The last time I attended a Major League Soccer game was nine years ago when San Jose Earthquakes beat Miami Fusion 1-0 in South Florida to advance to the 2001 MLS Cup Final. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the game ended up being Miami’s last ever MLS appearance. It also marked my last MLS game until this past weekend when I visited Chicago for business meetings and visited Toyota Park to see the Fire’s last home game of the 2010 season. With both Chicago and DC United out of the playoff race, my expectations weren’t that high.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in Chicago, it seemed like the perfect day to watch a game of professional soccer. So after having my first taste of Chicago-style deep dish pizza in downtown Chicago, I headed in a car toward Bridgeview with good friend and MLS Talk blogger Lou Bruno. Immediately after exiting the highway, the traffic was backed up on the roadway which was a promising sign especially since this was Brian McBride’s last home game for his local team.
From the moment the car entered the parking lot of Toyota Park to the minute we left, I must say that I was stunned at how wonderful the Chicago Fire experience was and how everything was so well organized. The view of the stadium perched on an incline above the parking lot was a simple but beautiful sight to see. Walking into the stadium and up the steps, it was encouraging to see that there were plenty of Fire employees and security on hand to handle the crowds. Walking straight to our seats in section 125, the first thing that struck me was how there wasn’t a bad seat in the stadium. The seats feel close up to the action, while the open lower bowl created a comforting and relaxing feeling.
As the sun shone on a beautiful autumn day, I watched the pre-match buildup as fireworks exploded and teams were announced. Looking around the crowd, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many families and young children sitting down and preparing themselves for the game. It was the type of environment that if I lived near Chicago I would bring my wife and children to each week. And then within minutes, the game kicked off.
With the Fire and DC United having nothing to play for other than pride, it wasn’t surprising that the game started off slowly. During breaks in the game, I paid closer attention to the atmosphere around the ground. There were still a long line of people filing into the stadium but the seats were beginning to fill. But what stood out most for me in the crowd was the infamous Section 8 supporters group who were positioned behind the north goal. This was a group of passionate supporters who would make many European clubs blush. They didn’t stop cheering at all and the passion and noise they exhibited was beautiful to see and hear. As well as singing Chicago Fire songs throughout most of the game, they also brought the west side and east side of the stadium into the experience with an impressive call and response chant.
Down on the field, Chicago Fire created more opportunities to score than Ben Olsen’s side but the team in red and white was unable to break down the DC United goal. Halftime quickly arrived, so Lou and I took a walk around the stadium’s concourse. Everything seemed quite orderly from the long lines of people buying merchandise to the soccer fans queueing for food. After walking around to the south east corner of the ground, I was pleasantly surprised to find an Illinois Soccer Wall Of Fame against a wall as well as display chronicling the history of soccer in Chicago.
Returning to my seat, the second half kicked off and the teams continued to battle each other as the game became more physical. While the game continued meandering along, I saw a few more things that impressed me. First, when the players from the Chicago Fire substitutes bench were instructed to do a warm-up behind the goal, every single one of the players purposefully walked around the inside edge of the stadium making sure they shook everyone’s hands or gave them a high-five. It’s a wonderful example to me of a small thing that makes a big difference. Obviously the Fire players care about their supporters and they went out of the way to show their gratitude even if it was in the smallest of ways.
Second, I watched as a Chicago Fire employee took her clipboard and walked down the aisle near where I sat. She made it a point of speaking with soccer fans who were on her list. I presume she was asking about season ticket renewals for next season, but interacting on a one-on-one basis with a very human touch was endearing to witness. The Fire could have easily gone for the cheaper method of sending e-mails or letters to season ticket holders, but the fact that they were making an effort to sit down and talk to each person was wonderful to see.
Third and finally, I was impressed by the Chicago Fire dog mascot who was led around the stadium by his master so that the kids could stop and pet the animal. Going to a soccer game is fun for a child, but seeing them getting excited to play with a dog was very touching.
With two minutes to go before the game ended, Brian McBride was substituted thus allowing the crowd to give him a standing ovation as he walked off the field. To see one of the greatest American soccer players ever play his last home game in front of his local crowd was brilliant to see. McBride personified everything that is great about the best American players. Whether it was in the Premier League, MLS or playing for his national team, McBride always poured his heart and soul into his performance, and oftentimes sacrificed his body for score headers or challenge for balls.
Before I knew it, the 90 minutes was over and the referee blew his whistle for full time during the 0-0 game. Chicago Fire had the slight edge in the game. Particularly impressive was the performance by Patrick Nyarko who, during the game, continued to bomb down the middle of the park as he advanced toward goal. He had a couple of decent chances, but ultimately he came up short when it mattered the most. Also impressive for Chicago was Andrew Dykstra who made a few decisive saves from DC United even if they were against the run of play.
My experience of attending a Chicago Fire MLS game was better than I could have ever imagined. It was plain to see that the Fire have spent a lot of time and attention to the stadium experience. And after attending hundreds of professional soccer games, I can honestly say that my experience at Toyota Park was one of the most pleasant ones I’ve ever had.
But at the end of the day it was a shame that the whole reason everyone attended the game wasn’t better, and that was the soccer played on the field. Yes, neither team had anything to play for and the game ended 0-0, but the level of soccer played was far below what I remember seeing nine years ago when there were far more talented players and better soccer played on the field.
Still, seeing a soccer game in person is always an enjoyable experience for me. There weren’t any goals scored, but even if the Fire can’t find a spark on the field next season, it’s encouraging to know that the Chicago team will be at least continue to be a success off the field no matter what happens.