St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood continues to move toward the future.
In September, the Midway Shopping Center started to become rubble after being vandalized and set on fire in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, and on Tuesday, Major League Soccer announced the demolished strip mall’s glowing neighbor, Allianz Field, will host the league’s All-Star Game next summer.
The pain the community endured during the pandemic and racial reckoning was a theme during a good-news presentation to make official Minnesota United as host of the league’s marquee annual event on Aug. 10. The MLS All-Star Game, which will include volunteer work in the community, will be the first major pro sports all-star game in St. Paul since the NHL brought its midseason event to Xcel Energy Center in 2004.
“The ability to bring the world’s game back here to a neighborhood, to a community, to a city that is host to people from all over the world, to where our community members speak over 100 different languages is an important victory,” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said. “… The vision of transformation for this entire area that we can use Allianz Field as a catalyst for continuing the economic development and growth that we know is so critical to the future.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber said the Loons, the team’s packed stadium with 19,600 fans and tradition of singing the Oasis’ song “Wonderwall” serves as an example as being “best in class.” When MLS clubs build soccer-specific stadiums — MNUFC and owner Bill McGurie constructed the privately-financed $250 million venue in 2019 — the league makes a commitment to delivering big events. For MLS, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.
“Bill and his partners, the club and its fans have earned it,” Garber said in an interview with the Pioneer Press.
The MLS opponent for next year’s game is yet to be determined. The format for this summer’s MLS All-Star Game in Los Angeles featured all-stars from Mexico’s Liga MX as the opposition. For the previous 15 years, MLS faced a major European club in the U.S. on a preseason trip, and the new format increased the level of competition compared to previous years.
While MLS has announced an expanded Leagues Cup in-season tournament for its teams with Mexican sides in future years, a repeat of that All-Star Game format doesn’t appear likely for next year.
“We have so many options with what we can do with this game,” Garber said. “We are going to work with the club and think about what is the best opponent. This market loves this club, loves this stadium. We’ll sell out any game we have here, so what do we need to do to be creative, have some fun and create a new narrative?”
The MLS all-star team is set to be coached by Loons manager Adrian Heath, who has led Minnesota since joining MLS in 2017. He suggested German giant Bayern Munich as a potential foe; that team and MNUFC share Allianz in their stadium name, but the German team was the MLS’ opponent in 2014.
“You only have to see this stadium on game day, sold out every week, incredible atmosphere,” Heath said. “What we’ve done on and off the field since we’ve been here, I think is just reward for everybody who’s put in so much time and effort over the last few years.”
MLS also tries to help its clubs host other big games. Allianz Field has played host tod U.S. men’s and women’s national team games and will be the site of legendary striker Carli Lloyd’s final U.S. game against South Korea on Oct. 26.
But the USMNT has gone elsewhere for most of its World Cup qualifiers and has yet to announce the location of sites for three games in 2022: vs. El Salvador on Jan. 27, Honduras on Feb. 2 and Panama on March 27. MNUFC wants one of those games, and the March match would be most feasible given Minnesota’s winters.
“I think there is a chance, and we will certainly try, depending on who it is and all,” McGuire said. “It could be in another venue in town or it could be here. Obviously this is the one that soccer people want to play in.”
Loons midfielder Ethan Finlay played in the 2015 MLS All-Star Game in Denver, when the American team beat London club Tottenham Hotspur. “It means a lot,” Finlay said. “It’s an acknowledgment for a lot of hard work. … It’s a collection of great players that come together. Every year you see the stars come out. That is important for our sport.”
After MLS granted Minnesota a club in 2015, Garber said he recalled driving around the Twin Cities to visit possible sites. “We looked out and saw something that kind of shouted to us that something could come out of the ground,” he said. “And it could represent something that our sport really wanted to be and now is.”