At Minnesota United, a Late Substitution for the Playoffs: New Turf

BLAINE, Minn. — Every night and every morning for the past three weeks, Chris Wright, the chief executive of Minnesota United F.C., has checked the long-range weather forecast on his smartphone. This is what happens when a drainage problem ruins the playing surface in your team’s new stadium, when it needs to be replaced on the eve of your team’s debut in the Major League Soccer playoffs, and when you know you have double-booked the venue for that weekend.

For Wright, the weekend’s most important game remains on Sunday night, when Minnesota United will host the Los Angeles Galaxy in a first-round game, Minnesota’s first playoff appearance since joining M.L.S. two years ago. That the Loons, as the team is known, had to tear out and re-sod the grass surface at Allianz Field almost three weeks ago would have been challenge enough. But now there is another wrinkle: The soccer teams will take the field roughly 24 hours after two local Division III college football rivals, the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University of Minnesota, break in the new turf at their own game.

“Look: Is it ideal? It’s not ideal,” Minnesota United Coach Adrian Heath said Friday at the club’s training site north of Minneapolis. “We know that. It’s something where we’ve gone down the road, and we’re going to get on with it.”

None of this, in fact, would have happened if M.L.S. hadn’t moved up its playoff schedule this season, and if the Loons had not improved drastically over their first two seasons in the league, when they were among the worst teams in M.L.S. (In the Eastern Conference playoffs, New York City F.C. is facing its own scheduling issues in the playoffs; it has relocated its first home game to avoid a conflict with the Yankees, and could have to move future games if it advances.)

The roots of the scheduling conflict were laid early in 2018, Wright said, when Minnesota United began negotiating with St. Thomas to play the popular St. John’s game at Allianz this weekend. The attraction for the soccer team? A likely financial windfall. The 2017 matchup between the Johnnies and the Tommies (their actual nicknames) drew more than 35,000 fans to Target Field, the home of Minnesota Twins, leading Minnesota United to expect tickets to the game to sell out at 19,400-capacity Allianz. (They did.)

Minnesota United built the $250 million stadium without public money, team officials noted, so every payday helps.

“We knew what the current M.L.S. format was,” Wright said. “At that point, we had no idea the schedule would change to what it currently is.”

Even when the revised playoff bracket was announced last December, a potential conflict existed only if Minnesota made the playoffs and finished high enough to host a first-round game. That is exactly what happened.

Behind the league’s defender of the year, Ike Opara, goalkeeper Vito Mannone and three more veteran acquisitions, the Loons posted their first winning record in M.L.S. to finish fourth in the Western Conference, and clinch their home game against the Galaxy.

Wright said the contract with St. Thomas obligated them to play the football game on Saturday, and the club decided against asking the university to switch dates. By September, he had a bigger problem: The turf at Allianz Field kept coming up in chunks. In an April 13 match played in a downpour, the Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic tore up a length of turf while sliding, then grabbed it and threw it. In another game, United forward Mason Toye blamed the turf for costing his teammate Miguel Ibarra an early-season goal.

“I think everybody could see it was getting ripped up pretty quickly,” Toye said. “There were bobbles. Even Miguel, early on, the ball just popped up and he hit it over. He was, like, in shock. I think everybody was. I think it was affecting guys.”

Minnesota United officials blamed the problems with the field on an early April snowstorm and an unusually wet spring. But when pools of water developed during a game played in a mid-July downpour, Wright said the club discovered the true cause: two blockages in the field drainage system. That prompted the call to replace the turf, after consulting with groundskeepers from the Galaxy, the Twins and the Denver Broncos.

Even with the short turnaround time, though, the Twins’ head groundskeeper, Larry DiVito, said he thought the field would be playable as long as it didn’t rain the day before the game. So when Friday dawned sunny, warm and windy in the Twin Cities, with clear skies predicted Saturday, Heath felt a little relieved.

“The groundsman is probably fed up with getting my texts every 20 minutes,” he said.

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