In the summer of 2014, it seemed that most of mainstream America caught the soccer bug at the same time.
Overnight the entire country became a soccer nation. Work schedules were altered and tasks postponed (both business and personal) to accommodate viewing of the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 2014 World Cup. Suddenly those apparently soccer-crazed crowds Americans so often saw on television from other countries were appearing right here on our streets. What happened? What became of the America that rejected soccer as a foreign, long-haired sport that other nations played but “we” ignored or laughed at?
One commentator even went so far to say that the popularity of soccer and the World Cup was a sign of the decay of America.
No city seemed to capture the newfound interest in soccer more than Chicago. The Windy City was constantly pictured during USMNT broadcasts with large crowds gathering for viewing parties in Chicago’s famous Grant Park. By the time the Round of 16 came along, the anticipated crowd was so big that historic Soldier Field was opened up to accommodate the 40,000 people who wanted to watch the game. Pictures of that crowd went all over the world, proving that America has become a soccer nation. What was it about Chicago that, more than anywhere else, showed the popularity of the beautiful game?
Now in my middle age, I have seen decades of soccer in my town. The Chicago Mustangs and Chicago Sting came and went as did other attempts to create a professional league here in the U.S. Over the years I have attended international matches at Soldier Field or Toyota Park only to see the U.S. supporters often vastly outnumbered by fans of the visiting team. Some of that came from the fact that Chicago is a U.S. city with a rich heritage of being a destination point for new immigrants to America. Growing up in the 60’s, on weekends I saw the local park hosting soccer games from pub leagues formed by various recent European immigrants. Meanwhile young American-born males were only playing baseball and the other traditional American sports.
With Chicago being the home base for the U.S. Soccer Federation, the men’s national team were a frequent visitor to the Windy City. A great crowd would be assured if Mexico, Poland, England, or Brazil were the team being hosted by the U.S. However the crowd would be about two-thirds in favor of the visiting team. I estimated that at almost every match, the pro-USA fans numbered no more than 15,000. Even a 2010 World Cup Qualification match against Honduras saw a pro-Honduran majority in Soldier Field, which is walking distance from the USSF’s South Chicago Loop home.
But something changed just last year. At the 2013 Gold Cup final in Soldier Field, a near capacity crowd saw the U.S. defeat Panama. Now, the large crowd was not necessarily a surprise. It was thought a U.S.-Mexico final was going to take place, and the large Mexican population of Chicago was expected to buy a good number of seats in advance. In 2007, I saw the U.S.-Mexico Gold Cup Final where the Soldier Field crowd was near capacity and the U.S. fan contingent was only about 15,000. That leaves approximately 45,000 Mexico fans in the stadium. However at the 2013 final, the crowd was over 50,000 with the game nationally televised on FOX. And it was an all-American crowd. I was almost in tears. Where had all these U.S. fans come from?
One new element was a large contingent from the American Outlaws. Their previous appearances in Chicago were small, but they did always make an impact in the stadium despite their past small numbers. Talking to some of the crowd and on social media, it became clear that many fans came to the game from out of town. All of this was for a “B” team tournament a year before the World Cup. Local media did pick up on the clearly pro-U.S. crowd and how it was a change from the past. It was clear that, in many instances, the crowd was made up of Americans of Latin descent or origin, all supporting the USMNT. Another point was that many of the other supporters were young twenty-something Americans born and raised in the U.S. who had grown up playing soccer in the vast youth leagues and their high school programs.
Fast forward to June 2014, and we see the packed crowds in Grant Park and Soldier Field watching the U.S. team in this year’s World Cup. How did it happen? How did Chicago suddenly lead the nation in support for the national side? I would like to think MLS had something to do with it. But even I, a Chicago Fire Season Ticket holder, cannot give MLS credit. The Fire has a good loyal following and plays in beautiful Toyota Park, but it’s a modest following. The supporters group Section 8 are a model for MLS Supporters. However, the best years of attendance for the Fire where when the legendary Mexican star Cuauhtémoc Blanco was on the team.
So what did it? What packed Grant Park? What led to the opening of Soldier Field? What captured the public imagination? The answer seems to me that the “soccer generation” of American youth players finally grew up. All those sons and daughters of the soccer moms of America have an affinity for the game. They are now on their own. And in Chicago, many have left the suburbs they grew up in and live in the downtown Chicago area that is adjacent to Grant Park and Soldier Field. It was made to order for the U.S. Soccer Federation. A pro-soccer crowd in walking distance to the biggest soccer party in years. The perfect storm, so to speak.
So will the Windy City become a Soccer City? Well, let me say that the other American sport on the fringe is hockey. Despite decades of bad Hockey in Chicago, an estimated 3 million people gathered in June of 2013 for the Chicago Blackhawks victory celebration. So Chicago, like all of America, loves a winner! That’s the lesson for me: Win in America and you’ll be loved.