Soccer last took center stage at Target Field 15 months ago, when a Major League Soccer expansion announcement-turned-pep rally broke out in the atrium, featuring a swarm of 100 soccer fans draped in traditional scarves.
On Saturday, the party moves outside. Minnesota United FC plays host to Club Leon of Mexico’s Liga MX in the first soccer match held at the home of the Twins. A soccer team official said about 20,000 fans are expected.
When these clubs met last summer, an announced sellout crowd of 9,388 fans packed the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine for midfielder Miguel Ibarra’s return. The former United star was transferred to Club Leon, a move valued at seven figures. Exhibition matches, or friendlies, were part of the agreement.
“Part of the idea was to the use the relationship we made through the transfer to have this cultural, soccer event,” said Manny Lagos, sporting director for Minnesota United FC. “And all along, as a Minnesotan, I take so much pride in how amazing I think that baseball stadium is in what type of servicing and sightlines it has for any type of event. It never had a high-level soccer game and it should.”
Uncertainty surrounds the timing of the club’s move to the higher-level MLS, however. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a package of tax breaks that included provisions for a new soccer stadium in St. Paul, due to a $100 million error unrelated to the soccer facility. A stadium agreement is believed to be needed to trigger the club’s MLS start date. A legislative special session to resolve the unfinished business has grown unlikely this year due to a political showdown over conditions to return to St. Paul.
Whether among friends or when mingling with fans, players are hearing a different, more concerned tones about Minnesota’s MLS future.
“Now you have to answer the ‘what if this doesn’t happen?’ questions and that’s a little bit of a headache,” defender Justin Davis said. “But I’m sure we’ll be all right.”
Without a special session, United FC might have to wait until next year for legislation that clears the way for a 21,500-seat stadium in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. Lawmakers agreed to a property tax exemption for the land where the team wants to build the stadium and approved a liquor license for it. The team is eligible for a sales tax exemption on construction materials.
Addressing the soccer-crazed crowd in March 2015 at Target Field, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said “the target’’ for United joining MLS was “no later than , but it could be as early as ’17.” Yet he warned that if a stadium agreement is unattainable, “then we’ll have to take a step back, mutually, and assess whether or not it makes sense.”
Near silence has followed. Neither the MLS nor the Minnesota United FC ownership has publicly reacted to the proposed stadium’s slog through the legislative process.
This week, an MLS spokesperson would only say that the league expects to finalize the 2017 schedule in late September.
“It’s like the sport itself,” Lagos said. “There are things you can control and things you can’t.”
If Minnesota begins MLS play in 2017, it likely would play home matches at TCF Bank Stadium. The new stadium in St. Paul has been envisioned for completion by 2018.
Lagos hopes Saturday’s match, played within a free kick of light rail transit and a plethora of downtown dining options, whets fans’ appetites for a similar St. Paul experience.
“It has a lot to offer in terms of what we want to grow into,” Lagos said. “You can make a night out of it. You can go to a game and have a different type of atmosphere and food than you maybe don’t get in Blaine.”
On the field, the Loons consider the exhibition match important to their progression. Once in the top spot in the spring season title chase, a three-week fall knocked them from contention. A U.S. Open Cup loss by one goal to future MLS rival Sporting KC on June 15, however, showed promise. The fall season begins July 2.
“I felt like we took a step in a new direction,” forward Danny Cruz said. “Coming off the field I was proud of the group. We fought for one another and gave ourselves a chance. So if we take a step back on Saturday, it’s not good. We need to keep going because the fall season is so important.”