The appeal of soccer is still, for the most part, lost on me. I appreciate the concept of a sport in which little actually happens, thus serving to make the few genuinely exciting moments even more so; that phenomenon describes some of the better ambient music and more listenable dance singles, not to mention much of the work of Henry James and Marcel Proust and even, one could argue, Moby-Dick. As the father of two young daughters, I have to endorse any sport in which girls are taught to kick instead of grab. The United States, however, is a hands-on nation--too much so, some might say--and as an American male I prefer hands-on pastimes to soccer. Even chess.
In short, soccer's a hard sell as a spectator sport. Many of the fans at the Fire's Major League Soccer semifinal playoff game at Soldier Field last Friday, aficionados though they might have been, seemed to share my feelings--which, I suspected, was why they spent much of the evening singing and chanting and pounding drums. With nothing going on--not a goal for the entire 90-plus minutes of regulation--they had to create their own excitement. Besides, it helped keep them warm through the periodic sleet showers. One blond ringleader was so comfortable he stripped down to a sleeveless T-shirt to bare his biceps. Yet with the spectators providing some of the spectacle and with the elimination game heightening the intensity of play, as in Stanley Cup hockey, the sport began to make sense to me. Before long I was noticing the flexing patterns--fluid formations tending toward triangles and diamonds pointed downfield--that are lost when the sport is shown on television, and the intricacy of play: the quick runs, deft feints, and the defensive art of playing the man without fouling him. When it was over I wasn't ready to call myself a convert, but I was ready to say I'd be back--preferably when the weather is better, although I have to admit I've sat through much worse at football games.
So, partly as a reward for a fine first freshman report card--that was my fatherly rationalization, anyway--I took my daughter the soccer player and fan down to the Fire's Eastern Conference championship game Friday against the New England Revolution. We slipped past the few scalpers trying to unload pricier tickets to buy a pair of $15 seats at the gate for the "Firehouse" section, on the second level behind the south goal. This would place us right behind the "Supporters," the team's most rabid and involved fans.
Before we took our seats, however, we met up with our friends the Exleys--Peter, Sharon, and daughter Emma--a family of soccer enthusiasts and Fire season-ticket holders with fine seats on the first level near the south goal line. Soccer is in Peter's British blood, and he has clearly infected his wife and passed the illness on to their daughter. As I had eluded his many offers to get me out to a game over the years, I now had to take a little punishment as a bandwagon jumper and fair-weather fan (foul as the weather was). On the field, the Fire players went through precise drills while the Rev stretched and kicked the ball around in informal groups. "We look better in our warm-ups than they do," Peter said with a wry smile; having coached our daughter's grade-school team to a couple of city championships, not to mention his extensive American Youth Soccer Organization experience, he was telling a coach's joke about how it's impossible to read omens from mere warm-ups in any sport.
In soccer, the difficulty extends into the game proper. Goals are such rare and sometimes felicitous events that a team can dominate on the field and not score, while the opponent comes away with a win on a lucky goal. That was this game's dreadful possibility. The Fire, whose record of 15-7-8 was tops in the East (thus the home-field advantage), controlled the ball through most of the first half and kept it at the Revolution's end of the field. Yet the Rev, who'd placed second at 12-9-9 but were undefeated over their last nine games, winning seven, had the best scoring chance of the first half. A corner kick sailed past Chicago goalie Zach Thornton near the right post, but Jay Heaps, who had an open net, chunked a header wide. It was such a bad shot that in baseball parlance he could have said he had bees buzzing in his skull.
The Fire's best chance came late in the half, when a nifty series of misdirection passes across midfield--faking to one player then passing to another crossing in the other direction--freed the whippet-quick DaMarcus Beasley on the left wing. But his low, rolling shot passed just wide of the right post.
Despite moments of excitement like that one, for much of the half my attention was focused on the wacky fans below. Most of the people in our section were groups of young adults on pack dates, and they must have bought their tickets as we had, just before the game. Down below, however, everyone was outfitted in Fire colors--with one person going so far as to wave a Norwegian flag, which matched the Fire's red and navy blue, while two Hispanic fans in the front row sported sequined red sombreros. The fans in this section ran through a series of choreographed arm gestures and red-and-white-card maneuvers, and they were the singingest, chantingest bunch I believe I've ever seen.
All their songs seemed fresh yet somehow familiar. The Fire theme song, played amid the fireworks of the opening introductions, began with "Fire! Fire! Fire!" stretched out and repeated again and again, then broke into a line reminiscent of "Dwelt a miner forty-niner" from "My Darling Clementine." It sounded like Billy Idol meets Billy Bragg. Another song drew on the "La-la-la-lalala" fade-out of Elton John's "Crocodile Rock." And still another substituted "We love you Fire" for the "I love you baby" chorus in the old Frankie Valli hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." A bass drum pounded away under all these ditties, and at one point the drummer spontaneously broke into John Bonham's distinctive rhythm from Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." There was no Fire chant to go with it, but it seemed in keeping with the prevailing mood.
At halftime we went down and sat with the Exleys again, and as there were plenty of empty seats in their section, and the ushers had evidently been told to stand down and welcome anyone who'd come to the game--the chill and sleet held attendance to 14,610 for the MLS semifinal--we stuck around for the second half. The Exleys were nervous and agitated; not only were they committed fans but they'd already booked flights to southern California, anticipating that the Fire would make Sunday's MLS championship game in Carson. I told Peter this reminded me of the flight I'd booked to New York City to see my first World Series game and my first game at Yankee Stadium. "Five outs," he said, commiserating with a shake of the head, and I could see he had worries of being similarly disappointed. "We'll go and have a good trip, or we'll go and have a great trip," he said matter-of-factly. The Exleys came to embody the hopes of all the Fire fans there, and I began to root and clap and cheer most of all for them.
If anything, the Fire dominated even more thoroughly in the second half--they were now shooting at the south goal, on our side of the field--yet they still couldn't put the ball in the net. Down at the first level, close to the field, I got a better appreciation for the unique skills of the sport. Midfielder Evan Whitfield had already caught my eye in the first half with a neat maneuver in which he faked a long kick, drew in the defender trying to block it, then nimbly dinked the ball past him and dribbled down the field on a long run. He had also come out of nowhere to boot away a loose ball in the box in front of the Chicago goal, just before a New England player could get to it. In the second half, Whitfield had a couple of nice chances down the right side, but could never quite get a centering pass through the New England defense.
In addition to Beasley, who has the fleet, efficient gait of a Kenyan distance runner, the Chicago stars are forwards Ante Razov and rookie Damani Ralph. But Razov was having a bad game and could never get in the flow--New England goalie Adin Brown thwarted his best chance when he covered a rebound at the onrushing Razov's feet--and Ralph was harassed by the Rev defense. He's a bigger player than Beasley or Razov, with a running back's build, and as the game went on he seemed to grow stronger, forcing the action toward the Rev goal.
It looked like the Fire were closing in on one. They won a series of corner kicks, and one had to be headed out by a New England defender. Chris Armas, the team captain, a gritty Johnny-on-the-spot type in the middle of the field, got off a big kick from about 20 yards out, but it went just high of the crossbar. This didn't impress Emma, who was eloquent about what a dog he was--evidently a long-term grudge. She told Sharon, "If he scores I'll never say another bad thing about him," but she didn't seem worried about that prospect.
Orlando Perez got off another good long shot, but it was tipped high by the goalie, leading to another series of Fire corner kicks--again turned away. Everyone had the awful feeling that the momentum could swing at any moment and the Rev could steal the game with a cheap goal.
Chicago's Andy Williams fell victim to a hockey-style hip check by the Rev's Pat Noonan, and shortly after was replaced by Justin Mapp, who ran in with a stiff-legged trot, his blond curls flapping in the breeze. Emma groaned. "He's too ugly to score a goal," she said. Later on he failed to turn the corner on a rush down the right side, prompting more groans. The Fire had one last excellent chance when Ralph was fouled from behind about 20 yards from the goal. Razov took the free kick, but it was easily blocked by two New England defenders. After the regulation 90 minutes plus stoppage time, the game was still scoreless.
Like any great player, Ralph seemed to turn up the intensity in the sudden-death overtime. He kept pushing the ball forward and straining the New England defense, yet couldn't get off a good shot. The first of potentially two overtime periods was announced to be 15 minutes, but it suddenly went into stoppage time after 10. A minute later, Mapp got the ball on the right side and with his relatively fresh legs managed to turn the corner on the defender just short of the end line. He centered to Ralph in the box, and Ralph drew the defense and the attention of the goalie, only to kick the ball into an open area to his left, where Armas rushed in to boot it unhindered into the net. The Fire were going to the MLS championship.
Through the de rigueur player pileup and donning of championship T-shirts and victory lap around the stadium--which ended with the players leaping the waist-high barrier at the south end to commune with their "Supporters" as Ralph waved a Jamaican flag for his compatriots and the rap hit "Jump Around" played on the PA system--and on to the trophy ceremony at midfield, nobody left the stadium. The Exleys were elated, their California soccer odyssey now assured, and I was happiest of all for them. Emma seemed quite content to have to eat her words about Armas and Mapp. For the first time since the disappointing end of the Cubs' season, I got a pleasant, warm image of what might have been, and when the PA played Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2," it aroused memories of the Bulls' championships. The Fire might not be as dear to me as the Cubs or White Sox or Bulls or Bears or even the Blackhawks, but somehow they proved to me they have a deserved place in the city's sports fabric.
When they play the San Jose Earthquakes in a battle of disasters Sunday at 2:30 PM on ABC for the MLS championship, I might even be watching. What else am I going to do, watch the Bears?