Last Saturday night I went to see the Minnesota Stars FC of the NASL (North American Soccer League) take on the San Antonio Scorpions. A good friend of mine lives in San Antonio (and I did as well, years ago) and follows the Scorpions closely. I have been to the odd Minnesota Stars game over the years, back to the time when they were called the Minnesota Thunder and played on a high school field in Saint Paul, MN. They moved to Blaine a few years back and changed their name a few times since then, revamped the uniforms, club crest, even the colors of the kit are different. They are now the Minnesota Stars FC–L’Etoile Du Nord, as their slogan proclaims.
My friend in San Antonio alerted me that this game was this weekend (he is a season-ticket holder down in Texas). This is a two-legged semifinal match before the championship game to determine this season’s champion. The second leg is next weekend in San Antonio. The Stars are the lowest-seeded team to make the playoffs this year, and beat the team from Puerto Rico to get to the semi-finals; the Scorpions, being the best team in the league this season, had the week off last week to prepare for their trip up north. They also boast the league’s golden boot winner (the player with the most goals scored during the season). My friend filled me in on all of this. Suffice it to say, I had no idea.
As is the custom up north where I live, October is the de facto start of winter most years. Over the past two weeks the temperature has dropped precipitously and for the match the game-time temperatures were hovering around freezing. For those of us from Minnesota, it’s not the end of the world. For those poor suckers from San Antonio…watch out. The temperature should give us a big advantage, I figured.
From where I live, the suburb of Blaine, MN, is quite a trip. That’s a big reason I don’t attend more games, although the standard of play being pretty awful does deter me. When I arrived, I found out that–to my surprise–Minnesota Stars FC were last season’s champions. How about that.
My last visit to the National Soccer Center in Blain was probably two years ago. Since then not a whole lot seems to have changed, but a few things definitely have. The first thing I noticed was the price increase. It now costs $14.00 to get in (and that’s the cheapest ticket, there are pricier options as well!), which, I have to say, is pretty steep for the product that they are offering. But, having made the trip, I forked over my $28.00 and my wife and I headed into the stadium.
The stadium still has the concession carts and standard food offerings you’d expect at a sporting event of this level–which essentially AA minor league baseball, let’s be honest–with a little regional flavor thrown in. Nachos, hot dogs, brats, and beer are standard stadium fare, and the cold weather necessitated some things to keep the punters warm; hot cocoa, etc were also being served. Judging by the lines, they were doing pretty good business. The cold had something to do with that.
We had packed our thermoses full of hot tea, and had brought along a fleece blanket, which we ended up using as a seat cushion. The metal bleacher seats were frightfully cold. Luckily it was dry, which helped it to not feel too cold. With hats and mittens and jackets and scarves and blankets and hoods and gloves…the crowd was warm. The reception that the players got was warm as well.
The last time I was at a match there, there were a group of hardcore (I use that term relatively, to be sure; I’ve seen real hardcore football fans, and they are nothing like this) fans with drums, trumpets, flares, smoke, and flags that sat pitch side in front of the stands. Now these very vocal supporters (they are the supporter’s group that meets regularly, comes up with chants and songs, arranges who will bring what, tailgate before matches, etc) are on the opposite side of the field. This helps make the stadium feel more full than it really is, and also makes their incessant noise a bit more tolerable. I enjoy songs and chants at a football match as much as anybody…but this hardly qualifies as football.
Another big change was less welcome for me. There used to be a wooden stand behind one of the goals that was labelled as a “beer garden”. With a $5.00 ticket you could stand here for the match, and they had some decent brews on tap (rather than standard stadium suds such as Bud, Coors, and Miller) which could also be had for a fiver. In short, for $10.00 you could enjoy the match with a beer. I liked this set-up. Imagine my displeasure when I discovered the beer garden was no more. The wooden stands have been removed and paved, allowing several food trucks to drive up and peddle their goods: one for brats, one for fish & chips.
My, how British of you.
The beer garden seems to be as popular as ever, judging by the lines for food and the number of people standing there. I was disappointed, but I seemed to be the only one. In fact, having the cart of fish & chips at the game, as well as calling the team Minnesota Stars FC (F for “football”, rather than the americanized S for “soccer”) were just some of the ingredients borrowed from the English game. There is a designated stand for away fans, too, as is mandatory in Europe–despite the fact that with the geography of the US, and the distance many of the teams traverse to play each other in the NASL, away fans are essentially non-existent. Sure enough, the away stand held not a single soul. The match-day experience–to borrow a very British term, albeit one taken from lessons of American sport–was in many ways a poor copy of the European, and specifically English, game experience. It’s a poor copy. But interesting to see which parts are copied, and which parts are distinctly of the American Midwest. Socially and culturally, it’s fascinating.
Overall, attendance was good. I’d guess there were between 2,000-3,000 people there in total. Families, kids, school groups, men, women, old, young…the crowd did really run the gamut.
The teams were announced to great fanfare, starting lineups coming through over the PA. The home team got a (relatively) raucous reception, while the away side was met with ambivalence. After a thoroughly horrible rendition of the national anthem–really, it was terrible singing by one of the club employees and had the crowd grimacing awkwardly and applauding hurriedly–we settled in for the match.
As you can see, the home fans on the far side really made their presence known. They had a bone to pick with a few players, too, which became apparent as a few of the opponents were roundly booed each time they touched the ball. I’m not sure what history these two teams have, but my season-ticket-holding friend in San Antonio assured me that the matches between these two this season have all been very tight, nervy affairs. Tonight would be no different.
The opening 45 minutes saw the Stars play sluggishly. Ball movement was slow, and their defense was not incredibly well organized. They often look like a team that had not played together very long. Attacks were too compact and predictable, and wayward passes plagued them throughout the half. On the other side, San Antonio was comfortable on the ball, dominated possession, and looked dangerous. For all their possession and midfield dominance, however, they only manufactured one clear-cut chance. Despite the Stars’ poor play, they managed to have 3-4 good scoring opportunities. The first half was pretty even, if not particularly good to watch.
Halftime brought the usual massive exodus for concessions and bathrooms. I took a walk around–more to warm myself up than anything else–and checked out the stadium more. I toured the whole ground in a few minutes, stopping to pop off a few frames here and there of the things that I came across.
The second half started soon enough, and we headed back to our seats. The teams came out and we prepared ourselves for more of the same. Boy, were we in for a surprise.
The Stars started the half well, and dominated the opening 30 minutes of the half. They looked sharp in their attacks, and used more of the pitch to spread out the San Antonio defense; the passing was quicker and crisper, the movement was better, and they threatened. The front man, who had been largely anonymous in the first half, came to life briefly and even rounded the keeper at one point and rolled into an open net. The stadium exploded (quite literally, with the flares and smoke bombs going off across the field from us), only to find out that the linesman had flagged for offside. I can’t say if it was the right call or not, but it was close either way.
After that period on top of the game, their energy seemed to sag and the closing 15 minutes belonged to the Scorpions. They came into the game again, with renewed energy and purpose. Their attacks looked increasingly threatening and they had a few decent opportunities to score–including a 1-on-1 with their star striker, and the aforementioned golden boot winner, which our keeper managed to miraculously save.
The final score ended up being 0-0, which, while not terrible, isn’t a great first-leg result. As far as I know, there is no “away goals rule” in the NASL, so that makes a scoreless draw at home less appealing. But the tie is poised for a good second leg, as there was quite a bit of tension in the match. There were some hard tackles, and some borderline dirty play, throughout; the referee managed to somehow only give out one card. There could have easily been six or seven yellows given out by a less lenient referee.
All in all, it was a fun experience, but not one I’m clamoring for all that often. The standard of play is pretty poor, the conditions aren’t great, the seats are overpriced, and it is a long drive from where I live. With all that said, it’s the only place to watch some football/soccer if you live in Minnesota. If it were closer, I’d likely brave it more often. As it is, once a season is about all I manage. With four matches in England in December and January coming up, it’s hard to get up for this kind of stuff. I’ll be making my first trip to Anfield (home of Liverpool FC) and The Hawthornes (West Bromwich Albion FC) this year to see Fulham on the road, and will be at Craven Cottage for two other home matches. The weather will be about the same; the atmosphere and product on the field will be far better.
As it is, there is enough interest in Minnesota to support a Major League Soccer franchise should the league decide to venture to the Twin Cities. There have been rumors that it may happen in the next few years, so we’ll see. The NASL, for its part, will be welcoming in a new team next year–the New York Cosmos! Yes, the same Cosmos that had Beckenbauer, Canaglia, and Pele many decades ago. The team is reborn, but ambitious to get a foothold in a rapidly expanding soccer/football market in the USA. I think it will be more successful this time around, but who knows.
**Update: Apparently the Stars are in dire financial straits, which you can read about here. You can also read about the feathers I ruffled with my impressions on the match, including my being branded “an authentic Eurosnob semi-hater” here. I am not a member of that forum, but found that the link that was posted sent people to my blog; I looked into it and found that last page I linked to. I am a supporter of soccer in the US, particularly in Minnesota, but as a consumer, I’ve got to be honest about what I’m shelling out my money for. “Eurosnob” or not, I’m equally critical of the outrageous ticket prices being charged in the English game.
I think that the overall flavor of the original post was negative. Also, I think I may have been too harsh; while the standard of play is not up to that of other professional leagues around the world, the NASL is what it is. As a lower league in a country that isn’t soccer-centered, one can’t expect it to equal leagues in countries that have a longer tradition and history. It’s a bit like comparing minor league baseball in England to the Major Leagues, isn’t it? Fair enough. I seem to have rubbed some people the wrong way, and you can see my responses to the criticism I got for this post in the forum I posted above here. I took the time to create an account and start a conversation with some people there in an effort to be more fair. I will also try to get to more games next year in order to give it a fair shake.
Above all, readers should take away from this that there is actually professional soccer in Minnesota. If you haven’t tried it, you should. There are a lot of people who are passionate about it, and who knows–you may end up being one of them. Next season, I’ll try to get to more games and get to know some of the people at the matches. Just because the standard of play is poor, and the facilities aren’t glamorous, doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. Despite all of what I said earlier in the post, I did enjoy myself.**
If you like the blog, please let me know in the comments below. I’m always happy to hear from others who enjoy my work; I’m not generally as verbose as this post makes me out to be, but for some reason the words were really flowing from my keyboard today. I hope it wasn’t too dry, or dull, and that the photographs are of the usual standard (whatever that may be).