In the 79th minute of Minnesota United FC’s first-round playoff match against Colorado Rapids, Loons winger Kevin Molino received a beautiful pass from Jan Gregus in the box and tucked away his second goal of the night, but more importantly gave Minnesota an insurmountable 3-0 lead as the game approached the 80th minute.
In normal circumstances, nearly 20,000 supporters would be losing their minds in the stands as the team’s first ever MLS playoff win was now a near certainty.
Of course, these are far from normal circumstances.
Instead, the goal was met with piped in crowd noise, as Allianz Field stood empty, as it has all season, due to the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a reality that makes any accomplishment bittersweet.
“For me it just really sucks that there was no one in the stands,” said Loons defender Michael Boxall, who’s been with the club since their initial MLS season in 2017, after the win. “We’ve had the best support, even through 2017 and 2018, those rough years. Obviously incredible support to have one of the best home records last year. It just sucks that there was no one there to really celebrate with. Everyone knows that the fans make the place what it is.”
The feeling from the fans is very much mutual.
“While I was happy and relieved to watch the match, it wasn’t the level of elation or celebration that would come with being with your fellow supporters either at Allianz or even gathered together at a bar watching an away match,” said Nicholas Bisbee, Co-Founder of the Truth North Elite supporters group. “There was slightly more anxiety [than normal] knowing the stakes, but it didn’t feel like the massive breakthrough that it was.”
Minnesota made the decision to play behind closed doors at the very beginning of MLS’ return to play in August, and maintained that ruling through the regular season and into the playoffs.
While the frustration of not being able to have fans in attendance was mutual, there was nearly full support and understanding from supporters and team personnel alike that this was, indeed, the correct decision given the serious nature of the health situation.
“Personally, given we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, playing games behind closed doors felt like the only responsible approach MNUFC or any team could take at this time,” said Minnesota fan Christian Fitchett, who’s also a member of the Dark Clouds supporters group. “I understand all of us want to get back to normal, but that won’t happen until the virus is stopped and putting fans, staff or players at risk just isn’t acceptable.”
Other teams around the league, including MNUFC’s conference semifinal opponent Sporting Kansas City, have elected to play home matches with a limited percentage of supporters in attendance, with mask mandates and social distancing guidelines in place to, theoretically, eliminate the chance of spread.
Those decisions have not been met with the same universal popularity as the organizations who have chosen to play it safe and keep fans away, like Minnesota has.
“Honestly, when I see fans in stadiums right now, knowing we’re seeing huge spikes across the county, it just feels irresponsible,” said Fitchett. “How do [you] justify it to a nurse who has been working 12-hour shifts for six months 6-7 days a week?”
Sunday’s first-round match between Kansas City and the San Jose Earthquakes gave Loons fans a glimpse of what things may look like when their squad makes the trip down I-35 to Children’s Mercy Park early next week for the conference semifinals.
Pending any crazy upsets elsewhere in the bracket, Sunday night’s game will likely be the home contest of the year for United, and while the supporters had to watch from home instead of in person (or at a bar, for that matter), the significance of the win and of the moment will remain and forever be part of the club’s history.
Even head coach Adrian Heath, who’s caught more than a bit of criticism from Minnesota fans through the years, took time postgame to acknowledge what this means for those who couldn’t be there to see it.
“Pleased for everybody,” said Heath. “So, very, very pleased for a lot of different reasons. Pleased for the group. Pleased for our supporters more than anything.”