Minnesota United FC: A Playoff Team For Everyone

Minnesota United FC will play its first MLS playoff match in franchise history at the brand new Allianz Field tonight. No matter what happens on the soccer field in Saint Paul, I can promise you that the action in the stands will be just as compelling.

The Loons are a team for everyone. That doesn’t happen by accident. Management, ownership and the players have thoughtfully, purposefully engaged with the fans. And it shows. From the design of Allianz Field to the way that matchdays unfold, this team’s fans matter. And that changes the atmosphere even before the players step onto the pitch.

The Supporters Section at Allianz Field – Photo by Visit Saint Paul

The team’s fans look like Minnesota. And not the Minnesota of my youth, but the Minnesota of this very moment, in all its diversity. I can honestly say that I’ve never attended a mainstream sporting event that felt as intentionally inclusive and welcoming as my first Minnesota United experience.

I’m relatively new to the sport. My only practical soccer experience is a few days of standing around as my more athletic classmates furiously kicked a ball from one side of our rural Minnesota gym to the other and back again, and watching my six-year-old and his peers run up and down a goalie-less field. They still sometimes need to be reminded not to use their hands to catch the ball, so I knew that I was missing all the nuance and beauty of the game.

“United” is more than a part of the team’s name, it’s a philosophy – Photo by Visit Saint Paul

As I stepped off the Green Line train in Saint Paul’s Midway neighborhood with my husband and son, and walked past the strip malls and fast food restaurants along one flank of Allianz Field, I wondered if the speed and scope of the game–which looks frantic and complicated when I see it on television–would be too much for me. We took a few photos out front and then shuffled off to find our seats. I hoped I could keep up.

Thankfully, the gentleman next to me knew his stuff. He’d been coming to games since the Loons got their start at TCF Bank Stadium two seasons ago and helpfully filled in the substantial blanks in my knowledge when my kiddo asked me questions I couldn’t answer. A gray-haired couple animatedly discussed the range of possible offensive strategies to my husband’s left.

A Minnesota United FC fan watches warm ups at Allianz Field

As a light rain began to fall, we all pulled up our hoods and donned rain gear, chatting about the players warming up on the sidelines in English, Spanish, Somali and at least one other language that I couldn’t identify. I’m a travel writer, a language nerd who features cool words from around the world in her travel podcast, and I’m currently writing a book of essays anchored by untranslatable words and phrases from other cultures, so I was delighted by this particular linguistic puzzle.

But before I could embarrass my husband by eavesdropping on the couple two rows behind us as I tried to figure out which language they were speaking, the rain kicked up a notch and there was a flurry of activity on the field. People were walking slowly onto the grass, carrying something in their arms. I wondered if the game would go on, or if they’d pull a big tarp over the field like they do at baseball games as we waited out the worst of it.

Fans watch the Loons at Allianz Field – Photo by Visit Saint Paul

It wasn’t a tarp that this crowd of people held in their arms, but a banner similar to a tifo. But what those folks were carrying seemed less important to me than who they were. They weren’t visiting dignitaries or men in business suits. They were families and kids and tattooed dudes and older folks. It looked like a random crosssection of humanity randomly selected from a city park earlier that Sunday afternoon.

The very first graphic I noticed when I stepped into the building that night was a rainbow flag that declared that every night is Pride night at Allianz Field. That same message was also emblazoned on a tifo earlier this season.

I’d never seen this kind of clear invitation laid out to LGBTQ fans at a mainstream sporting event. It’s one thing to pay lip service with a message in the program or to host a one-day Pride event, but it’s quite another to deliberately and intentionally craft a message of welcome and then back it up all season long.

I couldn’t help thinking of all my friends in the LGBTQ community who have told me that felt (or still feel) excluded from mainstream sports as I watched Minnesota United FC fans waving rainbow banners and the pink, blue and white stripes of the transgender flag. Clearly, this was a place for everyone.

Fans at Allianz Field – Photo by Visit Saint Paul

I was lost in my thoughts, but the action on the field waits for no one. There were cheers and the eruption of fireworks as the players jogged out and grinned at the crowd. The smoke mixed with the rain and left the stadium cloaked in a misty fog that obscured the action on the pitch.

It was hard to see the players and the ball in those first moments of the game. But you could feel the energy of the crowd. It ripples through the seats like a wave.

The beating heart of the crowd at a Loons game is the Wonderwall, the supporters section where 2,920 fans spend the entire game standing, waving flags, beating drums, chanting and holding up scarves and banners to create a living, breathing, screaming wall of sound, color and energy. I reached out to someone who thrives in the center of that energy, Minneapolis resident Maggi Heyer-Erlandson. Maggi is active with two dynamic supporters organizations in the Wonderwall, Dark Glitterari and Dark Clouds and serves as a capo on matchday.

“Capos are our section leaders who lead all the chants,” Maggi explains. “It’s a lot of fun to go out there and step into a personality that’s a little larger than myself. There’s nothing like getting 20,000 people all riled up.”

A fan celebrates at Allianz Field – Photo by Daniel Mick

Minneapolis photographer (and former Midway resident) Daniel Mick, who photographs the action in the supporters section, experiences the energy of Minnesota United FC fans up close on matchday. It gets loud.

“The atmosphere is electric,” he says. “I had to buy earplugs because I was noticing ringing in my ears hours after games. Hearing songs start up immediately after conceding a goal is what separates Wonderwall/Dark Clouds from other supporters groups on the league. A handful do that, but most get quiet.”

The crowd at Allianz Field in Saint Paul – Photo by Minnesota United FC

To really get the most of our your first (or any) Minnesota United game, Maggi and Daniel have some simple advice. Maggi’s first tip is to download the MN Wonderwall app so you can learn the chants and songs in advance. That way, you’ll be ready well before you show up at Allianz Field. Once matchday arrives, allow plenty of time to get to explore.

“Get to the game early,” advises Daniel. “Get your food and drinks, check out the store, go down to field level during warmups if you can. Allianz is the most beautiful soccer stadium I have ever been (to), and besides Target Field, I think it’s the best in the Midwest for aesthetic beauty and fan experience.”

Fans at Brew Hall at Allianz Field – Photo by Visit Saint Paul

Both Daniel and Maggi agree that Loons fans are a big part of what makes this team special. So don’t keep to yourself.

“I think the other advice would be to just introduce yourself to the people around you,” says Maggi. “A lot of them have been going to games for a long, long time.”

That’s advice that worked well for us at our first game. Our neighbors were happy to fill us in on anything we might have missed or misunderstood. But honestly, the action on the field spoke for itself.

The game was great. The players’ arcing passes were powerful and graceful. The energy never let up. I never would have thought that a match-up that resulted in a 1-1 tie could be so exciting. My son has never made it past halftime, the second period or the third inning without fussing for food or a phone, but he was as transfixed as we were.

The Loons – photo by Minnesota United FC

That’s due to the players on the field, but also the people in the stands. The fans take the irrepressible energy that’s flooding out of the supporters section and amplify it in their own section of the building. The fans are the ones who take the team’s words and example of inclusion for all and put it into practice every single game.

“It’s 90 minutes of yelling your heart out and making sure our boys feel supported,” Maggi says. “But I think that sense of community we have runs beyond the supporters section. I think soccer in general, there’s a great community around the game and that’s a really unique part of it. Everybody is really willing to welcome you and teach you the chants and traditions that we have. Everyone is from really different walks of life, but we’re all really passionate about soccer and that brings us together. It’s an inclusive community that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.”

That’s something to celebrate.

Drums accompany the cheers at Allianz Field – Photo by Visit Saint Paul

What about you?
What do you love about Minnesota United FC games?
What’s your favorite place to watch sports?
What do you like about soccer in general?
What tips and tricks do you have for enjoying Allianz Field or professional soccer in general?
Where are you watching the Loons playoff game tonight

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