Featuring a new ownership group with deep pockets and eyes on the future, the Thunder on Monday took the unusual step of returning to an enhanced version of its past.
After four full seasons -- and two matches this season -- at St. Paul's James Griffin Stadium, Minnesota's professional soccer team announced a move, effective immediately, back to the National Sports Center in Blaine. The Thunder, which played at the NSC from 1990 to 2003, will upgrade the facility by adding seating and removing the track in order to bring fans 80 feet closer to the field.
Barclay Kruse, NSC communications officer, said the NSC and Thunder have agreed to split the estimated $250,000 project cost. Discussions about removing the under- utilized track intensified recently, but not in time for the Thunder's season. Renovations are scheduled to be completed July 1, but all remaining home games will be played at the NSC. The next scheduled home game is May 24.
Manny Lagos, the team president, said the need for a change outweighed the less-than-ideal timing. The organization also faced pressure from the United Soccer Leagues to improve its home field.
"We're the only team in the league that does not currently play in a soccer-specific stadium," Lagos said. "We're the only team in the league that currently plays with football lines. After two games, that was a lot of pressure."
The field at James Griffin Stadium, located on the north side of St. Paul Central High School, was painted for high school football. The Thunder hoped to repaint the field for the summer, but did not get approval from the St. Paul Public School District.
"We had a great rapport with the St. Paul Public School system," Lagos said. "We were trying to upgrade the facility, but the reality is it's very difficult to do."
The Thunder signed a contract to play at the NSC through 2011. St. Paul native Dean Johnson, part of the team's new ownership group that took over in August, said the long-term goal to build a new stadium remains.
In the meantime, the Thunder will receive increased revenue from concessions and parking in Blaine. Kruse said the Thunder, which in the past received no money from either source, will now get 50 percent of the concession revenue. He said the Thunder has the option to charge for parking.
When the Thunder left Blaine after the 2003 season, team officials said moving to St. Paul would be a better option for soccer fans unable or unwilling to trek to Blaine. Lagos said he now believes fans will make the trip.
"I am 100 percent confident that people are going to watch the premier soccer team in Minnesota," he said. "I think people are going to want to drive to experience this environment."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574