co. before a home match highlighted that engagement.
Hundreds of fans gathered on the outdoor plaza to sample craft beers, listen to live music and play cornhole before making a 10-minute walk to the stadium. The mood was festive, fun.
“We’ve got a real fan base here, and it’s getting bigger and stronger,” McGuire said.
That base might grow but the organization made a wise decision in building a stadium that fits in scale. A 50,000-seat stadium wouldn’t make sense because ticket demand wouldn’t justify it.
United fans are intensely loyal, but not overabundant. An intimate setting that is loud and hostile will enhance the gameday experience in ways that can’t be duplicated in a half-filled football stadium.
The Loons have two main supporters groups, Dark Clouds and True North Elite, that create a party atmosphere. They sing and cheer and bang drums nonstop, even after the opposing team scores. The whole stadium waves soccer scarves on corner kicks. Everything seems synchronized.
“We have to work with [fans] to cultivate the fact they’re going to be around after we’re all gone,” Heath said.
Soccer fans are loyal but not naïve. United must upgrade its on-field talent. The team had to cram important decisions into a tight window after joining MLS, so roster construction likely didn’t get proper due diligence.
Heath said improvement from start of the season until now is “night and day, [but] we still have an awfully long way to go.”
“We’ll make the necessary changes at the end of this season to move everything forward,” he said.
The fan base cultivated in Year 1 seems sustainable in size. That relationship was depicted by a fan seen walking out of the stadium after a recent match. The middle-aged man had a tattoo of United’s logo on his right calf.
He’s in for the long haul.