The pro soccer team is hoping that a midseason homecoming in a newly renovated stadium can create new interest from fans.
Thunder soccer coaches and players are hopeful a grand yet unusual midseason homecoming can cure recent on-field woes and capture fan interest.
Tonight's 7:05 match against Carolina will be the first played in the refurbished National Sports Center stadium in Blaine.
Several upgrades, for players and fans alike "will provide an atmosphere for high-level soccer," team president Manny Lagos said.
After four full seasons -- and two matches this season -- at St. Paul's James Griffin Stadium, the Thunder returned to the National Sports Center, their home from 1990 to 2003.
The team sought a more professional, soccer-specific environment than what could be offered at Griffin Stadium, home of St. Paul Central High School.
Just returning to Blaine was not the answer. The NSC and Thunder split the estimated $250,000 project cost to tear out the track around the soccer field and shift the field 80 feet closer to the grandstand. The construction has forced the team to play on an exhibition field next to the stadium since May 24.
Bleachers now surround the field on all sides. Seating is available for about 8,500 fans.
Playing in a soccer-specific stadium, Lagos said, has "increased the dialogue" about more television exposure and sponsorship opportunities. Coach Amos Magee said returning to Blaine means better amenities and fewer distractions for his team. In previous years, players practiced at four different locations. Now, they have a permanent home with larger locker rooms and meeting rooms.
"We expect our players to be great professionals, and it's tough to continue that message from top to bottom when you're playing in a high school stadium," Magee said.
Players practiced in the stadium for the first time Thursday night, though several snuck a peek at times as the construction progressed. Goalkeeper Nic Platter resisted the temptation, however, and said he "wanted to wait and be surprised" on Thursday.
Magee said the mood at practice was "sharp and intense" this week, something he attributed to players' excitement for tonight and their desire to end Minnesota's recent slump. Since defeating Miami on May 24, the Thunder is 0-5-3 in United Soccer League play, with six of those eight matches taking place on the road.
A seven-match homestand begins tonight, a stretch that also includes an exhibition match against Burnley F.C. of England on July 15. It is the first time in 30 years that an English professional team will play in Minnesota.
The matches tonight and Tuesday will be two of the top attended matches this season, Thunder General Manager Djorn Buchholz said. The first 2,000 fans who purchased tickets to the Burnley match received a complimentary ticket to tonight's match.
In addition, the Schwan's USA Cup begins tonight, bringing more than 13,000 soccer players to the National Sports Center grounds.
"These matches are critical because we are opening up our newly renovated stadium and need to put on a show for the fans both on and off the field," Buchholz said. "We are building for the future, and the future starts [tonight]."
|NY Mets - J. Hefner||12:05 PM|
|Chicago Cubs - S. Feldman|
|Seattle - J. Saunders||12:05 PM|
|Cleveland - Z. McAllister|
|Toronto - B. Morrow||12:05 PM|
|NY Yankees - D. Phelps|
|Cincinnati - B. Arroyo||3:05 PM|
|Philadelphia - K. Kendrick|
|Chicago WSox - H. Santiago||3:05 PM|
|LA Angels - J. Blanton|
|Tampa Bay - R. Hernandez||3:05 PM|
|Baltimore - J. Jurrjens|
|Houston - E. Bedard||6:05 PM|
|Pittsburgh - A. Burnett|
|Los Angeles - C. Capuano||6:10 PM|
|Atlanta - K. Medlen|
|Boston - R. Dempster||6:10 PM|
|Minnesota - S. Diamond|
|Arizona - B. McCarthy||6:10 PM|
|Miami - T. Koehler|
|Milwaukee - M. Estrada||6:15 PM|
|St. Louis - L. Lynn|
|Detroit - A. Sanchez||7:05 PM|
|Texas - J. Grimm|
|San Francisco - T. Lincecum||7:10 PM|
|Colorado - T. Chatwood|
|Washington - J. Zimmermann||7:40 PM|
|San Diego - E. Stults|
|Kansas City - E. Santana||8:05 PM|
|Oakland - T. Milone|
|New York||7:00 PM|
|Los Angeles||8:00 PM|
|New England||7:30 PM|
|FC Dallas||9:30 PM|