Saturday night, Minnesota United beat Atlanta 1-0, in a game that featured just a solitary goal and yet never seemed in doubt. Atlanta is terrible – last in the fall standings, behind both expansion teams, and dropping like a stone following a midseason coaching change. The Silverbacks basically failed to trouble the Minnesota goal, save for one chance for Deon McCaulay – who managed to swing and completely miss, from six yards away from goal and with only the keeper in front of him. Christian Ramirez scored for Minnesota, bulling in a goal following a Juliano Vicentini chance that the Atlanta keeper could only deflect, and that was it. Edgar Espinoza was sent off for Atlanta for a pair of silly challenges. It seemed fitting.
Your blogger, then, spent much of the game wandering around the National Sports Center, home of Minnesota pro soccer for so many years, thinking about the past and what has changed in Blaine. The track is an afterthought now, though half of it still encircles the south and east stands; once upon a time, it loomed in front of the main stand, making the entire crowd feel as though binoculars should have come standard-issue. Now you can sit in the main stand and feel that, given a mis-hit pass, you might be called upon to head the ball back onto the field, potentially as a pass to the right wing.
The wooden beer garden that used to squat behind the north goal is gone, too, having gone the way of the Thunder nickname that former owner Dean Johnson dragged through the mud on his way out of town. The color has changed, too, as a couple of coats of paint have transformed the stadium to wear United’s black and light blue.
Maybe the biggest change is that there are more people around these days. Almost exactly two years ago, in October 2012, United – then the Minnesota Stars – drew 2,006 people for the first leg of a playoff series against San Antonio. Even in the championship series, two weeks later, the team drew just 4,600 people. Saturday, the announced attendance was 5,744 – and even if that number appeared to be inflated by a thousand people or so, it’s still notable that the team drew that many people to Blaine, on a night when the wind chill dipped to 35 by game’s end. Time was, your typical Thunder game was attended by 1200 people, including a few dozen Dark Clouds and two hundred or so distracted parents, all of whom seemed to be there only to corral an ever-shifting number of children.
Talk to the right people, and they’ll reminisce about the old days, when the Thunder were really popular (or so they say). The team drew 10,000 fans to the 1999 championship game, when Gerard Lagos and Pawel Novak scored either side of halftime as Minnesota won the league title. But both the year before and the year after, the Thunder failed to draw 4,000 fans to league semifinal games. Even the all-conquering 2000 side, which scored 74 goals in 28 regular-season games, could draw only 3,400 fans for a 5-0 win over Milwaukee in the league semis – in late September, no less.
Even with the number of people at the game, though, the current NSC nights can’t quite help but feel like an overgrown high school football game. Maybe it’s just the weather, which screams football this time of year. Maybe it’s the number of kids that are running around with soccer balls, which can’t help but remind me when I was seven, and I could go an entire high school football game without once seeing part of the game, busy as I was in the kid football game / unsupervised rolling brawl that was taking place simultaneously on the adjacent baseball field. But maybe it’s the accessibility; apart from the side of the field that’s bordered by the main stand, you can walk up to the field’s perimeter and stand and watch the game, close enough to reach out and collar a linesman, should you so choose.
If the rumors are true, and Major League Soccer comes to Minnesota someday, I’m sure the team would play in a state-of-the-art stadium. There would probably be stands in the concourse selling merchandise, not a state-fair-style tent within a corner kick of the north end line. There would probably be comfortable seating, not the metal bleachers that somehow manage to be colder than the October air temperature. The stands would probably have a roof. The wind would probably be less likely to turn you into a human icicle. You wouldn’t have to drive all the way to what feels like near Canadian border to get to the game, and there probably would be transportation options other than the automobile. These would be hailed as steps forward, and rightly.
But there would be something missing, too. You wouldn’t see the kids running around with soccer balls anymore. You wouldn’t be able to belly up to the fence behind the goal, the better to shout insults at the opposing goalkeeper. The players probably wouldn’t walk over to the fence to talk to the fans at the end of the game. You’d pay for parking. You wouldn’t be able to tailgate, and especially not a hundred feet from the stadium entrance. There would be no more waiting at your tailgate spot to hear the lineups announced over the loudspeaker, before heading for your seat.
Would MLS, the biggest change of all, be better? Sure. Everybody wants to be major league, not minor league. And since the possibility of MLS was announced, fans in Minnesota have been waiting on tenterhooks to find out if we will be the next market for big-time soccer.
If it does happen, though, I wonder if we’d miss nights like this. I wonder if the Dark Clouds would miss crowding the bleachers. I wonder if families might miss the chance to let their kids roam free. I wonder if the bond between fans and team would be broken.
Maybe we’ll find out someday. For now, though, maybe we should appreciate 1-0 wins in the Blaine cold, and the feeling of a big October night at the NSC Stadium.