Thursday, June 29, 2006

'Late Last Night, While We Were All In Bed / Miss O'Leary Left a Lantern in the Shed'

With the World Cup on hiatus for, oh, about another 16 hours, the time is ripe to review your correspondent's expedition to Chicago last weekend for "research," i.e., what freelance writers tell the IRS they're doing just about all the time. The Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer—which, yes, still exists, albeit in a football dimension not so much parallel as perpendicular to the Big Dance in Germany—opened their brand-new, very-own stadium in quaint suburban Bridgeview. ELEVEN DEVILS, the most intrepid sokka blog based between North Williams Avenue and I-5 (that I know of) was there!

Just getting to Toyota Park, to give the Fire's new home its corporate-sponsored name, tells you something about soccer's historic place and status in this country—or, actually, lack thereof. Cities don't come any more sports-nuts than Chicago. The big local franchises all claim high-visibility chunks of prime real estate; location aside, palaces like Wrigley and Soldier Field communicate history, grandeur, deep-rootedness, importance. Toyota Park's address, not so much.

The Orange Line takes a visitor out to Midway airport, through an urban landscape ranging from merely drab to total Mad Max forsakeness and blight. Scrap yards; freeway underpasses sprouting alien undergrowth; boarded-up strips of gentrification-proof South Side real estate; trucking facilities; rail yards; strip malls; Central Steel and Wire Plant C. As I rode west last Sunday, the glitzy Loop skyline receded into a drizzly haze. At the airport, the piped-in announcement informed all that "This is Midway, as far as this train goes," which struck me as a peculiarly melancholy way to put it.

Then, a long wait at the grim metro bus terminal just outside Midway for an elusive beast called the Toyota Park Express. After a good hour—it was, admittedly, way early—I spotted four guys in Chicago Fire red at a distant platform. I sidled over to introduce myself, in my trademark hyper-dork fashion, as a roving journalist on a hard-to-explain mission to plunge into the heart of Fire fan culture. These four lads, all but one down from Minneapolis for the weekend, nicely took me under wing. We decided to split a cab to the stadium. The cab driver seemed none too clear on the existence of said sporting ground, but managed to find it during a longish drive in which also showed us his straightrazor and recounted several stories of "fucking motherfuckers up."

We passed through a huge patch of non-descript Old Style drinkers' suburbia, ending with an actual blue-and-green water tower rising in the distance. But lo, there it was—Toyota Park, a smart little pocket-sized stadium clad in red brick and steel, glimmering at the far side of an unpaved lot as though deposited there by football-loving extraterrestrials on a fly-by of outer Chicagoland.

Dan, a transplanted Chicagoan, put it like this as the cab rattled away and we started our march across the sand-blasted wastes between us and the grandstand: “Holy shit, it’s a real goddamn stadium. I was at the first game the Fire ever played. I was up in Milwaukie talking to a friend of mine and said, y’know, that MLS thing is starting up, and the first Chicago game is this weekend. Do you wanna…? So we came down and went to Soldier Field, and it was crazy. Like 40,000 people just going crazy—Polish hooligans setting off flares, security guards chasing them all over the place. It was fantastic. But to see it come to this point is pretty amazing.”

Up close, Toyota Park is actually pretty amazing—a cozy jewel box set with a glorious emerald centerpiece, its 20,000-seat scale designed to pack MLS-sized crowds close to both touchlines and beer stands. The corner flags are maybe ten yards from the nearest spectator seats. Flashy electronic signs ring the upper deck. Concessions to Mammon are everywhere—from the McDonalds-sponsored kiddie pavilion on the concourse to the concert stage situated directly behind one goal. But the stadium's blade-like steel roofs overhanging the main stand approximate the look at feel of a classic European ground, and when I walked in an hour before match time, hand-made banners hung by an advance raiding party of fans overwhelmed the corporate advertising.

Just outside the park, I found the tail-gate party organized by the honorable comrades of Section 8, the umbrella group for hardcore Fire fans. Beers cracked, grills sizzled, the trade in commemorative scarves and T-shirts was brisk. Section 8 may be the finest supporters' alliance in MLS—though, of course, the folks in DC, LA and elsewhere would put up a stiff argument there—and today was arguably the biggest day in Fire fandom history since the advent of the club.

While I had a lot of really good conversations with a lot of very cool Section 8 people, on topics ranging from the day's World Cup action to Renzo Piano's forthcoming new building at the Art Institute of Chicago, the spirit of the hour was summed up nicely by a kid named Mike.

“We’ve got our own fucking stadium! I can’t believe it.”

As kick-off loomed, Section 8 streamed into its designated home, a tract of general admission bleachers behind the east goal. The Fire and the New York Red Bulls completed their warm-ups, and so did Section 8—by the time the match began, the non-stop barrage of streamers created a sedimentary layer of crepe paper about a foot deep around everyone's ankles. Everyone stood; everyone sang. An enormous banner unfurlted from the bottom of the section to the top. We were off; the rest of the stands were packed; Section 8, obviously just as crucial to the show as the action on the field, soared to meet the occasion.

Bouncing. Chanting. Smoke bombs. Dudes pouring beer down each other's throats. Songs detailing a landmark moment in Chicago history (and lending me this post's headline). Another refrain, about as elemental as it gets for a Chicago sports fan: "New York sucks! New York sucks!" Two goals for the Fire, zippo for the Bulls, and a serenade of the traditional fave "You fat bastard/You fat bastard/Who ate all the pies" directed at meaty New York goalkeeper Tony Meola. Polish girls in booty jeans. Arab girls in headscarves. Stadium announcements in English and Spanish. Hulking tattooed skinheads and Ph.D candidates, plus huge numbers of 'burb soccer kids standing back in awe and fascination. Suffice it to say that on this night, no remote corner of suburbia in any American metropolis rocked harder than this.

And by the end of the night, it was just about possible to say that even though this stadium's distance from the heart of things testifies to soccer's former internal exile status, the scene inside it suggests a much different future.

1 comment:

James M Harrison said...

Just wanted to say thanks Zach. great read!