Saint Paul Insider: Abraham Opoti
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Minnesota United fan more passionate than Abraham Opoti. When Abraham isn't banging the drum in the stadium game day, he’s supporting the club as president of The Wonderwall and a member of Dark Clouds.
What is your connection to Saint Paul?
My connection to the city of Saint Paul runs very deep—I claim this city, even though I live west of the river now. I have lived in various parts of the city, I love Midway. I went to high school at Saint Paul Central, so I’m a Saint Paul kid through and through.
What is the vibe of Saint Paul?
It's a fun place, but also chill and not trying to hit you over the head with how fun it can be. We’ll give you a little wink and a little nudge, “here's this thing you might want to check out.” It has lots of culture, great food, great events, fun things to do—or just hang out in someone's backyard.
But, it also gets rowdy. Events like Red Bull Crashed Ice, Red Bull Flugtag or St. Patrick's Day where it can vary by year from a 60-degree day to a 30-degree day and West 7th will still be packed with bodies—the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a riot of a good time. Saint Paul does a lot of fun events where people will show up regardless of the weather—we won't let it keep us down.
You're a member of Dark Clouds, one of Minnesota United's supporter groups. What exactly is a soccer supporter group?
If you’ve ever watched soccer and noticed the end of the stadium where it's loud—flags, people standing, making a lot of noise—that's the supporters. They’re the people working inside and with the community to do good things—clean up parks, line soccer fields, work with groups like Cookie Cart that collaborate with young people who are learning a valuable job skill. We work with groups like the Sanneh Foundation who send soccer balls, support soccer camps and so many other various initiatives. Soccer supporter culture is more than just getting together on match day.
And what is The Wonderwall?
The Wonderwall is where supporters gather to support Minnesota United, as well as the name of the corporation that supports the activities. Those giant displays that cover sections aren't done for free. You have to buy paint, you have to have projectors and so on—that all costs money. The corporation pays the taxes on the merchandise we sell to gather money for various supporters groups to make things. It also supports our 501c3 initiatives. So, The Wonderwall is technically two things.
If you're talking about at the stadium, it’s the section where people stand, bounce and wave flags, the drums are played—it's the heartbeat of match day. It’s where most of the fun comes from besides what's happening on the pitch, and it definitely is a lot of the noise.
Where does the song, Wonderwall, come into play?
Wonderwall as a concept, the song sung by supporters and the rest of the stadium, started with Coach Carl Craig. It was a motivational tactic on a championship run—he would sing it to the players who would then sing together inside the locker room. When they won a title, they sang it to the Dark Clouds supporter section and the tradition was born. The best time is after a victory when you hear 20,000 plus people singing it. I get goosebumps just thinking about it because of how emotional and awesome it is. It's turning into more of a feeling than a ridiculous song that doesn't make any sense. It’s really funny watching people get annoyed with “Why Wonderwall?” And we go, “You don't have to get it. It's ours. It doesn't matter if you don't like it.”
How did you get so involved in supporter groups?
A friend of mine from work said, “Hey, do you want to come to the supporter summit?” I said, “What is that?” and he said, “It’s at Surly, you'll get a free beer.” I like beer, so I showed up. I bought season tickets at a discounted rate, and everything from there was just showing up and showing a basic level of aptitude and willingness to keep working. The hook was showing up to the National Sports Center when Minnesota United was playing in the NASL. You’d show up on the bus, called the DETHLOON Express. The door opens and all these people are grilling, hanging out and having beers. It was being welcomed by a community who accepts you as you are and says, “You like soccer? Cool. Let's hang out. Let's do fun things.” You make a bunch of noise and you bounce around like an idiot and then you ride the Death Loon home. You go out afterward or pass out because you're dead tired. It was the community that really brought me in. The soccer varied on quality, but it’s still fun to be there supporting—knowing the players get energy from your efforts and that you're doing it with an amazing group of people who are like a family.
What is it about soccer that evokes so much passion?
The community. And also the fact that there's not a stadium telling you what to do. If no one makes any noise, it's just quiet until various breaks or things happen. It’s not like when you're watching a basketball game and the PA is constantly playing music and prompting you to do what to do. With soccer, you provide the soundtrack. It's moments of excitement, it’s constant motion, it's engaging visually. When it's played on grass, it looks beautiful. When you watch a really well-played soccer match, it's a lot like watching a really good hockey team—how they pass, how they move. It's fluid. And again, the community. If you're not there with people who are crazy passionate about it, it doesn't have quite the same energy—the supporters make it infectious for the rest of the stadium.
Tell us a little more about the chants.
We have songs that are players specific. We have other songs like Crappy Old Lockhart (named for Lockhart Stadium), a song that mentions the last time we won a title. We sing that in the 11th minute. It's a reference to the group of supporters who were there when the Loons won the 2011 NASL championship and they actually drank Surly out of the physical trophy.
Others are just screw off things that sounded cool. There are songs that are common around soccer and chants we've come up with that are completely unique. Sometimes they’re supposed to fire up the crowd and the team and other times, it's just a thing we're doing. Someone comes up with an idea, they get the 10 or 15 people around them to do it and it becomes a tradition—or it's just a thing that happens once. You can't really do that in other sports. In soccer, you can do it whenever you feel like it. One match, a friend was standing on the Capo stand like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, so we started singing My Heart Will Go On. It’s this creative outlet that gets to be whatever it needs to be.
What does it mean to have Allianz Field in Saint Paul?
Allianz Field in Saint Paul means soccer has a permanent home in the state of Minnesota—if that doesn't get you goosebumpy, you probably don't love soccer as much as you think you do. It represents a leap forward, saying, “Hey, I know that a lot of the rest of the country might overlook us, but look how pretty our stadium is and look how great of an atmosphere we're going to provide. It's not going to be an easy place for the opposing team to play. We're serious about this. We want titles, we want hardware, we want trophies. This isn't something we take lightly, but also come enjoy this wonderful state—come enjoy this beautiful city we've chosen as our home.”
What are the other cool sports experiences in Saint Paul?
Xcel Energy Center for a Wild game. CHS Field in Lowertown where the Saints play in the Independent League—that's an affordable ticket. You can show up and not spend $20 on beer or $80 on food, and end up having a glorious experience. You can sit above the outfield in the grass with a whole bunch of people and enjoy a beautiful summer night watching high-level baseball. You’ve got Tria Rink where the Minnesota Whitecaps play. They've sold out every match they played—I love that we have professional women's hockey. I love Minnesota being a state that supports women’s hockey as much as it does.
Any must eats in Saint Paul?
If someone said, “You’re in Saint Paul for the next three hours, where are you going?” I'm actually going to Davanni’s at Grand and Cleveland. Get their deep dish sausage and pepperoni. Have some Summit beer and enjoy that glorious, buttery, garlicky crust.
Saint Dinette has an amazing burger. Oh man, it is so tasty. Their fried bologna sandwich is actually really good, too—which is a strange thing to say as an adult, but it is. There's a Parlour location in Saint Paul, not far from Tom Reid’s and Xcel Energy Center. My favorite burger in the Twin Cities is the Parlour Burger. And also Blue Door. If someone says, “Do you want a burger and tots?”—I'm going to Blue Door.
For Thai food, On’s. Absolutely, unequivocally, I love that place. Even just getting the chicken fried rice. Amazing, super tasty. And those wings, those are dangerous for how good they are. Ice cream? Grand Ole Creamery, no question in my mind. For patio beers, Sweeney's—I just love a patio with a giant tree in the middle. Black Sea has really good Mediterranean food. For breakfast, the Uptowner Café—really, really good breakfast, great people, warm reception, biscuits and gravy are legit. After a show at the Palace or Turf Club, absolutely have to stop in at Mickey's Diner—experience that, live your Mighty Ducks dreams out.
Any favorite breweries?
Saint Paul makes good beer. We have good water, so we have good beer. Summit—huge fan. Summit EPA, Dakota soul. Urban Growler is a great spot—woman-owned and they have really good food. Lake Monster because it's just an awesome name and they also have good beer, a cool space and a great patio. BlackStack has loads of space and board games. Bad Weather. The number of breweries keep ticking on and on because Saint Paul has a great beer scene.
Must dos in Saint Paul?
I used to live on the West Side up on the bluffs a bit and you come down Smith with all of Saint Paul opening up as a vista at the top of the High Bridge—wonderful view. There's a little park right up on the ridge that has a great vantage point to see all of the city. You can see the airport and the east. That view has a special place in my heart.
Also, the sunset from Harriet Island. The first time I experienced that, it was one of those perfect Minnesota summer nights—the sky is blue, temperatures are great, somehow the mosquitoes aren't around. All of the colors playing with the Science Museum and everything else Downtown with the First National Bank sign lit up. Absolutely recommend walking the riverwalk and watching the sunset.
Festival Of Nations is a must-do because people's perception of Saint Paul might be one way, but the beauty of the Festival Of Nations is seeing just how wrong they are about that impression. There are so many amazing thriving cultures here that are well supported by their communities and the community at large. You can experience so many different parts of the world in one place. It's an amazing time—super fun and affordable—why wouldn't you want to do that?
St. Patrick's Day for the parade. There’s a large Irish community in Saint Paul and it's a very fun time. How often do you get to be on a downtown street they've shut off for a parade? Why wouldn't you want to participate in that? Regardless of the weather, it’s just so much more fun to do St. Patrick's Day in Saint Paul. Anyone who says otherwise, you're wrong. It's that much better.
The Minnesota State Fair—everything fried on a stick. It's a spectacle. There's the Miracle Of Birth barn where you get to see animals born—city kids don't do that all the time. Giant pumpkins, the whole butter carving thing—it’s so strange, yet so awesome. Sweet Martha's cookies, obviously. People who live in California ask me, “Can you go to the State Fair and send me the bucket of the cookies? Please. I’ll pay you whatever you want.” New beers, tractor equipment you can climb all over to live out your giant machinery dreams. Concerts. Wandering on end. It's a quintessential thing. People come from all around just to go to the State Fair.
I love the Saint Paul Winter Carnival—the weirdness that is the medallion hunt. It’s cold outside, you say? Don't care, we're going to have a party.
Obviously, I'm going to say a Minnesota United match at Allianz Field. Supporters are so excited because, for a long time, it was a question as to whether or not we would even have a team. Then it got sold and Dr. Bill McGuire came along and said, “We see this community. We want to help it grow and we want to keep professional soccer in this state.” And not only did we end up moving to the top flight (MLS), but they self-financed a stadium that's going to be the home of the team for a very long time. It’s a dream come true and we are so incredibly lucky to be able to open it. I'm a huge U.S. National Team soccer fan and I'm ecstatic that, for the first time ever, the men's team is going to come here to play in the Gold Cup. That's something else. It's really going to be great.