ST. PAUL — On a recent Saturday evening, waves of soccer fans wearing blue-gray jerseys and scarves streamed from a train station and walked toward the swooping white roof of an imposing stadium just a block away.
Before long, nearly 20,000 of them had filled the newly opened, $250 million Allianz Field to watch the Minnesota United Football Club take on the Seattle Sounders. For the next two hours they cheered the Loons — as everyone calls the local team — throughout a taut Major League Soccer match against the Sounders, a perennial MLS power. It was a raucous demonstration of what many people have long imagined professional soccer could be like in the United States.
Stadiums like this one — urban, intimate, and designed for the quirks and contours of “the beautiful game” — have recently opened in Orlando, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Others are in the works in Cincinnati, Nashville, and Austin as the fast-growing MLS carves a larger niche in the landscape of American sports.
But not in Boston.
A quarter-century after their launch, the New England Revolution still play home matches in a two-thirds-empty Gillette Stadium, 25 miles from downtown Boston, in Foxborough. That makes the team inaccessible — and out of mind — for many potential fans.
The Kraft family, which owns the Revolution, the New England Patriots, and Gillette Stadium itself, has for years said building a soccer stadium in the core of the region is a priority. It has hired architects, put forth designs, and tried to secure sites — including most recently the former Bayside Expo Center in Dorchester. But the Krafts have yet to clear the political and economic hurdles that come with pulling off such a major development in Boston. The many complications include beating out rival developers, navigating neighborhood politics, and filling a stadium frequently enough to justify a price tag pegged at $400 million.
Nearly everyone agrees a stadium would boost the Revolution’s profile by helping to grow the club’s fan base and getting the team closer to the spotlight that shines on the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics.
Allianz Field shows what a state-of-the-art soccer venue might look and feel like in Boston. But there are major differences between the teams’ and cities’ circumstances, starting with this: Minnesota United had no choice but to build a stadium.
Unlike when the Revolution helped launch MLS in the mid-1990s — and eight of its 10 clubs played in National Football League stadiums — today a new venue, preferably built for soccer, is effectively the cost of entry to MLS. The league now counts 24 teams, with more on the way. By promising to build an open-air, natural grass, “soccer cathedral,” Minnesota United’s owners — a group of local business people led by United Healthcare’s former CEO, Dr. Bill McGuire — were able to beat out the Minnesota Vikings for the right to bring MLS to the Twin Cities.
Another difference between Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul: the cost of real estate. The economy is strong in the Twin Cities, but land prices pale compared with Boston’s. Any site in Boston that makes sense for a soccer stadium — 15 to 20 acres, close to public transportation — would also appeal to deep-pocketed developers aiming to build another lucrative mixed-use project like the South End’s Ink Block or Assembly Row in Somerville.
When it came to where to locate its stadium, Minnesota United had options. Before joining MLS, the club played as part of the North American Soccer League — in relative obscurity — at a soccer complex 20 miles north of downtown. With the jump to the big time, said club president Chris Wright, the team wanted to be closer to its fans.
“We looked at where MLS teams have been successful,” Wright said. “The suburbs was really not what we wanted.”
After exploring sites near the Mall of America and next to the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field in downtown Minneapolis, the team struck a deal with the City of St. Paul for an empty bus yard in a section known as the Midway. The site is located along the region’s busiest stretch of highway — with a new light-rail line running past it — a few miles between the two downtowns.
Minnesota United signed a 52-year lease on 10 acres owned by the city, worth about $29 million. McGuire also invested in a strip mall next door, where he plans a large mixed-use development. St. Paul waived property taxes and put up $18 million for street improvements. The team covered all construction costs, which eventually reached $250 million.
The arrangement benefits all the parties involved, said John Wendt, a sports law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
“The team wound up very, very fortunate in where Allianz Field was situated, midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul,” he said. “And the city was getting nothing from that site anyway.”
Three years later, Allianz Field’s LED-studded exterior serves as a colorful sign that big-time soccer has arrived.
There are spacious standing areas and grab-and-go food and beer stands to allow quicker sales, because in soccer, unlike in football, the action seldom pauses. The closest seats are just 17 feet from the sideline, and upper decks practically hang over the pitch. While the field is open to the sky — better for that natural grass — a metal overhang covers most of the seating, protecting fans from the Minnesota elements and amplifying crowd noise.
Much of that sound comes from a part of the stadium known as the Wonderwall. It’s named after the song by the British band Oasis that Loons fans have adopted as a victory anthem. There are no seats on the Wonderwall, just standing-room bleachers rising steeply behind one goal. It has enough space for nearly 3,000 diehard fans, mostly rowdy members of supporters clubs. They sing, chant, and bang on drums for the entire match, like a rabid student section at a college football game.
There are groups like this at every MLS game, a nod to European soccer culture that has become a key ingredient of the league’s identity. But Allianz Field is one of the first US stadiums built with them in mind.
It all adds up to make Allianz a tremendous place to watch a match, said Samantha Solberg, president of the team’s largest supporters group, the Dark Clouds.
“We’re able to be who we are,” she said. “People can’t not notice us. It’s hard to miss this big stadium that was built just for soccer.”
Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the second-smallest market of those cities with teams in all five major professional sports. Add in University of Minnesota sports, and it makes for an extremely competitive market when it comes to attracting fans, Wendt said.
But the Loons are winning their share. The team has 14,500 season ticketholders, with another 5,000 on a wait list. At local stores, its gear is on display right alongside Vikings and Twins merchandise. And despite the team’s lackluster record during its first two MLS seasons, there’s growing excitement about the Loons, said Alex Schieferdecker, a blogger who has covered Minnesota United since its NASL days.
“I remember going to games when there were just 2,000 people in the stands,” he said. “The fan base has grown tremendously.”
In addition to more paying customers, having its own stadium gives Minnesota United other financial advantages. Wright points out that the Loons no longer pay rent, as they did at the University of Minnesota football stadium where they played the last two years, and the team receives all of the proceeds from food and gear sales in the stadium. In addition, it sells luxury club seats, and corporate suites fetch about $100,000 a year apiece. Minnesota United also collects about $4 million a year in naming rights from insurance giant Allianz, according to the trade publication Venues Now.
Still, a $250 million investment is a lot to recoup. MLS teams play just 17 home games, far fewer than what NBA and NHL teams play in similar-size arenas — and with lower ticket prices. Even with exhibition and playoff games, it’s unlikely the Loons will take the field at Allianz more than 25 times a year.
Wright said there are plans to book other soccer matches, such as a US men’s national team event this summer, and eventually to host other sporting events and concerts. But, Wendt noted, there are only so many of those dates to go around.
“I don’t know how they find enough alternate uses,” he said. “The economics are daunting.”
They may be even more of an obstacle in New England.
Revolution president Brian Bilello recently said building a stadium could cost $400 million. Revenue — from concerts and other events — would be part of the equation, but as in St. Paul, a Revolution stadium would compete with other outdoor venues including Fenway Park and the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion during warm-weather months. The Revolution averaged more than 18,000 fans per game last year, so even a 25,000-seat stadium won’t dramatically boost ticket sales. And, crucially, the Krafts already retain proceeds from food, merchandise, and luxury seating at Gillette, so any bump in that revenue would probably be modest.
It makes the math hard to figure, said Victor Matheson, a Holy Cross economist who studies stadium deals.
“Every other team in the league, when they’re balancing the cost of a new stadium, they’re looking at all the revenue they’re going to make at it,” he said. “The Revolution are looking at the cost, minus what they already make at Gillette. That piece is what makes it impossible, economically.”
Revolution executives acknowledge those economic realities but say that for the club to really break through in Boston, they need to build a stadium. It would make for a better game-day atmosphere and improve the team’s visibility and fan base in a market where many potential soccer aficionados — car-less millennials and immigrants of all ages — often can’t get to a Revs game.
But they declined to talk specifics.
“When we have something to announce, we will announce it,” said Kraft spokesman Stacey James.
In the two years since the Bayside Expo deal collapsed, buzz about a stadium has not faded. Various team and MLS sources have fanned rumors that the Krafts are close to securing a site, though a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston said there haven’t been any recent discussions. The subject was even broached in recent interviews given by Bruce Arena, following the former US men’s national team coach’s hiring by the Revolution.
“The Krafts have indicated to me that they want to try to move the franchise forward,” Arena told a sports website, The Athletic. “They have ambitions, not only competitively, but also to build a stadium in the city.”
That kind of talk excites Revs fans frustrated by years of fruitless stadium speculation. Adam Sell, who has followed the team since its 1996 inaugural season — when he celebrated his 10th birthday at a Revolution game — is hopeful.
A soccer venue “would be transformational,” he said. “If they had a 25,000-seat stadium on the T, I think they’d fill it every game.”
So far, that’s what has happened in St. Paul. The first matches at Allianz Field this season have been sellouts, with a capacity crowd just shy of 20,000.
During the Seattle match, some fans never sat down, and the din from the Wonderwall rarely abated. A lot of $10 beers and $30 scarves were sold.
The contest ended in a 1-1 tie, but for most of the match the Loons outplayed the Sounders. Afterward, as people headed back to the train station, the stadium’s lights glowed behind them, a giant advertisement for big-league soccer’s new home in Minnesota.