They call soccer the beautiful game the world over, and it’s even more so when played on growing, green grass under a shining sun or silvery moon.
After it reluctantly played two MLS seasons on artificial turf at TCF Bank Stadium, Minnesota United on Saturday opens its new Allianz Field on 2.2 acres of living greenery planted smack against the passing freeway. For all of the stadium’s many thoughtful features, none is more precious or pampered than a natural surface that plays faster, truer and is more forgiving on players’ joints than the fake stuff.
“That’s the way the game is meant to be played,” United coach Adrian Heath said.
In England’s Premier League and across Europe, players wouldn’t think about stepping onto something that isn’t watered and mowed.
In Minnesota, opposing stars loathed TCF Bank Stadium’s turf. Early in the Loons’ inaugural season in 2017, one L.A. Galaxy player called it MLS’ worst field after a teammate broke his leg and others were injured during a game.
“Soccer needs to be played on grass,” said Jelle Van Damme, a Galaxy defender at the time.
Now it will be at Allianz Field, where the pitch is held in such high regard that the team will limit concerts, football, rugby and lacrosse games, even drone racing until the grass fully matures — and maybe even then some.
“It’s a huge difference,” United veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay said. “Every player will tell you they’d much rather play on grass, for many reasons. The ball moves quicker. The game moves faster. Everything about the game is just better on grass.”
And not just any grass.
About 97,000 square feet of Kentucky bluegrass was grown on plastic sheeting in Colorado. Last fall it was transported to St. Paul by 26 refrigerated trucks and planted among all the concrete in the Midway neighborhood. A sophisticated underground heating system keeps the field playable from late winter through all kinds of weather into late fall.
United hired Hazeltine National Golf Club assistant superintendent Ryan Moy to care for every blade on a site that’s dwarfed by Hazeltine’s vast acreage. He put the grass to bed in early December, letting it fall to just above freezing temperature, and dialed up the heat to 60 degrees or more by March.
The grass is his canvas, with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, to name three, his palette.
Asked if he does everything but whisper to get this grass to grow plush and green, Moy said, “And I might, in my dreams.”
United has practiced on artificial turf indoors and outdoors at its National Sports Center training facility since January. It will do so in Blaine until its grass fields are completely frost-free.
“We’re excited to get on grass,” Finlay said after practicing with his teammates at Allianz Field for the first time on April 3. “We’re excited to get outside.”
New United goalkeeper Vito Mannone had never played on anything but grass until he left England’s second division for Minnesota and MLS in February. He has never felt all his life the way he does after training and playing on artificial turf.
“The boys can tell you, we all feel different,” Mannone said. “Knees, ankles, the back, they all react differently because, despite being excellent turf, it is not grass. The impact on turf is different than the grass. It gets in your body. You wake up the next morning and you feel it.”
The grass was a long time coming in a 24-team league in which Atlanta, Cincinnati, New England, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver still play on artificial turf.
United played its last home game on artificial grass in October, after which somebody asked defender and Woodbury’s own Brent Kallman what will be different the next time his team plays at home.
“Grass — and we’ll have a permanent home,” he said. “It’ll be our place. It will be home.”
Six months later, they have both.