St. Paul, Minn. — More than 4,000 kids piled into James Griffin Stadium earlier this week to watch the Minnesota Thunder beat Inferno 95 in the annual Kids Day exhibition game. That's the biggest crowd the team has had since it moved to St. Paul. However, the team has high hopes for its game against one of Mexico's top teams, Club Moreila.
The team is expecting a largely Hispanic crowd. The Thunder hope the crowd will keep coming back throughout the season, along with fans from other immigrant communities which are more familiar with soccer.
That's one of the reasons the Thunder moved to James Griffin Stadium from the National Sports Center in Blaine -- its home for the last 14 years. Thunder president and general manager Jim Froslid says he wants to expand the fan base.
"In Blaine, it's the largest soccer complex in the world," says Froslid. "That was a first good stepping stone for us. But as we grew and saw our numbers, we realized we needed to be more central. It was purely a reaction to what our fans were telling us. They wanted us more central in the Twin Cities."
The stadium in St. Paul is located at I-94 and Lexington Parkway. James Griffin Stadium has a smaller capacity, about 5,000, compared to the more than 8,000 seats in Blaine. So far attendance in St. Paul is down about 25 percent from the 4,000 who used to come out to see the team play in Blaine. Froslid says he's not worried about the numbers right now.
"We anticipated that our attendance would go down early on. We made this decision in November. We didn't have time to get the word out. So it will take a little bit of time," he says.
And it may take a few incentives. Metro Transit is offering Thunder fans complimentary rides to and from all home games if they show their ticket for that day's game.
Froslid says the team's undefeated record at home could also be a draw. Fans say they like the way the bleachers are close to the field at Griffin Stadium. The experience is a little bit different for the players too. The field at Griffin stadium is narrower than a standard soccer field. Veteran Thunder forward Amos Magee says that means players have to adjust their game.
"It's a lot different, besides the parameters of the field and the surface, which I liked better in Blaine. This (is) kind of, just a really intimate atmosphere. And shoot, it's about six blocks from my house. I can't complain about that," Magee laughs.
James Carpenter, the president of the Minnesota Soccer Association, says the team took a chance in moving.
"We won't know until the season fully plays out whether it was a good move. I do think they've taken some risk by doing this, but nothing ventured, nothing gained," Carpenter says.