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'It's just beautiful': Minnesota United battles to tie in Allianz Field debut

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Players from Minnesota United and New York City FC go up for the ball.
Players from Minnesota United and New York City FC go up for the ball near New York's goal at Allianz Field in St. Paul on Saturday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Minnesota United made the first game at Allianz Field a real show, with end-to-end action that entertained the raucous fans as much as the new stadium itself.

Being swept up a bit too much by the energy of the moment might have kept the Loons from obtaining the ideal result.

Ismael Tajouri-Shradi had two goals and an assist to help New York City FC forge a 3-3 draw Saturday in Minnesota United's much-anticipated home opener, the debut of the $250 million facility and latest soccer-specific venue for Major League Soccer.

Osvaldo Alonso became the trivia question answer by scoring the first goal in stadium history in the 13th minute for the Loons, who promptly gave up goals to Valentin Castellanos and Tajouri-Shradi for NYCFC in the 16th and 18th minutes. Angelo Rodriguez, with a setup by Ethan Finlay, scored for Minnesota in the 20th minute.

Then the over-capacity crowd of 19,796 went wild in the 32nd minute when NYCFC goalie Sean Johnson, a member of the U.S. national team who posted two shutouts in the first five matches, let in the most egregious of own goals. Johnson tried to control a seemingly harmless back pass by switching the ball from his left foot to his right foot, but he lost control and watched it skid past him and across the line.

"People will keep talking about it, but he's a really good keeper," Minnesota coach Adrian Heath said, "and he'll recover from that."

Johnson, jeered by the boisterous Loons supporters section every time he touched the ball after that, kept the sheet clean after halftime. In the 64th minute, Tajouri-Shradi scored the equalizer on a corner kick that grazed defender Francisco Calvo's left foot on the way past goalie Vito Mannone.

Though only one goal was scored in the second half, the action was not lacking. Minnesota's Ike Opara suffered a deep cut on his head after a collision with Castellanos, who was out cold for a few seconds after the two collided in the air jockeying for a ball. Both players were able to walk off the field.

Minnesota United Mascot PK the Loon pumps up the crowd.
Minnesota United Mascot PK the Loon pumps up the crowd before the start of the team's first game at Allianz Field in St. Paul on Saturday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the end, the Loons played a little too aggressively for Heath's liking, lamenting some of the defensive lapses despite the natural buzz from the crowd energy.

"It had the feeling of a playoff game where somebody had to win on the day," Heath said.

Said Finlay: "The fans were a huge part of that. We just have to be able to manage their intensity and channel it the right way."

The game at Allianz Field, built halfway between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, was a brisk one with the high temperature at 40 degrees in the afternoon the day after a storm finished dumping as much as a foot of snow around the Twin Cities.

Of all the striking features of the 19,400-seat stadium, including a translucent Teflon skin embedded with LED lights that surrounds a curved European-style canopy, there's hardly a more important feature than the heated soil underneath the natural grass playing surface.

The Loons played their first two MLS seasons at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, a football facility where they drew 23,902 fans per game last year for the fifth-highest average in the league. The opener there on March 12, 2017, was memorably played in a snowstorm with a 20-degree temperature at kickoff to match what was at the time the coldest game in MLS history. The Loons lost that one 6-1 to Atlanta United.

This time, there was much more to be satisfied with.

"It was special," Finlay said. "I had hairs on the back of my neck standing up as we came out of that tunnel."

Fans pleased with new venue

A team slogan is "Scarves Up," though many soccer fans kept their scarves on in the chilly conditions.

Mike Miller of Minneapolis is a season ticket holder; he said the weather just goes with the territory. 

"Every time we have a home opener it seems it's either really cold or it snows. And that's just Minnesota, right? It kind of gives us a leg up. (If) somebody comes in visiting, and they don't expect it, we'll take it. Any advantage we can get," he said.

Miller said the opening of the new stadium was a thrill.

"I'm excited about the fact that our team is getting better and better, and now we finally have a stadium that kind of matches where we're going and the potential that we have," he said.

Yodee Rivera and her sister Yocelin Lopez grew up playing soccer together — and Rivera said now they're fans together. They showed up at Saturday's game with matching Minnesota United hats and scarves, and Rivera said they love the new stadium. 

"It is absolutely beautiful," she said. "I'm stunned, I'm amazed, it's everything you could wish for and more. It's just beautiful."

They already have tickets for another game later in the season.

Anthony Shelton
Anthony Shelton drove from Minneapolis and parked at the state fairgrounds on Saturday, taking a shuttle to Allianz Field in St. Paul.
Alisa Roth | MPR News

Ahead of the game, city and team officials encouraged people to use public transit and shuttles from off-site parking lots to get to the stadium, which lacks the vast parking lots of some venues.

Anthony Shelton drove from Minneapolis and parked at the state fairgrounds on Saturday, taking a shuttle to Allianz Field. Wearing a Minnesota United scarf and a stuffed loon hat to show his team pride, he described a fairly easy trip to the stadium.

"We drove and then we did the whole tailgate thing over at the State Fair. It was really easy," he said. "There was only one porta-potty which was an issue, but everything else was great — tons of buses, didn't have to wait to get on one. Got here super quick."

Green Line trains were crowded with fans heading to the game in the afternoon, and there were long lines of fans waiting at the Snelling Avenue station after the game. Metro Transit ran extra trains to help accomodate the crowd.

MPR News reporter Alisa Roth and photographer Evan Frost contributed to this story.