The Heart of Chicago Soccer

This was a piece that I wrote for KICK (at the time known as KickTV), about my love for the Chicago Fire soccer team.

I was never a dyed-in-the-wool soccer fan. In fact, you can make the case that at one point I wasn’t a fan at all.

Some people try to convince you of their bona fides with the sport up front, but for me it just wasn’t a thing. Sure, as a youth in the Chicago suburbs I spent a season riding the bench for bottom-table club Valley Lock & Key of the Tri-Cities league. My interest in the sport was predicated on snacks at halftime. I only know the details of my playing career because there exists a photographic record of that motley club, with me in the front row looking for all the world like a weasel trying to eat a lemon. For most of my life, that was my only memory of soccer.

But the sport is within me now, and it’s thanks to the Chicago Fire Soccer Club.

Well, to a lesser extent it’s also thanks to Alexi Lalas, who in 1994 offered me a fleeting glimpse of the sport as something more alive and raw than I’d known before. And he looked exactly like the lead singer for The Spin Doctors who were crazy huge at the time.

In either case, the feelings I had for the sport were sent deep into the recesses of my brain by the progress of time. It was only by happenstance that they resurfaced in 2006 upon viewing Once In A Lifetime, the documentary chronicling the spectacular rise and fall of the New York Cosmos. It made me take a deeper look at the sport, familiarizing myself with the domestic league and Chicago’s place in it. I soon found myself spellbound by the prospect of watching the world’s game in my own backyard.

Moreover, I’d become acutely aware of how tenuous a grasp soccer had on becoming a major American sport. In that moment I realized that supporting one’s local soccer club wasn’t just a diverting entertainment about wins or losses, it was about growing the sport at home and ensuring that Major League Soccer became a viable league for generations to come.

Members of Chicago's Section 8
Members of Chicago’s Section 8

The experience of seeing my first Fire match was captivating. That they were playing their nearest regional rival the Columbus Crew surely helped to make it so. Booing total strangers without prior provocation can be an extremely exhilarating experience, as the political discourse in America has repeatedly shown. Every touch made by one of the yellow-kitted players drew such vociferous antipathy from the crowd that I couldn’t help joining in. The match was a rollicking affair, the Fire conceding a late penalty that ended the game a draw. What was amazing was that, despite the win at all costs mindset I grew up with in the ‘80s, I didn’t feel cheated by the outcome – it felt like I’d witnessed something truly special. That this club—which just days before seemed so nascent to me—had already amassed a large following. That they’d constructed a stadium in an era when that was far from the norm, and more than anything, developed a palpable sense of history and tradition. If anything was new here, it was me and not them.

On my second visit to see The Men In Red I remember sitting beside two older gentlemen, both proud season ticket holders, taxi drivers, and friends from Nigeria. It must have been glaringly obvious to them that I was new to the sport, because they graciously spent the entire match giving me a crash course on the nuances of the game. I came away from that evening feeling changed, not just in my knowledge of the sport but also in my appreciation of the fan culture surrounding the Fire. It wasn’t solely the loud passion of the supporters in the Harlem End, or the endless parade of children in their regional team uniforms. It’s that the support for the Fire was multifaceted and vibrant – and I knew that I’d found my place.

In the years since then I’ve seen the team from just about every angle. I’ve been a season ticket holder, shouted my soul into the collective team consciousness as a part of Section 8, and more recently I’ve begun covering them from the press box. Along the way I’ve taken nearly every mode of transportation out to Bridgeview that exists, from car to beer bus to public transportation. But none of the “how” of it matters to me.

Even as the team approaches its 20th season, being an ardent fan of the Fire is still something of a novelty among everyday Chicagoans. As a result fans wear their love for the team like a badge of honor. We are the sons and daughters of Prometheus, exiled keepers of a secret flame (at great expense to our livers). It’s practically an unwritten rule at this point that anyone spotted in public sporting Fire attire can and should be approached on sight, as they are most likely dying to talk about the team with another human. And the Fire’s visibility in the community has been growing thanks to clever marketing efforts, all while general attitudes to the sport as a whole continue to trend positively.

Being a Chicago Fire fan hasn’t always been easy if you want to know the truth of it. Diminishing returns on the field in recent years have caused some to sour at the state of affairs in Bridgeview, but I’ve always held true to the idea that this is a project greater than the present. The casual sports fan can sometimes share unfortunate traits with a shareholder of a large company: worried only about return on investment. I tend to look at the team more like a someone regarding their retirement account. I’m still sad when Chicago loses a game, don’t get me wrong, but the simple fact that there is a game to be won or lost at all is something infinitely more resonant for me.

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