Saturday night is the end of an era for Minnesota United FC. It’s likely the team’s last game in the second division, but it’s also the team’s final game in Blaine, at the National Sports Center.
The team has had two different tenures there, but for the most part the NSC has been the home of Minnesota pro soccer for two decades. Games at the Nessie, as the stadium was dubbed by fans, always felt more like an overgrown high school football game than a real-deal pro sporting event. For me, who grew up playing football on the windy, poorly lit fields of the western Minnesota prairie, the NSC felt like home.
In some of the lean years, games felt less like celebrations and more like a support group, with a few hundred arguably unwell people gathering to commiserate about their shared addiction. Any longtime United fan has at least one story of waiting out a summer thunderstorm, or a fall downpour, to watch Minnesota slog through another dour 1-1 draw or 2-0 loss.
Over the past few years, though, the NSC has come to feel less like a resting place and more like the starting blocks for Minnesota pro soccer. As the team’s move to Major League Soccer changed from a possibility to a certainty, the NSC transformed itself into a north-metro destination. Crowds that sometimes reached five figures flooded through the gates, and food trucks ringed the field, a carnival with soccer at its center but MLS promise as its prize. The fans roared, but the games sometimes felt like practice for the future.
All that becomes a memory after Saturday’s game with New York.
If I could pick a single memory to take with me to TCF Bank Stadium in 2017 and to the Midway neighborhood stadium in future years, it would be of the first leg of the 2012 NASL finals. Minnesota went on to lose that championship, in a penalty shootout, but the first leg against Tampa Bay was a party. It was a classic cold, windy October evening at the NSC.
Minnesota led 1-0 for much of the night, but in the closing moments, Simone Bracalello swung in a corner kick. Connor Tobin met it; Martin Nuñez, at the back post, may have helped it in. Whatever the cause, the ball crossed the line, and the goal touched off pandemonium in the Dark Clouds supporters section. The players ran to the fans’ section to celebrate, the advertising boards fell down, and for one moment, fans and players celebrated together on the east sidelines of the NSC.
Next year, and in years to come, the games will be life-or-death and the players will be remote unknowns. But for that moment, at the National Sports Center, the fans who rode out the thunderstorms and the players who would bridge the gap from Thunder to United both came together, on the sideline, for one more memory.
It’s an old, creaky stadium, but I’ll miss the place all the same.
Soccer short takes
• FC Kansas City, the two-time National Women’s Soccer League champion, is up for sale, and a Minnesota businessman has emerged as the early front-runner to purchase the team. According to the Kansas City Star, Elam Baer has confirmed that he’s in “early-stage” discussions to buy the franchise, but that he has no plans to move the team from Kansas City to Minnesota.
• FC Dallas, which won the U.S. Open Cup earlier this year, added its first Supporters’ Shield (regular-season title) last weekend, becoming just the third team to win both in the same year. The league puts too much emphasis on the end-of-season MLS Cup playoffs, but in reality, winning both trophies is enough to make this Dallas season one of the best in history.
• West Ham’s home game against Chelsea in midweek was marred by crowd trouble, including seats and coins thrown between supporters. Not quite a return to the hooligan brawls of yesteryear, but it was a reminder of a bygone time when a soccer game involved a threat of violence. Some American fans romanticize the idea of hooligans — see the movie “Green Street Hooligans.” Those who do need to stop.
Weekend watch guide
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Schalke, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Barely 20 miles separates these clubs in northwest Germany, making this the Ruhr derby. Dortmund, in sixth, hasn’t won a Bundesliga game since Sept. 23. Schalke, in 14th, managed to lose its first five games of the season, but since then has five victories and a draw in six games in all competitions.
Liga MX: Monterrey at Tigres, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. It’s been an ugly fall for Monterrey. Los Rayados were the only Mexican team to crash out of the CONCACAF Champions League in the group stage. They’re currently 11th in the Mexican standings — out of a playoff spot. Tigres, Monterrey’s crosstown rival, would love to pile on the misery in this edition of the Clásico Regio.
MLS Playoffs: NYC at Toronto, 6 p.m. Sunday, FS1. The MLS league office must be salivating at this matchup. Toronto, the largest Canadian market, has the league’s best player in Sebastian Giovinco. NYC, the largest American market, has big-name European vets David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. Both teams are looking for a first-leg advantage in the quest for the conference finals.
MLS Playoffs: Dallas at Seattle, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1. These teams played just two weeks ago in Dallas, where the home team scored two late goals to claim a 2-1 victory. Dallas lost midfield wizard Mauro Diaz to injury in that game, though, and Seattle is flying high after claiming a late 1-0 victory in the playoffs’ first round in midweek. An away goal for the Sounders would be key.