Right along Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, there once was an empty bus lot. The area was about a mile from where Minnesota United FC sporting director Manny Lagos grew up.
There was something about that lot.
On Saturday, Lagos will be where the empty bus lot used to lay and he won't be alone. He's been a frequent visitor of the plot in recent times because that happens to be the land on which Allianz Field was built. The Loons will play for the first time in their incredible new home Saturdday when they take on New York City FC (5 pm ET | ESPN2 in US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada). It's a moment a lifetime in the making for the Lagos family.
“I’m not going to lie, there’s a huge sense of pride on so many levels," Lagos told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. "Personally, it probably starts with my family, specifically my father, who has put so much time and energy into this sport in this state ... My dad (Minnesota soccer legend Buzz Lagos) and I had talks over the years about this empty bus lot that we always thought would be one of the more amazing sites for a stadium."
The former empty bus lot will host its first Minnesota United match, a hugely anticipated date across the MLS landscape this season. Allianz Field has been much discussed and passed every checkpoint with flying colors – at times literally flying colors on its exterior.
Lagos didn't even bother going through the normal tropes of downplaying the game as just one of 34 regular-season matches. The Minnesotan understands the importance of Allianz Field not only to the club, but to the community.
“My normal answer would be ‘ah yeah, business as usual.’ But no. This is too special, too big," Lagos said. "The investment in this facility is for the community. It’s up to all of us to embrace the investment and enhance everything we do."
The good vibes around the club extend past simply the opening of Allianz Field. The Loons have overcome their road difficulties of years past to pick up three wins in their first five matches, including a 2-1 win over Supporters' Shield holders New York Red Bulls despite missing injured star Darwin Quintero.
Behind the strong start, FiveThirtyEight currently gives Minnesota a 67 percent chance to make the playoffs for the first time in their three-year MLS existence.
“We’re delighted with how we’ve started," Lagos said. "The play has been much more improved in terms of our mentality on the road, finding ways to get some points and the overall play. But we’ve had a couple games where we’ve reminded ourselves that we have some work to do."
The points have been driven by Lagos' offseason additions, headlined by MLS veterans Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso, who have brought intangibles and leadership to the team – plus their technical ability.
“When you try to look at the roster build over the last couple of years, there’s no doubt we’re trying to build the identity and culture of the team," Lagos explained. "The balance of finding the type of leadership and character, whether it’s inside of the league or outside of the league, has to be a part of your roster-build thinking process. Finding the right leadership components that you think will really add to what you’re trying to do, the product and the vision. (Ozzie and Ike) fit the bill certainly to a tee.”
Truth be told, all of the front office's key additions have been successes to varying degrees. Alongside Alonso and Opara, Jan Gregus, Romain Metanire and Vito Mannone have each played every minute in the club's first five matches.
Alonso and Gregus are top two in passes completed and passing success on the team; Opara has won the most duels on the club; Metanire has two assists and has completed more crosses than anyone on the team; Mannone has a shutout and 17 saves.
“We’ve worked really hard to try and think about how we can continually get better," Lagos said. "This offseason we knew we had a goal of four to five key pieces to add to the core we already had. I would say I’m ecstatic with the work and commitment to try and do that. The staff has done a great job. For me, it’s nice to see us off to a good start and the new pieces affect the pieces we already had here that we think are pretty good.”
That quintet of players are more than likely to feature in Minnesota United's first starting XI at Allianz Field. What happens in the next 90 minutes will go down in club lore. But it's certain the Loons won't be parking the bus at the former empty bus lot.
“This weekend has to be a celebration," Lagos said. "We have to put our chest out a little bit with a sense of pride that we think we’re going to have one of the nicest stadiums in this region. The stadium was really well thought out and designed, the vision was amazing from the ownership group, particularly Dr. McGuire to push for a design that shows how much pride we have in our unique Twin Cities area.”
Echoing the sentiment of club owner Bill McGuire and president Chris Wright, Lagos sees Saturday as a transitional moment in the club's history, as well as soccer in the state of Minnesota.
“To me, this is just the beginning stages of a new era of soccer in Minnesota," Lagos said. "Whether it’s financially growing a business that’s sustainable and exciting for soccer at all levels here, or whether it’s on the field, the ability to use the stadium to continue to grow the vision, identity and culture of this club. It puts us on the path to start our next phase of adversity challenges to grow this club into a global brand."
Saturday, kids in the neighborhood can walk to a beautiful new stadium with a team off to a hot start. It's come a long way from Lagos' childhood when it was just an empty bus lot.