Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright addressed players last week about charitable donations approaching $200,000 that the club will make to celebrate its long-awaited return to a nearly full Allianz Field on Wednesday evening against Austin FC.
The Loons haven't played to a capacity crowd there since the franchise's first playoff game, in October 2019.
"I went down looking at every single face and it started to register with me that not a lot of these players have actually played in front of 20,000 people at Allianz Field," Wright said.
Ten players on the current roster were in uniform against the L.A. Galaxy 20 months ago. Others acquired since then — including star Emanuel Reynoso, goalkeeper Tyler Miller and recently arrived Adrien Hunou, Franco Fragapane and Ramon Abila — will see the grandstands jammed and hear the noise reverberating from the Brew Hall to the Wonderwall for the first time.
"I'm buzzing for it," said Loons midfielder Jacori Hayes, who was acquired from Dallas in a trade before the 2020 season and played at Allianz as an opponent in its inaugural season. "I was on the opposite end a few years ago, seeing Allianz packed and getting yelled at. I'm looking forward to being on the supporting side and ready for the place to get rocking."
The Loons played last season in an empty Allianz Field because of the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered MLS for four months and then sent it to Florida for a quarantined tournament. They didn't play their first home game until August. This season they played in front of home fans limited to 4,100 spectators until now.
"They're all excited about getting back to normal," Loons coach Adrian Heath said. "A lot of the players who have been here a while tell the others we have a special atmosphere, especially at night under the lights. We have to generate that atmosphere by giving them something."
About 19,000 fans, rather than the normal 19,600, are expected Wednesday. MLS protocols prohibit the club from selling some field-level tickets near players and coaches.
Season-ticket holders were given the option to apply payments to 2022 if they were uncomfortable being part of such a crowd. Wright said about 500 accounts out of a 15,500 season-ticket base did so.
"The demand is still there," Wright said. "Our business is so robust, given the circumstances. It's only going to increase into 2022."
Wright called the return to a full Allianz Field a "relaunch of our franchise." It's significant enough that the club, at the urging of its players, is donating that nearly $200,000 to local non-profits and organizations that influence "a lot of lives that have been hurt over the last 18 months" by the pandemic and the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, he said.
Included is a scholarship program for 20 students annually in the name of Loons players and a literacy program for disadvantaged children up to age 5.
"We've weathered a massive storm," Wright said. "We really felt part of a relaunch is not just getting back into the stadium having it full."
The Loons have improved to 2-2-0 at home, Veteran defender Michael Boxall credited those 4,100 fans for pushing players on late in games so far this season. One of those two losses was 1-0 to expansion Austin FC on May 1.
"That's pretty damn loud and I'm not sure what to tell myself leading into 20,000," Boxall said. "We've been waiting since 2019. We've been waiting for this a long time. We've had a lot of players come through the building waiting for it, but also a lot of fans we owe a good performance. I really think it's loud when we bring the energy. We have to make sure we do our job so you can't hear a person five yards from you."
A full stadium could create a communication problem for both teams, and Loons coach Adrian Heath will be quite happy to hear it so.
""That means we have a full house," Heath said. "We've had a special atmosphere inside Allianz when we've played. We have to approach the game and play the team, not the occasion.
"I want to get the crowd into the game, and one way to get the crowd into the game is by giving them something to cheer."