Falling snow and 20-degree temperatures enveloped TCF Bank Stadium for Minnesota United's record home crowd of 35,043 back on March 12, 2017, the team's first home Major League Soccer game.
As the other bookend to two years of matches at the college football stadium, the club expects 52,000 fans Sunday afternoon, amid perfect fall weather of sun and high-50s temperatures.
More than twice the size of usual home-game crowds, the fans are part of a team effort to break a 42-year-old Minnesota attendance record as the Loons prepare to open their new soccer-specific Allianz Field in St. Paul next spring.
The game against the LA Galaxy might be the easiest way to judge how much has changed for the club, on and off the field, since its MLS start. In that snowy opener, the Loons lost 6-1 to fellow expansion team Atlanta United. Now they have to beat star-studded LA to keep their opponents from the playoffs, a goal the Loons fell short of again this year.
"We're not going to have a chance to play in front of 50,000 people again," center back Brent Kallman said of 19,400-capacity Allianz Field."Sure, we might be out of the playoff race, but if you can't get up for this game, then what are you doing playing soccer professionally? I expect everybody will be firing on all cylinders and really into it, and trying to get three points and putting in a performance that we can be proud of and the fans can be proud of."
When CEO Chris Wright joined the club a year ago, one of his first brainstorming sessions identified eight pillars for the coming season that the team could make bigger than normal and involve everything from the sports side to the corporate partners to the community. One was the last game at TCF Bank Stadium.
Planning in earnest started about six months ago, when staff identified the "50k to Midway" theme: Fill the stadium and break a record for attendance at a stand-alone soccer game in Minnesota involving a local team, which stands at 49,572 from a 1976 Minnesota Kicks game.
The team first enlisted its 14,500 season-ticket holders and more than 2,000 people on the season-ticket wait list. With the team averaging about 22,000 fans per game this season, the extra 30,000 came mostly from group sales.
Bryant Pfeiffer, United's executive vice president and chief revenue officer, said more than 20,000 tickets are from groups, whether that be a 20-player youth soccer team or more than a 1,000 employees of a certain company. Pfeiffer said groups didn't receive special discounts or promotions beyond the regular group discount of about $5 to $7 off face value of each ticket.
Wright said the team wasn't giving away tickets just to ensure a record crowd. The club declined to provide ticket revenue totals for the game, though Pfeiffer said it will be the largest revenue game of the season by far.
Pfeiffer said when the Loons had three games in one week in July, they sold more than 70,000 tickets combined. Only Atlanta and the Seattle Sounders — the league's top-drawing teams with more than 40,000 per game — have matched that this season.
There are several special fan-appreciation activities planned for the game. Concessions will include $2 hot dogs and $1 popcorn, a throwback to when the Kicks played soccer at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Afterward, the scoreboard will display a special lighting ceremony at Allianz Field.
Drumming up such fanfare for a team that can hold only 40 percent of these fans next season was as much about growing the audience as it was celebrating two years in MLS and looking ahead to a pivotal third year.
"We're in the growth-of-the-game business," Wright said. "We're in the business of creating fans. We're in the business of really brand building. And we're in the business of creating awareness for our team," noting media attention for this game, with ESPN changing its broadcast schedule to air it.
Pfeiffer said it's a chance to show the Twin Cities market how big United is going to be, especially beyond its core demographic of millennials, families and soccer fanatics.
"We also saw this as another amazing opportunity to introduce a lot of first-time fans to the product," he said. "The opportunity for growth is with the sports enthusiasts, and what we have found so far at TCF Bank Stadium is when people have sampled a match, they become hooked. And what makes them hooked, it's oftentimes this inclusive, passionate fan experience that's so different from the other sports in town."
Mainstream or alternative?
On the field, where United has often struggled this season, the team has 36 points, 65 goals allowed and a minus-19 goal differential with two games left. That's minimal on-paper improvement from last year, when the Loons totaled the same number of points but conceded five more goals, a minus-23 goal differential.
Despite the poor results, the club has had some of its best crowds at the end of the season, when the Loons are competing with the Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves and Gophers football.
Wright said he challenges the notion that the club is not mainstream, saying from a "brand-awareness standpoint," the club has exploded in popularity throughout the past 12 months.
"Just because, maybe, certain fans of certain teams don't really talk about or embrace MNUFC [doesn't mean] that we [don't] have a massive fan base that is out there that is simply growing every single day," Wright said, adding it's more media attention than fan interest that wanes at this point of the year.
United's Twitter account has garnered 23,000 more followers since May, putting the team at more than 100,000. Loons scarves, caps and shirts aren't hard to spot around the Twin Cities. But team captain Francisco Calvo said if United wants even more attention, the team has to win.
Coach Adrian Heath agreed that while the support of 50,000 fans is great, it likely won't last unless United produces good results.
"Now the most important thing for us, we have to start improving … that we eventually give them a team that they actually want to come and watch,'' Heath said, "not because it's just a novelty of a new sport in town and a brand-new stadium, they actually want to come and see the team play because it's a really good team to watch.
"And that for us now is the next stage."