Each weekend in the spring and fall, crowds gather at the soccer fields along Lake Shore Drive to watch children play in youth leagues. For a lot of Chicagoans, this is their involvement in sports, even if the parents tend to treat it more as a chance to network or catch up with friends or give the dog some air while the kids race about nearby.
There's no denying that watching a youth team come together can be just as rewarding as, say, watching the White Sox put together a team built on pitching, speed, defense, and camaraderie. It's just a harder sell to others, because while the Sox are shared by all Chicagoans--or by not quite half of them--there's nothing more boorish than a father boasting of his child's athletic exploits. So I won't belabor the two championships my daughters brought home this spring.
These were joyful family events, reminiscent of my solitary championship season in Little League baseball many years ago. But they raise a question: how much did the soccer itself have to do with the events' appeal? After all, playing baseball as a boy prepared me for a lifetime of watching others play it better. The same principle, I'm afraid, does not apply to soccer, and as if to prove it I went out with my nine-year-old daughter to see the Fire at Soldier Field one recent Sunday.
It happened to have been the last day of the local American Youth Soccer Organization season, so champions who'd been crowned that afternoon were invited onto the field to form two lines ushering the Fire and its opponent, FC Dallas, out of their locker rooms before the game. Dozens of kids took the Fire up on the offer, and they and their families made up a sizable chunk of a crowd that eventually numbered only 8,777. The Fire made it to the Major League Soccer championship game just two years ago, when the team was drawing much larger crowds, but in a painful reminder that soccer remains a bush-league sport here, they lost first a big star, DaMarcus Beasley, and then young phenom Damani Ralph to better-paying, more prestigious gigs elsewhere. This Fire team has barely a winning record, and it's had trouble drawing fans.
The skills that soccer requires aren't skills Americans tend to esteem. Here, soccer remains a participant sport for kids rather than a spectator sport for adults. So it was no surprise that the best thing about the Fire was the fans who turned the game into a participant sport of their own. I am referring, of course, to the group of loonies who gathered behind the south goal in what's commonly called Section 8. It actually comprises sections 122 and 123 at Soldier Field, but the Section 8 moniker is a reference to the armed forces' regulation on insanity, familiar from the TV show M*A*S*H. Insane is what these fans seemed, standing throughout the game and singing songs to their team, most of which sounded somehow familiar. The main one had hints of "Clementine," and a new one was set to the tune of OutKast's "Hey Ya!" A drummer in something of a conductor's box at the bottom of the section dictated tune and tempo. With his back to the field, he exhorted the fans and scolded them when they let the volume drop below a mild bellow. As for the lyrics, they weren't too demanding. One song set to the tune of "Can't Take My Eyes off You" went, "We love you Fire, lo lo lo lo lo lo," and on from there.
As dreary as the action was on the field--and not only were Beasley and Ralph sorely missed, but Andy Herron, the team's new star, was out and Dallas's top scorer, Carlos Ruiz, joined his injured running mate Eddie Johnson on the sidelines in the first few minutes--the activity in Section 8 was relentless. My daughter and I had bought the cheapest tickets available, in the Firehouse area, which in this case put us in the ninth row of the section right next to the loonies. They were so much more entertaining than the game that two teenage girls sitting nearby got up and moved to Section 8 early in the second half, and within minutes were jumping up and down and singing along like hooligans.
Not that the game was totally bankrupt from an athletic standpoint. Like hockey, soccer can produce plays of intricate beauty, and a few players began to distinguish themselves within the existential absurdity of the sport. First to set himself apart was Nate Jaqua, a big geezer from Oregon who appeared to be the tallest player on the field, and who rushed around with a headlong urgency. He rewarded our attention by scoring the first goal, deflecting in a nice long pass from Justin Mapp with a skidding kick as if he were Phil Esposito spraying the goalie with ice on a shot in front of the net. There was also Thiago, a much shorter, swifter sprite with the Brazilian penchant for one name. And there was big, blocky Samuel Caballero on defense, as well as goalkeeper Zach Thornton, freshly returned after a year in Portugal.
For the second half, the drummer yielded the conductor's box to a couple of guys with a bullhorn, but he continued to pound away off to the side. At one point, the bullhorns were chanting "Fire! Fire!" and a vendor came down the aisle shouting in counterpoint, "Water! Water!" We'd gone to a soccer game and an opera had broken out. Mapp made a brilliant end-line run right in front of us, sending a centering pass to Chris Rolfe, who scored, but the referee waved off the goal, insisting Mapp had dribbled out of bounds. When the scoreboard replay made the play look clean, Section 8 responded with an orchestrated chant of "You suck, asshole!" The Fire's Lubos Reiter muffed a similar pass in the goalmouth a few minutes later, but he atoned in the final minute. The ref drew hoots of scorn from Section 8 when the defender who dragged down Thiago on an apparent breakaway received only a yellow card as punishment, but when play resumed Thiago darted down the left sideline and passed to Ivan Guerrero on the baseline, and Guerrero fed the ball back in to Reiter for a clean and incontrovertible score.
But two goals and maybe a handful of interesting plays wasn't much for 90 minutes of sports. With the Dallas big guns on the sideline, Thornton was barely tested, making only one save. If it hadn't been for Section 8, there wouldn't have been much to cheer. This being the Fire's last season at Soldier Field before they move to their new digs in Bridgeview, one has to wonder how many of those fervid fans will follow them.
The Fire may be taking the sport to the suburban soccer moms and their offspring who are theoretically the sport's fan base, but in the process they could lose the urban kooks who are not just their fiercest fans but also their games' most consistently entertaining element. Now that's insanity.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Kersey/MLS/Wireimage.