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Fireworks for Allianz Field debut: Minnesota United draws NYCFC 3-3

ST. PAUL, Minn. — After a pair of meek seasons followed Minnesota United FC’s move to Major League Soccer, a day so many in Minnesota waited for finally arrived. And while the result wasn’t quite what the standing-room-only crowd of 19,796 hoped for, Allianz Field’s debut featured plenty of fireworks both before and after the opening whistle.

For NYCFC (0-1-5, 5 points), it was a fifth draw in six games. For the Loons (3-2-1, 10 points), it was an afternoon that created memories many will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Additionally, the day brought a bittersweet result that preserved a winning record for MNUFC.

“It was crazy. Super loud,” said Loons defender Brent Kallman of Woodbury, Minn. “Fans were incredible. Awesome atmosphere, feels like they’re right on top of the game. How close, how tight everything is — it’s a proper soccer stadium. Everybody’s right on top of the field.

“And then the Wonderwall behind the goal, I think, is a pretty intimidating thing for opposition to come in and see.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber, on hand for the festivities, agreed.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the tifo display,” he said.

April 13, 2019 — Allianz Field’s ‘Wonderwall’ unveils its tifo display just before kickoff for the first-ever game played at Minnesota United’s new home ground. Credit Kyle Eliason / Pro Soccer USA.

Garber continued: “I think our clubs are very focused on this high-rake wall. We have one in L.A., we have one here now. You’ll start seeing them in almost every new stadium, packing in your supporters in a general-admission style environment. It creates this power and passion that reverberates throughout the facility.

“If you’re going to build [stadiums] all over again you probably have these kind of supporters sections in every facility.”

That power and passion set the stage for a frantic eight minutes that led to four first-half goals — something Loons goalkeeper Vito Mannone sensed was coming.

“I came in and had a feeling it was a very strange game,” Mannone said. “We were going too much for every ball. We’re not in a regular shape, which we usually do. If we are in the shape, we beat New York [Red Bulls], we beat San Jose. . . . The crowd was pushing us. Any ball we got, we try to go in behind and try and score. Sometimes you need to control the game.”

On the subject of strange, of all players to notch Allianz Field’s first goal, it was Loons holding midfielder Osvaldo Alonso who volleyed a short clearance attempt past New York City FC keeper Sean Johnson to bring the home crowd to its feet in the 13th minute.

“I never thought I would have scored the first goal in the new stadium,” Alonso said. “I’m very happy for the goal, but disappointed for the result. When I saw the ball, I hit it well and scored a goal. When people started screaming it was a moment for me.”

The Pigeons answered quickly, countering from a turnover in MNUFC’s half as Anton Tinnerholm found Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, who fed Valentín Castellanos to level the game 1-1. Two minutes later, a clever backheel from Castellanos set up a shot from Tajouri-Shradi. With two Loons leaving their feet to block the Libyan international’s initial attempt, there were no defenders to oppose Tajouri-Shradi’s follow up and NYCFC took a 2-1 lead.

Minnesota-native Ethan Finlay set up an equalizer, placing a cross on the head of a diving Ángelo Rodríguez to cap those those manic minutes.

Then calamity struck. A ball played back from midfield toward Johnson caught part of the keeper’s attention — the rest of it given to an oncoming Rodríguez. Taking his eyes off the rolling ball, the keeper failed to control it and an own goal resulted. For the remainder of the match, Minnesota’s supporters’ section — the Wonderwall — gave the visiting netminder from New York a Bronx cheer each and every time he touched the ball.

Johnson’s counterpart, Mannone, stuck up for his brother in the goalkeeper’s union.

“[It’s] a mistake. It happens,” said Mannone. “Everyone makes mistakes — from the No. 10 to the No. 1. Unfortunately, we are the ones in front of goal and things like that happen in football. He’s a young boy, he needs to react and, you know, it’s only mistake. He showed that he’s a good goalkeeper.”

The second half mirrored the first in its end-to-end play as both teams bypassed midfield with little resistance. But oddly, a set piece provided the ultimate goal. Tajouri-Shradi curled in a low-driven ball from an acute angle that bounced once in the six-yard box before tucking inside the far post. Replay showed MNUFC left back Francisco Calvo might have glanced the effort with his left foot, but the official record credited Tajouri-Shradi with the goal.

Raucous the entire day, a scary moment quieted the crowd late. Ike Opara and Castellanos collided heads contesting a corner, knocking Castellanos unconscious. A resulting cut forced Opara from the game. For Castellanos, New York City’s medical staff looked to have convinced NYCFC head coach Domènec Torrent that his forward could not return to the field of play.

Soccer — as a global sport— still has progress to make regarding how it treats players at risk of having sustained concussions, but the NYCFC staff put the long-term health of Castellanos ahead of chasing two points in a regular-season game.

MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath remarked postgame that if MNUFC had been offered four points from its next two contests heading into its away game at New York Red Bulls, most would have taken them.

“Today, we wanted it to be a special day for everybody. It’s been a great day, pretty much,” Heath said. “I’m glad that it’s all over. I’m glad that we didn’t lose. . . . And it bodes for better times ahead.

“You’re looking at players running into spots where they shouldn’t do, and I think that’s a lot getting caught up in the day. We knew it was going to be quite an emotional day. Something that was sort of a dream, pie-in-the-sky two or three years ago — and now, to see the stadium full, the atmosphere within the stadium, I was really pleased for a lot of people. I thought our crowd was magnificent, the noise in the stadium was everything we thought it was going to be.”

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