To soccer fans in Minnesota, it was fitting that the first event to take place at the new Vikings stadium was a soccer game. The British team Chelsea F.C. and A.C. Milan from Italy played in front of a capacity crowd in early August.
No one is expecting more than 64,000 fans to attend the MSHSL soccer state semifinals and championship games at the new stadium between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3, but the return to indoor soccer at the end of the season has helped build a renewed fervor in the sport as teams dream of playing in the big arena.
“The place is unbelievable,” said Anoka boys soccer coach Pete Hayes, whose team is the two-time defending state champ in Class 2A. “This new stadium will be fabulous.”
The state semifinals and finals in girls and boys soccer were played inside the Metrodome until it was torn down two years ago. While the new stadium was being constructed on the same site, the semifinals and championship games were played at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium.
Husky Stadium has plenty of quality amenities, including artificial turf, large locker rooms and top-notch media facilities. In addition, the fans were much closer to the action than at the Metrodome. But the downside, of course, was the weather in late October and early November.
“The weather made for chilly games where everyone was bundled in winter coats and by the heaters,” said Orono senior captain Jenna Rakos, whose team was the Class 1A state champion in 2014 and finished second last season.
“That was definitely a downside to the championship games, and I think that also took away from our fan sections because it was so cold to stand and watch.”
In 2014, high winds in St. Cloud knocked down tents that provided shelter for the teams on the sideline. Rain and snow also made the conditions a challenge.
The Eagan girls team won both Class 2A tournaments contested in St. Cloud. Returning players remember the joy of capturing state titles, as well as the conditions.
“It was brutal,” said current junior Kayle Vrieze. “It was super cold. The worst part for me was at halftime, having to go back outside.”
The return to indoor soccer doesn’t involve section or state quarterfinal games, and fingers are crossed annually that the weather will cooperate for those contests. In late October last year, snow had to be shoveled off the field during a Class 1A boys state quarterfinal doubleheader at Chisago Lakes High School. On the same evening, the conditions were similar for a 1A boys doubleheader at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park. One of the victorious teams there was Breck, which advanced to the state title game before losing to Orono in overtime.
“By the time we played in the semifinals at SCSU it was seasonably pretty nice,” Breck coach George Stuempfig said. “It was our quarterfinal at Benilde-St. Margaret’s that was miserable, weather-wise. We were the late game, and by that time the rain was changing to snow and the wind was ferocious.”
Orono girls coach Erin Murray, the mother of three young children, said her husband had his hands full in keeping the kids warm and comfortable during blisteringly cold games in St. Cloud.
“Watching these game with three young kids was not ideal for my husband,” she said. “I had a brother and sister that didn't come to many of our games in St. Cloud because their children were young. I know of grandparents that would have been at our games if they were indoors.”
One person who has been through games at the Metrodome as well as Husky Stadium over the last five years – and would love to have his team play in the new Vikings stadium – is Eagan girls soccer coach Bulut Ozturk. He was the coach at Lakeville North when the Panthers reached the Metrodome three years in a row, then took over at Eagan before the Wildcats’ two-year championship run.
“I’m pretty pumped,” he said. “I was pretty spoiled, going into the Metrodome every single year. We went to St. Cloud, where the elements, the conditions, were tough. It was cold. It just wasn’t easy. Of course, I’m not complaining, we won back-to-back state championships there. But we’re happy. I think everyone is excited to go back inside.”
MSHSL football state semifinals and Prep Bowl championship games also will return indoors this fall, with those games played between Nov. 17 and 26. For both soccer and football, anticipation is building for crowds of sport-specific diehards as well as other fans who will want to see the new stadium at high school prices rather than pay NFL prices to watch the Vikings; the most expensive single-session ticket will be $14 for football and $12 for soccer.
“(The new stadium) is spectacular,” Breck’s Stuempfig said. “I was there for the Chelsea-A.C. Milan game. My son, who was with me, said ‘Imagine playing a state tournament game in here.’ I looked around and it struck me that it would be a great experience for our guys.
“We mentioned it in passing to our team, but of course a lot has to happen in order to make it that far, and we don't want it to be a distraction. Yet we very much appreciate that the MSHSL has negotiated to play state tournament games there, because it will be an extremely memorable experience for whoever makes it to play in those games.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 20
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 1,083