Last season's inaugural Minnesota United home match was an experience not to be forgotten. Globe-trotting outside back Jerome Thiesson certainly won't forget it, and neither will 35,043 fans who braved blizzard-like conditions.
"I had, like, two days to settle in," said Thiesson, who made his debut just after arriving from his native Switzerland. "I didn't see much of the city or anything else. And just walking into that great stadium and seeing all these people standing up to this weather and supporting us the whole game — even though we were really bad, we can admit that today — it was just a lot of very positive impressions."
The one downside to that March 12, 2017, game at TCF Bank Stadium to open the Loons' first MLS home season was the score line. Fellow expansion side Atlanta United thrashed the home team 6-1. The Loons will try for a better home start on Saturday against the Chicago Fire.
The afternoon match launches United's second and last set of 17 games at the University of Minnesota's stadium, with new home Allianz Field taking shape a few miles away off Interstate 94. Thiesson said the anticipation of what's to come is only adding excitement to this final stand in the Loons' temporary home.
After the big opening crowd in the snow, United's attendance dipped a bit to hover around the 17,000 mark much of the season. But toward the end of Year 1, the club sold out the stadium's lower bowl, which has a capacity of 21,895, close to what Allianz Field will hold.
Bryant Pfeiffer, United senior vice president of sales and strategy, said Saturday will be another lower-bowl sellout, the team's seventh consecutive crowd of more than 20,000 carrying over from last season.
"Ever since steel has started coming out of the ground [at the new stadium site] over on Snelling, more and more people, even your casual fans, are kind of realizing they've got to get in," Pfeiffer said. "We're seeing a large influx of people — maybe they've only sampled a couple of games or none last year — who are saying I've got to get in now to be part of the cool club."
Pfeiffer said the club has "absolutely" seen an increase in demand, especially with group sales and midsummer matches. United renewed its original 11,842 season-ticket holders at a high rate and now has more than 13,000 season-ticket holders. The plan is to cap season tickets and start a waiting list sometime after eclipsing 14,000, which could happen as soon as June. The hope is to have nearly all tickets for Allianz Field games sold before it even opens in March 2019.
So in this "bridge" year, the goal is to grow the fan base and get as many people as possible into the larger stadium to sample the MLS experience. The team is planning to open the upper deck for one or two games at the end of the season, such as the final home match against the LA Galaxy on Oct. 21, when the club will aim for its largest crowd in a TCF Bank Stadium send-off.
The team is seeking new fans by investing in marketing, with its "scarves up, Minnesota" branding campaign. The team has deepened its connection to youth soccer, including having a bigger presence at youth tournaments such as the USA Cup held in Blaine.
It has also worked closely with the team's supporters' groups to make sure the 2,800-capacity safe-standing area of Allianz Field — one of the larger supporters' sections in MLS — will be full for every game. Allianz Field will also have 1,600 new premium seats; the club is focusing on the corporate community to fill those.
While the on-the-field product might struggle with two key cogs — playmaker Kevin Molino and holding midfielder Sam Cronin — likely out for a significant amount of time, the crowd, at least, shouldn't disappoint.
"Even when it wasn't a sellout, it was very, very good attendance and just atmospherewise," Thiesson said. "I don't know if it was because it was our first season, and they were all so excited, but I don't think so. How I feel the vibes from people, I think they are very, very into soccer.
"I think next season will be even bigger with a new stadium. So the excitement about soccer is here, and the atmosphere they create is pretty unique, all the stuff with the scarves when we have corner kicks or the Wonderwall at the end if we win. Yeah, it's unbelievable, and it's why a soccer player wants to become a soccer player: to play in front of crowds like we are happy to have."