After Saturday, future Minnesota United home victories celebrated by defender Justin Davis chugging a can of hard cider with jubilant supporters’ groups won’t take place at National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine.
Four different Minnesota soccer teams called the stadium home during 22 full seasons since 1990. Saturday’s regular-season finale against the New York Cosmos is a must-win not only for the Loons’ playoff hopes but to close a chapter with smiles.
“You want to go out on the right note here because it’s been such a good home for us,” Davis said. “It’s fun to see that we’ve outgrown it as well. A lot of progress has been made here.”
Next season the team will move up to Major League Soccer, a level that is expected to draw twice the crowds that NSC Stadium can hold. Initially the Loons will play in TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, then in a new home in St. Paul during the 2018 season.
But not before one more professional game in the centerpiece of the sprawling NSC complex, the most revered of the 52 soccer fields there.
It’s where Minnesota soccer guru Buzz Lagos helped found the Minnesota Thunder in 1990. The team called Blaine home for 14 seasons, winning the 1999 A-League title on that pitch, the most cherished of Lagos’s soccer memories in Blaine. A crowd of 9,987 fans cheered on that October evening, a figure rarely approached until last season.
The team played at Griffin Stadium in St. Paul — just blocks from United’s planned stadium site — from 2003 through the first two matches of the 2008 season before heading back to Blaine.
The homecoming included ripping out a portion of the track surface and moving the grass field 80 feet closer to the majority of seats. Intimacy with the fan base — a crucial element players said they will miss — was born.
Forward Christian Ramirez said he enjoyed “being able to look in certain areas of the crowd and recognizing faces, knowing week in, week out that they are there with you.”
Pro soccer’s history with the stadium includes one year, in 2010, when the National Sports Center owned the team. That was followed by two years of North American Soccer League ownership.
Those who battled to keep soccer alive during the lean years included former general manager Djorn Buchholz and Angie Blaker, current director of team operations. In 2009, with team revenue low and bills piling higher, Buchholz charged the team’s final road trip to his credit card.
“That’s what Minnesota soccer teams have always been about,” he said. “It’s blue-collar, it’s family and we like to get things done.”
Bill McGuire bought the team after the 2012 season, highlighted by a raucous crowd rushing to celebrate a late goal in a playoff game.
The past two seasons offered little trace of former struggles. Average crowds of close to 9,000 fans have come to tailgate, drink craft brew and support soccer. The Dark Clouds and True North Elite supporters groups — Davis’ preferred postseason drinking company — helped liven the atmosphere.
“This has been my home field since I was a pro, and being able to grow as a player as the crowds have grown at the same time has been pretty cool,” defender Kevin Venegas said.
A move to MLS next season means United needs more room. Average league attendance this season was 21,692, about double what NSC Stadium can hold. The new $150M stadium planned for St. Paul will have 20,000 seats.
Decisions also must be made on whether current coaches and players go along. But head coach Carl Craig hopes the crowd support endures.
“Without a crowd like we had on that night when Dr. McGuire and his family came up — it was awesome,” Craig said. “That’s it. And hopefully there will be bigger nights than that one as well.”