Minnesota United crushed by Atlanta in Historic Home Opener
The Dark Clouds are the largest of Minnesota United’s fan clubs. They were assigned Sections 123-127 of TCF Bank Stadium, behind the Eastern end-zone of the Minnesota Gophers football stadium. Several thousand fans marched from Surly Brewery just up the street to cheer on the team’s professional debut on what was a cold, windy, snowy March day. The fans wear the traditional Dark Clouds hats and scarves, sing songs, jump up and down, make noise throughout the game, much like many other soccer fanatics around the world.
Gabriel and I had seats in the Dark Clouds section for this game, and the atmosphere before the game and during the opening ceremonies was electric. Professional soccer was making its return to Minnesota after a nearly 35 year hiatus, and a mix of old and new fans were ready to cheer on the Loons inaugural game. (The total attendance for the game was eventually announced at around 35,000, a pretty sizable amount given the weather conditions.)
It was freezing cold, the conditions reminiscent more of American football games than soccer. This felt more like the old Met Stadium or Lambeau Field, soccer’s version of the Ice Bowl. Even though it was frigid, it was fun to be part of this kind of atmosphere.
Before the game, many past Minnesota professional soccer players such as Tino Lettieri, Alan Wiley, and others who had mostly gained fame playing for the Minnesota Kicks franchise in the 70s and 80s were inducted into a ring of honor.
The Dark Clouds have designated cheerleaders, who stand in front of the fans on a stage of sorts and lead the songs and the cheers. And they were going on non-stop throughout the festivities and as the game started. It was all continuous noise and cheer from the opening whistle.
Once the game started, I snapped some pictures and then put the phone away. Just as I looked up, Atlanta’s speedy Josef Martinez received a pass completely unmarked. He dribbled in on Minnesota United’s keeper untouched and unharassed and scored with a low hard shot to the far post. Just 10 minutes later, Atlanta’s other speedster Miguel Almiro worked his way past the United defense and fired a high shot past United’s Swedish keeper John Alvbage. The game was barely 15 minutes old, and we were already down 2-0. By the time Martinez scored his third goal in the 27th minute, it was obvious that we were not going to get the glorious win.
The fans undeterred, kept singing. One of the Dark Clouds had taken his shirt off, and the bald guy in front kept leading cheers. He didn’t even turn around to watch the shellacking we were taking, as if he were oblivious to it all.
In the 30th minute, MInnesota score their first ever MLS goal when Kevin Molino scored on a penalty kick. A guy coming down the stairs turned to me and yelled as we high fived the historic goal. Minnesota continued to press and actually held better possession in the last 15 minutes of the half. In injury time, Jermaine Taylor hit the crossbar.
Spirits were still high at the break despite being down by 2. We were still in the game and the fans in the stadium seemed to be enjoying this crazy opening day. Dark Clouds continued making their presence felt, the one guy still didn’t have a shirt on in the freezing weather and wind.
Unfortunately in the second half, things didn’t get any better. In the 52nd minute, Almiron pounced on a deflected shot and half-volleyed a shot high into the net. The goal came right in front of the Dark Clouds and really deflated our spirits. Martinez completed his hat trick in the 75th minute. The fans continued cheering and singing, but with less enthusiasm than before. Towards the end of the game, with the scoreline already 5-1 in favor of the visiting and also expansion team Atlanta United, even the hardest core of fans had given up, their enthusiasm squelched by Atlanta’s goal barrage.
The learning curve for expansion teams is always steep in any professional league so it was to be expected that United would struggle. Unfortunately, Minnesota has just set an MLS record of futility, becoming the first expansion team ever to lose by more than 4 goals in their first two games. (The Loons lost their first game to the Portland Timbers 5-1.)
It is ironic that on this cold day, the team from Minnesota didn’t even enjoy the cold weather advantage. The roster, made up of only 4 ex United players from last year’s NASL squad, don’t have any more experience playing in cold weather than Atlanta’s players did. If anything, Atlanta’s players looked fresher, faster, and hungrier right off the bat. So much for recreating the old Viking’s mystique, at least for this year.
In Minnesota’s third game, the Loons gained their first point by coming back from a 2-0 deficit in Colorado. There were some lineup changes. Atlanta, on the other hand, beat the Fire 4-0. I later learned they had a year head start and have a payroll that’s much bigger than ours. Professional soccer seasons are long, and all kinds of things can happen to change the fortunes of teams.