Of the two soccer matches Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, one is clearly more anticipated than the other.
Manchester City, the reigning English Premier League champion, faces reigning Greek titleholder Olympiakos to start the doubleheader. More than 30,000 people — which figures to be the biggest soccer crowd in Minnesota since the 1970s — are expected for the game, the first of such top international caliber ever played in the state.
After the 2 p.m. match between the European giants, second-tier North American pro teams Minnesota United FC and Ottawa Fury FC, accustomed to crowds well under 10,000, will battle for three points in the NASL fall season standings.
It’s the latter match, however, that will be more meaningful for the players on the Gophers football stadium field, where makeshift natural sod was installed over the artificial turf this week. The first match, for all its hype, is a preseason exhibition, while the second is competitive league play.
Ask anyone affiliated with the United what they think about the doubleheader, and they will excitedly buzz about the significance of matches like this to the sport in the state and U.S. soccer in general.
“It’s another great event that shows a bright direction for the future of soccer in Minnesota,” United coach Manny Lagos said.
In contrast, ask the same from “Man City” and they will lament the poor condition of TCF’s pitch.
“[It’s] more than a problem,” manager Manuel Pellegrini said Friday. “This pitch is not in the normal condition to play a football game. I think it’s high risk for the players to have an injury, for an ankle, for a knee. … It’s also a problem to play good football. It’s very difficult to control the ball, to try to play one touch, to have a high speed moving the ball.”
Olympiakos manager Míchel wasn’t as critical, but that might be because his team’s Friday practice session was moved to Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, where the Gophers soccer team plays, to give the grounds crew at TCF time to ready the pitch.
Pellegrini added he hoped the grounds crew could cut and water the rather patchy grass before gametime. While the substandard condition won’t affect what players he uses, he said, players would most likely play more cautiously.
Those players make for an expensive product.
“They have the biggest payroll in sports,” United President Nick Rogers said. “On a per-player basis, they pay more money than the New York Yankees.”
United and Ottawa also must cope with the field, which is narrower than usual. But coaches of both teams said they would shrug off the shortcomings in favor of the big-game atmosphere.
Fury coach Marc Dos Santos said it is an honor for a city like Minneapolis to host a team like Manchester City, even if the game amounts to glorified training. Man City, Olympiakos and six other international teams are competing in their preseason for the International Champions Cup, with games this summer in 13 cities across the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s normal that Man City or Olympiakos probably are going to go a little bit easier,” Dos Santos said. “They know it’s preseason. Some of the best players sometimes even rest and don’t play in games like that. … You don’t always see the best lineups out there.”
United forward Christian Ramirez said he and his teammates are just excited to share a pitch, ugly or not, with players they grew up following overseas.
But the real challenge for the NASL opponents may be mostly out of their control. While ticket sales are estimated at about 33,000 for the doubleheader, it remains to be seen just how many will stay in for the second act.
The crowd is expected to dwarf the announced crowd of 20,000 who saw David Beckham play in the Metrodome in 2007. Big-time pro soccer left Minnesota in 1984. But in the 1970s, the Minnesota Kicks drew crowds topping 40,000 to some matches.
“Hopefully those 33,000 will stick around,” Ramirez said. “And see the product we play on the field.”
For fans like Anna Freeburg, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Freeburg, 26, of St. Paul, became a Manchester City fan after studying in the United Kingdom. As a Minnesota United fan, she has seen the Loons play live often. But this will be the first time she watches her English team in person.
“Very few people who like teams outside the U.S. can say they can watch their two favorite teams in one day,” Freeburg said. “It’s a little special.”
And even though Olympiakos is one of the lesser-known European clubs, it still has global reach. At the Legends’ training session, Georgios Giannakis, 55, stood out in his red and white Olympiakos jersey and matching flag hung from the chain-link fence surrounding the field.
Giannakis is from the same town in Greece as Olympiakos, and while he moved from the country about 30 years ago, settling in Minnesota in the early 2000s as a professor at the University of Minnesota’s electrical and computer engineering department, he still follows the team closely.
“The ultimate excitement and fun,” Giannakis said of seeing his hometown team in his adopted land.
“I go to Greece a few times a year, so I watch the team there. I watch it here on TV. And I’m excited to see them live.”