Three weeks after a game-changing first season at Allianz Field that ended abruptly with a first-round playoff loss, Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright looked back at a winning 2019 on the field and at the box office, and ahead with an organization restructuring for the future.
The changes range from its sporting operations — coach Adrian Heath’s responsibilities have expanded and Manny Lagos’ job changed in its focus and with a title of chief soccer officer — to its concessions.
Wright, who joined the team after its first season in MLS in 2017, talked about what was — from the highs to the low — and what will be in a conversation with Star Tribune soccer writer Jerry Zgoda. Portions were edited for brevity.
Q. How long have these changes been discussed and was it evident this must be next after your first year in Allianz Field?
A. Two years ago, we invited 72 people — owners, sporting-operations staff, corporate partners, a fan group — to the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, and we wrote a narrative of what we wanted to achieve. How does our club feel like after we played the last game in our first season at Allianz Field?
We started strategic planning four, five months ago. The whole view was 2020 and beyond: What is the next evolution of our franchise? How is it going to grow? This isn’t just sporting operations. It’s going on all over our club, in marketing, game operations. We just had a four-hour meeting about our food story at Allianz.
Q. Did that first season at Allianz live up to that 2-year-old narrative?
A. If we could have written a script, it would have ended a bit differently. But did we accomplish what we set out to accomplish those two years? Yes, we did. Is our brand recognized wherever you go? Yes, it is. Do we have a shared voice in this marketplace? Yes, we do. Do we have a huge following? Yeah, we do.
We renewed 94 percent of our season tickets. We increased our season-ticket members from 14,500 this last season to 15,000 next season because our waitlist was almost 6,500 people.
Q. Did you raise ticket prices for 2020?
A. Yes, how much depends where you’re sitting. Some premium products went up by as much as 10 percent, but generally speaking they went up 3 to 7 percent.
Q. Have you recovered from the season’s sudden end?
A. It took me a week to get over this one and I’ve been in sports all my life. We’re a young club and we had such an incredible season, and for it be that final, that quick, you don’t expect it and you’re not prepared for it, none of us. But you’ve got to step back and just accept the moment.
Q. Was the season a success?
A. There are a lot of way to measure success. On the field? Absolutely. For us to not only get in the playoffs but also get a home game in our third season, that’s remarkable. The additions we made brought depth and character, a mental fortitude, a dramatic shift in personalities, a winning attitude to our locker room that we didn’t have the first two seasons. Vito Mannone, Goalkeeper of the Year; Ike Opara, Defender of the Year. It just tells you the quality we brought in.
But do we have a long way to go? We do. But if you look at the business, the team, the stadium, we had a very, very successful first year in Allianz Field.
Q. What’s atop the to-do list?
A. There are many, many areas we need to grow: Our academy and a reserve team as well as our first team. We need to continue to improve the facilities at the National Sports Center, whether that’s more fields and different things we might need to host (international friendly opponents) Hertha Berlin, Aston Villa or the Gold Cup. We need a real strategic plan for the ever-changing world of sports medicine and sports science. We need to develop all of our younger players, the Dayne St. Clairs, Mason Toyes, Thomas Chacons.
Q. Does that last bit mean your own USL team here at home or expanding the affiliation with Forward Madison?
A. There are pros and cons to both. I’m not sure how it’ll evolve and if there is room for another team in this marketplace. A reserve team is expensive. We are going to do it in some way, shape or form. Manny’s leading that negotiation right now. We’ll definitely have an affiliate agreement in 2020. I’m really hopeful we’ll get to a good place with Madison. They’re good people.
Q. Is this team now deep enough that you’ll lose a valuable player to Nashville or Miami in the Nov. 19 expansion draft?
A. I’m nervous because I know we’re going to lose a strong player. That’s being part of a growing league. It’s not the last time this is going to happen, either. With different expansion franchises coming on board, this is going to be rinse-and-repeat, rinse-and-repeat.
Q. Did Allianz Field deliver everything you hoped it would?
A. Beyond. Not only do the accolades keep coming for its design, what I’m really proud of is the way the building operates. There is an ease of access our fans enjoyed. I think everybody is surprised how easy it is to get to the stadium, whether that’s on light rail, bike, bus or park and walk. Everybody has been happily surprised how you can access and exit. Maybe everybody thought that was going to be one of the issues and it never really transpired.
Q. What did you learn most about gameday operations?
A. One of the things you don’t know until you open is the flow of pedestrian traffic at key moments before the game and at halftime. People on the north end — where the Brew Hall is — tended to go to their left, to the east, because that’s where all our portables (concessions) were and bathrooms are. That east concourse easily was the busiest area during halftimes.
We’ve got to figure out a way to release that valve and we will. If that is the largest issue opening a stadium like this, that actually is sort of remarkable.
Q. Was the stadium’s biggest issue the grass field you replaced in September?
A. It took us a while to understand what that issue was, before we discovered two blockages underground in the drainage system completely away from each other. Simply stated, it was a mistake. Once those blockages were removed, the field drained the way it was built to drain and problem solved. Unfortunately, the roots of the grass could not be saved, so we had to replace.
Q. You were conservative scheduling other events except for U.S. national team games and the St. John’s-St. Thomas game. Will you schedule another football game in 2020?
A. Although it’ll be the second year, we have to look at it as a first-year pitch. We’ll be very careful with any event we put on. I really doubt today we’ll see a concert at Allianz Field next year because we wouldn’t do that the first year. I won’t say no to a football game or another team sport, but it would have to be really understanding our regular-season and playoff schedules.
Q. Any chance the state high-school soccer tournaments find a home at Allianz?
A. Too late. Once you get into November, that’s very, very difficult for us just because of when their season is.
Q. Did you build Allianz Field too small?
A. We debate that with ourselves all the time. Somewhere down the road — provided we stay on this growth trajectory and prove it can be maintained — we’ll talk about expanding. That is not on the horizon right now. There are way too many other things needed to be done to let this franchise grow and flourish.
Q. You left the stadium’s four corners open for expansion, right?
A. Yes, the infrastructure is there, all the footings are there. We know where those next 5,000 seats will go. It will be a journey whereby we commit to that somewhere down the road.
Q. The club hosted three international friendlies this season. When will you take the show on the road?
A. You have that opportunity much more in the preseason and we’ve had some really good conversations about taking the club to play different opponents in different markets so you grow your brand and club. It could be anywhere. Could be China or Spain or Turkey. There’s a lot of different locations worldwide where clubs can gather, train and play exhibitions, but I doubt we’ll be able to do that this next year.
Q. What’s your last take from the 2019 season?
A. We are a 3-year-old as a club on so many levels. We as a group should be incredibly proud of what we achieved. That goes to our supporters, our season-ticket holders, our partners, our players, our coaches, our front-office staff, everyone. Have we achieved a tremendous amount? Yes, we have, but there’s so much left to do. We’re just starting.