Why Allianz Field Represents Major League Soccer’s Global Ambitions
March 10, 2019 / Phil Kolbo
The reaction is the same nearly every time.
Show someone a photograph of Allianz Field, Minnesota United FC’s new home, and their eyes will squint for a split second.
Is this real, their brain wonders, or is it rendered?
It never fails to bring a smile to my face. Having worked on dozens of projects in my career, from soccer stadiums to convention centers, I’ve experienced firsthand the difficulty in executing a bold vision. It’s relatively easy to concept something that looks cool on paper. Turning that same concept into reality —nuts and bolts and built reality — takes a herculean team effort.
Yet that’s exactly what’s happened in the Midway neighborhood of Saint Paul. From MNUFC ownership on down the line, all of our partners committed themselves to creating a stunning soccer stadium, one that’s eerily similar to its design origins.
In the process, we’ve pushed the envelope of the Major League Soccer experience. When Allianz Field debuts this April 13, it becomes the standard-bearer for a new generation of MLS venues, stadiums crafted to compete not only with their rivals in the States but competitors overseas. North America’s premier soccer league is on the cusp of competing in a global market – and Minnesota United is leading the charge with its new home.
As our principal-in-charge Bruce Miller wrote back in 2016, the MLS has increasingly taken on an international flavor. Only more recently has the shift been more about competition than inspiration. Major League Soccer, unlike the other major sports leagues in North America, is not the top destination for elite talent. Players have options, and only recently has a pipeline of still-in-their-prime, foreign-born pros opened between MLS and Europe’s higher tiers.
This pipeline is a two-way street, mind you. As the skill levels of American-born players rise, so too does the interest of elite European clubs. Liverpool has more than 70 competitive youth teams in America. FC Barcelona has multiple schools on the East Coast. Nearly one in five U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams affiliate themselves with international clubs.
So how do American soccer franchises keep home-grown talent while also attracting the world’s best? Give them a matchday experience that rivals Europe, not always in size but definitely in spirit. The strategy extends to training infrastructure as well, as evidenced by the award-winning, recruiting-juggernaut Pinnacle National Development Center we brought to life last year with Sporting Kansas City, the United States Soccer Federation and Children’s Mercy Hospital.
When it comes to the main event, however, Minnesota United FC will soon stand alone. One of Major League Soccer’s newest members, the club was an ideal candidate to shake things up with its stadium and play the role of disruptor. Dr. Bill McGuire, MNUFC’s managing director, embraced the role design plays in shaping the bigger picture and preserving smaller details that more subtly impact fans, players and others.
Together with Dr. McGuire’s team, we embarked on a design process that left no stone unturned and created a seamless environment, one that extends well beyond the stadium gates. Minnesota United placed its trust in us to deliver a comprehensive package of services:
Brand & Sponsor Activation
This sort of far-reaching responsibility is rare in the industry, yet it happened less than a decade earlier with another Twin Cities institution: the Minnesota Twins. Twins leadership and a team of Populous designers led by Bruce Miller and Earl Santee created one of the most beloved and innovative ballparks in baseball, on one of the tightest urban sites no less.
You can read more about our experience dealing in Twin City authenticity from Bruce himself, but the takeaway for Allianz Field is similar to Target Field. Ownership made possible one cohesive experience by virtue of having one cohesive team of designers.
The site itself plays a huge role. Smack dab in between the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the location embodies the “Minnie and Paul” comradery of these two Northern cities. Two major transportation arteries – the Green Line light rail to the north and Interstate 94 directly south – make it easy for the greater Twin City community to come together.
Altogether, Allianz Field’s landscape and urban design have turned a once-contaminated and vacant site into the charming first act of a bigger production.
Allianz Field also responds to its environment in ways that might go unnoticed, but not unappreciated, by the layperson. With a steady stream of cars zooming by on I-94, the stadium’s southern profile rises up to greet them. To the north resides the historic Midway neighborhood, so the stadium scales down to a more approachable and human scale.
Sticking with the neighborly theme, one of Allianz Field’s most welcoming and expansive spaces is a 28,000-square-foot Great Lawn situated to the north. The green space invites the public in year-round with lush Kentucky Bluegrass and a variety of native trees picked to maximize shade and produce brilliant fall foliage.
Altogether, the site’s landscape and urban design have turned a once-contaminated and vacant plot into the charming first act of a bigger production. It’s only when those natural shades of green (and in the fall, reds, yellows and oranges) give way to the stadium’s dazzling lit exterior that moods shift from relaxation to exhilaration.
For all of the reasons above and more, Allianz Field’s beauty should be seen as more than skin deep, but let’s refocus on that skin for a moment. It gives the venue its iconic look and is arguably one of the most integral pieces of the Minnesota United brand moving into the future.
And it didn’t come easy. The skin and steel skeleton are the collective result of unprecedented architecture and engineering problem-solving by a team including Walter P. Moore. These efforts combined intensive parametric design with old school steel-working techniques to create something unprecedented.
Mesmerizing, sleek, stunning. All have been used to describe Allianz Field’s eye-catching wrapper, but the words don’t do it justice. In order to fully appreciate the aesthetic, you need to see it in action:
I could talk at length about all the design and engineering work that went into achieving this end result. I’ll be doing just that at the Façade Tectonics Forum in Minneapolis this April 15. For now, here it is in a nutshell.
The most visible piece is the skin itself, 88,000 square feet of transparent and laminated fabric created specifically for this project. When stretched over the stadium’s sweeping steel ribs, an architectural engineering feat in their own right, the flowing effect resembles the motion of Minnesota’s abundant waters. Backlight it with 1,700 emotive LED lights and the result is a breathtaking glow inspired by the Northern Lights that fill Minnesota skies in the late fall and winter.
To some in the industry, image is everything, but Allianz Field’s exterior does more than win the hearts of this crowd. As a visual identity, it lives up to the matchday atmosphere that forms inside as fans stream through the gates. The prerequisites for a world-class soccer experience are all there. Proximity to the pitch, safe-standing, hospitality that starts with being shielded from the elements and ends with 5-star gathering spaces. Dr. McGuire summed up the experience well, saying it stays “true to the sport of soccer and those who love the game.”
The proof will be there, visible to all in attendance on opening day. During those few moments of play that all matches hinge on, the “Wonderwall” of supporters will erupt. A 360-degree canopy will bottle up their energy and others, and that same silky skin that dazzles onlookers from the outside will boom like a reverberating drum on the inside.
All of our hard work has led to these pivotal moments. The walk through the Great Lawn. The pit stop at the Brew Hall for a pint. The sensation of being right on top of the action. They bleed together by design, until the moment 20,000 sets of eyes lock on one soccer ball and all fans are left with is raw emotion. The joy of victory or the agony of defeat. Either way, Allianz Field will have served its purpose, drawing together a family of Loons, for the first of many times, in a place they can truly call their own.
*Photography courtesy of MNUFC