The last times soccer played permanently to Minnesota's masses, the pitch was configured over Metropolitan Stadium's baseball diamond in the 1970s and, a decade later, stuffed inside dasher boards indoors next door at Bloomington's Met Center.
With the Saturday opening of Allianz Field in St. Paul, Major League Soccer's Minnesota United has a $250 million, privately financed home of its own.
At least five years imagined, it's a soccer-specific stadium that displays at every turn painstaking attention to detail. It does so with its 19,400 capacity more befitting an indoor arena, but it is open to the ever-changing Minnesota sky and spring breeze.
"Two years ago, it was a dream," United coach Adrian Heath said. "It's going to be our home for a long, long time."
It provides players with the grass surface they adore because it plays true and is forgiving on their bodies. It provides spectators an intimacy and primo sightlines that large American football stadiums — including United's temporary home for two seasons, artificially turfed TCF Bank Stadium — don't allow.
The loudest, most expressive fans will fill the general-admission, standing-only supporters' section — holding up to 2,920 fans — that rises steep directly behind the south goal. Five different suite and premium seating areas on four levels accommodate the hungry and well-heeled on the stadium's west stand.
At the closest, front-row fans sit a mere 17 feet from the sidelines.
"Like you can reach out and touch," United goalkeeper Vito Mannone said.
The pitch is subtly raised 18 inches to give players a feeling they're on stage. That slight elevation also improves views over low-slung advertising boards that surround part of the field.
The stadium's farthest seat — very top row, east-side second deck — is 125 feet from the near sideline, which is closer than the farthest lower-bowl seat at TCF Bank Stadium. Those seats high up are some of the building's best because you can see play unfold below you.
They're part of a stadium design that United Managing Director Bill McGuire calls "a lyrical flow almost," meant to create a sense of place regarding the city and state from whence it rises high over Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue.
A shining star
Innovative for a project so large, the translucent, synthetic laminate that wraps the entire stadium ripples and shimmers silvery by day. It's reminiscent of Minnesota's 12,000 lakes and the Mississippi River that flows from its borders.
Its exposed steel-beam grid recalls the strength of the state's Iron Range that built America.
That outer skin not only helps block the cold northern winds, it also glistens in the sun and, lit by computerized LED light, glows every color imaginable at night, evoking the northern lights that illuminate skies in these parts if you're lucky.
It's enough to turn a soccer player into a design critic.
"You look from the outside and it's just a beautiful piece of architecture," United veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay said. "Then you walk out of the tunnel and you can see the detail. It's truly going to be a special place for years to come."
The public face of 16 partner families that financed the construction, McGuire calls the finished project that he and Kansas City, Mo., architecture firm Populous dreamed into existence "truly L'Etoile du Nord, the Star of the North."
Decades after the North American Soccer League's Minnesota Kicks played six seasons at Met Stadium in the late 1970s and the Minnesota Strikers did for one outdoor and four indoor seasons in the 1980s, soccer is back at the highest professional level in this state for its third MLS season.
Its new home "will bring soccer, the world's game, to our community in a long-lasting way," McGuire said, "with a vision that says we want the future to be better than the past."
Built for the North
The newest of eight Allianz soccer stadiums worldwide and the first in the U.S., Allianz Field will be host in June for the international Gold Cup tournament, including the U.S. men's national team's opening game. The stadium also could land early-spring and late-fall games for U.S. national teams that seek a home-field advantage against southern opponents.
The stadium's outer skin blocks wind, and its 360-degree canopy shelters nearly 90 percent of seats from rain and snow. A sophisticated field-heating system keeps the pitch playable in cold weather, including presumably through unexpected April snowstorms.
"I have a lot of shovels from groundbreakings, but only one is a snow shovel," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said at last month's ceremonial opening, "and that's the one for this great stadium."
The dramatically curved canopy — a design concept borrowed from European soccer stadiums — opens the stadium to Minnesota's dramatic skies. It also scales the building low and accessible on its north-side entrance and large by the freeway, a statement made at the far edge of a 35-acre site planned for more redevelopment.
"You can see it," said Bruce Miller, Populous senior architect. "It's now become a landmark on the drive from Minneapolis to St. Paul."
It's also symbolic of a league that is growing more relevant by the season. It has become more competitive both buying and selling in the international players' market. MLS expansion fees continue to rise since United paid $100 million in 2015. Seventeen of its 24 teams have soccer-specific stadiums, and three more are planned.
Before the first ball is booted, Allianz Field appears like few others in MLS. Its fellow 2017 expansion team Atlanta United plays in multipurpose Mercedes-Benz Stadium. LAFC, which joined MLS last season, opened in Banc of California Stadium.
"I imagine it's going to be No. 1 in the league," United veteran and Woodbury's own Brent Kallman said. "But I'll come back to you on that when we get people in there and play our first game."
Spreading the sport
No longer is MLS a place solely for aging European stars looking for a soft landing at the end of their careers. It's also far from early years when MLS teams were considered counter-season tenants for NFL stadiums, although Seattle and Atlanta draw well in such stadiums.
"When I was thinking of coming over here to coach, you still saw big 'ol stadiums with the football lines because you were sharing stadiums," Heath said. "The perception around the world [that] that's what American soccer was in them days, that's gone now."
Garber uses the word "overdelivered" when discussing McGuire's promise to build Minnesota a world-class soccer stadium.
"There are a lot of soccer stadiums out there, and there will be many more," Garber said. "They need to have their unique brand. The little things done here, there has been no stone left unturned."
Those touches include an analog clock and manually operated scoreboard above the north end's Brew Hall bar and the ticketed roof deck. It's a nod to the past when Minnesota United predecessors the Thunder and Stars played using a similar one at the National Sports Center stadium in Blaine.
A Dark Clouds contingent attended the 2006 World Cup in Germany and returned with photos of a cool retro clock from the St. Pauli stadium.
One of those Dark Clouds members, University of Minnesota office manager Bruce McGuire, got excited when he saw what looked like a manual scoreboard in one of the stadium's early renderings.
"All stadiums need something that make it unique," he said, "and this is it."
Finlay, born in Duluth and raised in Marshfield, Wis., drove five hours with his family to Chicago once or twice to see a Fire game. He sees Allianz Field as a game-changer for soccer's development across the Upper Midwest.
"We'll have a new generation of players coming from both these states as well as places like Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota," he said. "To see how this league has progressed and see the experience we're going to have here, it can really dictate player development. And it's going to start with this building right here."