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Official Review by Blake Benzel, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
While the state of Minnesota is devoid of an MLS team (which could change with the Vikings’ new stadium), that doesn’t mean that there is a lack of interest in the sport. This is evidenced by the NASL’s Minnesota Stars FC, who blend some great soccer with a terrific stadium experience. The Stars, the 2011 NASL champions, play at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota.
The NSC opened in 1990 and has grown to a 600-acre campus that has over 50 fields, eight rinks for hockey, a cycling race track and the National Youth Golf Center. It is also the largest sports center in the world.
The Stars’ home is the NSC Stadium, which was renovated in 2008 to move the pitch 80 feet closer to the stands, making for a terrific and intimate venue to watch the Stars.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food at the National Sports Center doesn't really stand out, yet it doesn't disappoint either. You've got your staples, such as hot dogs, corn dogs, hamburgers and pizza, all for between $3 and $5. Likewise, the fountain drinks are all under $5, making a trip to the NSC a very affordable one, when you're looking at the stadium food.
One of the unique parts of the stadium at National Sports Center is the beer garden. There you can buy more upscale foods, as well as alcohol. The biggest perk to this, while I was there, was a food truck called Rusty Tacos. While the wait was unbelievably long (I waited in line for at least 15-20 minutes before being waited on and at least another five, or so before being served), the food was well worth the wait. You can get two tacos for $7, or three for $10, and the quality of them is well worth the fact that they're a little pricier than anything else.
One of the first things that I noticed upon walking into the NSC was the buzz about the place. The Stars are the defending NASL champions, and it shows in their fan base. From the cheering section, which is what a marching band would be with a three drink minimum (and every bit as awesome as it sounds) to the kids that are running around the field playing soccer, the atmosphere in the National Sports Center is as good as you can get anywhere.
Not only is the atmosphere terrific, the venue is extremely kid-friendly. There is a playground on one side of the stadium, and the youth in attendance are encouraged to help change the scoreboard, which isn't the least bit digital. All of this lends to a sort of organized chaos in the stadium that is truly infectious.
While the NSC's neighborhood might not be all that convenient - it's at least 20 minutes outside of both Minneapolis and St. Paul - and there's not a lot to do in the surrounding area. The stadium is directly behind a strip mall and there are a handful of restaurants in the surrounding area if you've any desire to eat before you get to the stadium. Since the NSC is in Blaine - a suburb far north of the cities - it's about as safe as you can get in a big city.
The cheering section in the stadium was absolutely amazing. They had a litany of cheers to go along with their musical instruments (from my tally, a handful of drums, a trumpet and an accordion) and they were both knowledgeable about the game and friendly. Throughout the evening, I chatted up a number of different fans and every one was as friendly as the next, gladly engaging in conversation about the game or even the wait for the food.
In addition, the children playing around the field were unbelievably well-behaved (or, at least, as well-behaved as a mob of kids playing gets) and almost all were more than willing to let other children play with them, no matter what the age.
Getting to the stadium is the one downfall of the location. While it is possible to get to the stadium by bus, it's a fairly lengthy trip, meaning that those without a car are fairly out of luck unless they want to make a day of it. If you have a car, though, it's relatively easy to get to and there's even free parking - something that is pretty hard to beat for a sporting event.
If you're looking for a cheap and fun sporting event to hit up in the twin cities, a Minnesota Stars game is definitely the way to go. It's easy to go on a whim, as you can just walk up to the gates and get an adult general admission ticket for $14 and a children's general admission ticket for $8.
What really stood out to me was the fact that there was so much for kids to do at the game. From the kids playing around the pitch to the playground set up apart from the pitch, there is a lot to keep your kids occupied if you go. The beer garden is a fun place to stand and enjoy the game and the halftime entertainment is diverting as well.
One thing that I found confusing, however, was that there really wasn't much clear marking as to where to sit. We had general admission tickets, and I'm fairly sure that we weren't sitting in general admission seats - but there was no lack of space, so no one really seemed to notice or care.
Overall, the Minnesota Stars FC put on a terrific product on the pitch and a very great experience in their stadium. Though it may be a little difficult to get to, it's certainly worth the extra effort heading out to Blaine and to the National Sports Center - especially if you want to see some quality soccer.
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