Paul Tommerdahl will feel a spectrum of emotions inside Allianz Field on Saturday night.
The diehard Minnesota United supporter is excited to return to the St. Paul stadium for the first time in 552 days. After the pandemic kept the Apple Valley, Minn., season-ticket holder away from games in 2020, he’s happy to be able to share the 2021 home opener with his 10-year-old daughter Summer.
But there also will be yearning and sadness.
Paul and his younger brother Jordan attended the previous United home game with fans in the stands, the first-round MLS Cup Playoff match against the L.A. Galaxy in October 2019. Paul cherishes that game because it was one of the last times he got to hang out with Jordan. After battling mental health struggles, Jordan took his own life in November 2019.
Paul reflected on the “electric” atmosphere he and Jordan experienced that autumn night from Paul’s pair of seats in Section 26. “You could tell he was able to relax for a little bit and enjoy it,” Paul said in an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Earlier this month, Paul Tommerdahl jockeyed for position among the club’s 15,500 season-ticket holders and was able to obtain a pair of tickets for the first United home game this season. From Section 6, he and Summer will be among a lucky 4,100 fans in attendance as the Loons play Real Salt Lake at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“That is going to mean a lot to me, too, just to be back there,” Tommerdahl said. “There is a ton of excitement about this weekend, a little apprehension and a little bit of who knows what it’s going to be like.”
Instead of talking about a personal meaning, Tommerdahl said, “It’s a release for this community and something to get back and enjoy some soccer again.”
During 2020’s pandemic-shortened and interrupted season, the Loons held nine regular-season game and one playoff game at home without fans. It was strange to have a 19,600-seat environment, which sold out for every MLS game in its debut season in 2019, be void of its usually pageantry of songs, smoke and swirling scarves.
“The first couple of games (in 2020), it really did kind of feel like a training game,” United captain Michael Boxall said. “It takes a bit to get you going, but when there’s supporters there, it’s tough to beat.”
After the Loons topped the Colorado Rapids in the first round of the playoffs a year ago, they traveled to face top-seed Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference semifinal. Some United supporters made the trip south and attended that game at Children’s Mercy Park.
Outside of Minnesota, other states had eased COVID-19 restrictions to allow some fans, and Loons players had to deal with slightly more hostile environments during games.
“I think those little percentages even when it’s away fans that we experienced last year at a few venues, it does help a lot,” Boxall said. “I think for me when I felt it the most was that Kansas City playoff game. We are walking into the stadium for the first time and we saw like dozens and dozens of Minnesota shirts and scarves. That was really cool to see.”
Paul and Summer Tommerdahl were at that game in Kansas. “We were distanced and masked and all that, but it was fun to see the guys and support them,” Paul said. “It seemed like they appreciated it. I would assume as an athlete that it’s nice to have people cheer for you again.”
During the Loons’ season opener in Seattle last week, the Sounders had slightly more than 7,000 fans inside Lumen Field. Even if it was a hostile environment, Minnesota winger Ethan Finlay welcomed the scene.
“It was great to see people in the stands, to hear what real cheers and what real jeers sound like again,” Finlay said. “It’s one of the reasons we play this sport. Not that last year wasn’t a good experience, and even a fair or balanced experience, but there is something about competing in front of your home fans or going to an away stadium and having the team boo you and having that feeling of, ‘Hey, it’s just us. It’s just the guys in blue, it’s the guys in gray tonight.’ Whatever we are wearing that night. I personally like that mentality.”
After a positive but scoreless first half last Friday, the Loons lost 4-0 to the Sounders. The chance to avenge last year’s Western Conference final loss in Seattle slipped away in a one-sided final 45 minutes.
“Everybody wants to forget what happened in the second half in Seattle,” United FC attacker Robin Lod said. “I think everybody is just looking forward to playing this game (Saturday) with the fans for the first time in a year. I think it’s a good thing, for sure.”
The club’s owners welcome the return of fans for many reasons, with one being that it eases the financial challenges of 2020. More than other U.S. professional leagues, MLS is reliant on revenues coming directly from fans in the stands.
“We are not a league today — although we are growing very, very quickly — that you get this massive check that comes in from (MLS headquarters in) New York that helps sustain your franchise, so we rely on our season-ticket base,” United CEO Chris Wright said. “We rely on selling tickets, we rely on a corporate-partner base, we rely on hospitality inside of the stadium. And when all of that disappears for 12 months, which it did last year, then it becomes very, very hard.
“Well, guess who stepped up? Our ownership (led by Bill McGuire) stepped up in a big, big way,” Wright continued. “They carried the franchise. They put the franchise on its back and we were able to cash flow our way through a very, very difficult circumstance.”
United’s front office and ticketing partner SeatGeek had a difficult time in early April in the rollout of tickets for the first four home games. Given its large season-ticket base and few available seats, SeatGeek’s site crashed as roughly 5,000 people were put in a virtual waiting room before being allowed to buy tickets.
All available tickets were gone within 45 minutes, and some fans howled over not feeling like they got a fair shot at purchasing one.
Wright apologized to fans and said Tuesday the club has worked with SeatGeek to address the issues. They hope to more smoothly allow more fans into future games, given an expected further easing in the state’s COVID protocols as the season progresses.
Tommerdahl has been a Minnesota pro soccer fan since those teams were the lower-level Thunder and Stars, who played home games at the National Sports Center in Blaine. He appreciates how United leaders were responsive to the ticketing issue, and he also likes how the club has tailored games for specific causes.
The club’s mental health awareness game against FC Dallas on May 15 will have added meaning for the Tommerdahl family this year.
“For me, this team is more,” Paul said. “I don’t know of a sport where it feels more of a family as a fan base. It’s like this family that has gone through so much in the past year and a half. To get (some of us) together, it just feels so exciting.”
Paul and Kelly Tommerdahl’s middle child, Colton, must wait while his big sister attends the home opener. But the 9-year-old boy who wants to play for the Loons someday, likely will get his chance to watch a game in person soon enough.
Summer “is super excited,” Paul said. “She gets a kick out of it and has a new favorite (player) every year.”
If you, or someone you know, needs help for mental-health issues or thoughts of suicide, resources are available. One avenue is the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-TALK(8255) or you can head to the nearest crisis center. Additional information is at save.org.