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Football may own Chicago, but soccer has deeper roots than you might think. Led by the great Karl-Heinz Granitza, the NASL’s Chicago Sting not only stopped the famed New York Cosmos cold in the 1981 Soccer Bowl, but they also outlasted that league as a whole, continuing for a few seasons in indoor leagues before folding in 1988.
Their successors are the Chicago Fire, who opened play in 1998. While most expansion teams need time to develop talent and ties to their community, the Fire were one of Major League Soccer’s most successful franchises from the start, winning the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup in their very first season. They also earned an intense group of supporters, one that strives to be an engine for the players on the field and ambassadors for new fans.
However, the stadium issue was a growing problem. As the lowest-ranking tenants of Soldier Field, where concerts, college football, and the Chicago Bears took precedence, Fire home games were sometimes required to be as many as 58 days apart. And with the renovation of Soldier Field in 2002-03, the Fire were sent to an unhappy exile at a small college field in the suburb of Naperville.
With the 2006 opening of Toyota Park, the Fire had their own stadium at last, but success on the field did not follow them to Bridgeview. After three MLS Cup appearances in their first six years, there were none in the next nine; after inaugurating their new stadium with a U.S. Open Cup victory, the Fire managed only a single runner-up showing over the next several years.
In an extremely crowded market for professional sports, with attendance lagging behind the explosive growth enjoyed by other MLS franchises, how does Chicago Fire soccer at Toyota Park measure up?
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Refreshments are within quick reach of any seat in the stadium, save for the upper deck, and lines are short throughout the game - even more so for the carts and stands on the exterior concourse, facing away from the field.
Pepsi products are $5 in 20 oz. bottles or cups. Domestic beers are $7, while imports and selected draft beers are $9.50. The beverage carts on the exterior concourse have the widest variety of beers including Blue Moon, Dos Equis, Killian's Irish Stout, Lagunitas, Leinenkugel's, and Negra Modelo on tap. (They're scattered throughout the stadium, so keep walking if you don't see what you want). Alternately, look for the red carts, which offer fruit smoothies and lemonade (with or without liquor) and Fire Margaritas ($11).
Basics like popcorn, ice cream, and jumbo pretzels cost $4 and are handled well enough. Pizza slices are $5, and there are dressed-up chicken tenders ($8) at the Quaker Corner. There's one concession stand for fans with dietary restrictions, including gluten-free chicken tenders and a black bean veggie burger.
Ultimately, in this area of Chicago, a stadium is going to rise or fall on the quality of what comes off its grills. Brats, Polish sausages, and Italian sausages are delivered well and with a minimum of fuss ($7 each). Don't overlook the Italian beef sandwiches ($10) either, which come with gravy for dipping and are piled high with giardiniera.
On the hot dogs, though, the menus get a bit confusing. There are too many variations, and the employees struggle to explain the distinctions between them. One stand might serve only "Red Hot Chicago Hot Dogs", which come plain, while another serves only "Loaded Chicago Style Red Hot Chicago Hot Dogs", which come with the standard fixings. And does anyone really need to put effort into figuring out whether a Monster Dog or a Fire Dog is what they want?
(The correct answer: stick with the "Loaded" version of the Chicago Hot Dog ($7), which is tasty and authentic - the tomato slices, peppers, and pickle are fat and fresh, and the Gulden's mustard makes the dog sing).
The biggest disappointment on the menu may be the elotes, which are self-serve here - they shave the corn off the cob, hand it to you in a little basket, and then point you toward a cart where you're meant to pile on the (watery) mayo and seasonings (sans lime or lemon) yourself. This is an atrocious state of affairs.
Since Quaker Oats is the team's major sponsor, it's hard to understand why Quaker isn't doing a better job of showcasing their own products at the concessions. For example, avoid the Quaker Cookie, which is a dry, store-wrapped, pre-crumbled mound of disappointment. Go with a churro ($3) instead.
On a beautiful Saturday evening, you are likely to find about a dozen groups of tailgaters grilling in the north parking lot - plenty of space to spread out, but still lively. The atmosphere is borderline idyllic, in fact, with kids roaming freely and fans showing off their footwork with soccer balls. It's worth parking up there to soak up the pre-game atmosphere.
Toyota Park is a soccer-specific stadium. Concerts, festivals, and the rodeo stop are also held in the park, but the sightlines are clearly designed with soccer in mind, and the natural grass field appears to be kept in excellent shape, a lovely shade of green.
Inside the park, the pre-game atmosphere can be cringeworthy at times, though Snap's accountant presumably appreciates that someone is still using "I Got The Power" at live sporting events. Player introductions fail to create any sense of drama or anticipation, especially when the hoary Imperial March is played over the names of the opponents - all the duller because the opponents don't actually take the field until a few minutes later. There's nobody to boo!
That said, the laid-back approach makes for a more enjoyable experience during the game. The team seems to have decided to rely on their fans for atmosphere, and the fans definitely come through - no stadium production is necessary to exhort them to make noise. Sound effects and music cues are kept to a minimum during game action, aside from a round of fireworks for every goal, which is a nice touch.
Seats are comfortable and offer a decent amount of space, a mix between metal bleachers and molded plastic seats with cup-holders. Handicapped seating offers a good, clear view of the action. The video screen is on the small side and has some digital artifacts during replays; it's also located at the far south end of the field, so many fans don't have a great view, but it is hardly essential to enjoy the game.
Regardless of where your seat is located, it's worth taking a walk down to the Harlem End at some point during the first half. The air is full of the aroma of good food being grilled - no other Chicago-area venue can match it.
Bridgeview is an unpretentious, working-class suburb that shares the identity of the nearby Southwest Side of Chicago. It wasn't known as a hub for nightlife when Toyota Park landed here, and that hasn't changed much. To the west of the stadium are acres of single-family homes, while freight trains periodically rumble past a Rice-a-Roni plant to the north. If the area is known for anything among Chicagoans, it's Midway Airport, stellar Polish/Lithuanian food, and terrific hot dogs and sausages.
If you'd like to bring some of the local meats home with you (or need supplies for tailgating), stop by Joe and Frank's Market at 7147 W. Archer Ave., or venture a little further north to the legendary Bobak's Sausage Co. at 5275 S. Archer Ave.
For meals before or after the game, try Portillo's (5332 S. Harlem Ave.), an Illinois chain that serves good hot dogs, hamburgers, and pasta, or grab an Italian beef from Beefy's (5749 S. Harlem Ave.), a friendly retro-diner a few minutes from the stadium.
For drinks, the king of the roost is Grand Duke's Restaurant, a Lithuanian powerhouse at 6312 S. Harlem Ave. Chicago Fire fans have adopted Grand Duke's as their official bar, thanks to its proximity to the stadium, though the medieval atmosphere has kept sports memorabilia at bay. The bar menu specializes in Lithuanian and Estonian beers and liquors, but there are plenty of other European and domestic drinks as well. Dinner will more or less guarantee a food coma.
Otherwise, if you're tired of encased meats, Vito and Nick's (8433 S. Pulaski Rd.) is a mere 15 minutes away, and serves - hands down, there is no debate over this - the best thin crust pizza in Chicago, along with some vintage South Side atmosphere.
Like European soccer stadiums, Toyota Park has developed into a labyrinth of loyalties, with sections set aside for hardcore fans (Section 8, 116-119), hardcore fans who prefer to sit during the game (Firehouse, 115 & 120), Hispanic fans (Sector Latino, 101), visiting fans (134), fans of both soccer and oats (Quaker Corner, 121-123), and fans who only have a passing interest in soccer (Miller Lite Party Deck, 136-138). Longtime fans can probably tell you where to sit to signify your interest in House Lannister, knitting, or supply-side economics.
The most celebrated group of fans is Section 8, and they deserve the reputation. The chants begin about ten minutes before match time and don't let up until well after the game is over. There's no sense of exclusivity - anyone who's willing to match Section 8's fervor is welcome to join in, or just sit on the periphery and enjoy the excitement they create.
Though much smaller than Section 8, Sector Latino delivers an equally impressive performance, keeping chants and a good beat going throughout the game. Occasionally, fans in neighboring sections pick up the rhythm from Sector Latino and start dancing on their own.
Fans throughout the stadium are attentive to the game. Everyone stops what they are doing to celebrate goals, and there's applause to recognize good defensive plays, without need of a cue from the public address announcer. The only duds are in the Miller Lite Party Deck, where cornhole and foosball continue throughout the game. But that section serves as a kind of quarantine for disinterested fans, which is helpful.
Many Chicagoans couldn't find Bridgeview on a map, let alone tell you how to get there, but that doesn't mean it's a long trip. Bridgeview is about 30 minutes from downtown Chicago via I-55 to Harlem Ave., or from the western suburbs via I-294 to I-55 N or 95th Street. Parking is $15 in lots along Harlem Ave. (Bus/RV parking is $30 in lot N2.) Tailgating is allowed in lot N2, near Gate C, while ADA-accessible parking is in lot N1, between Gates C & D. There are elevators for wheelchair access to the 100 level terrace.
Public transportation is cheap, if a bit time-consuming. Express buses run from the CTA Orange Line station at Midway Airport, starting two hours before the game (departures every 20 minutes until match time) and returning 30 minutes after it ends. The bus stop is at the corner of 71st and Harlem Ave., the southeast side of the stadium (exit from Gate F). The fare ($1.75) is payable via cash or CTA transit card. From there, it's 35 minutes on the CTA Orange Line (last train departs Midway at 1:00 a.m.) to the Loop, where connections can be made for most CTA and Metra train lines.
There's also a "luxury bus service", which makes round-trips from bars throughout Chicago to Toyota Park. Tickets are $10 for the bus, $30 for the bus and a game ticket, or $35 for the bus, game, two beers, popcorn, and a hot dog. Among the pickup locations is Fado at 100 W. Grand Ave., which is centrally located among downtown hotels.
Restrooms are big, wide, and clean. There are lines at halftime and after the game, but not unreasonably long. If time is a factor, check around - some restrooms (especially near the corners) have much longer lines than others.
Planning ahead pays dividends, as more expensive doesn't necessarily mean better at Toyota Park. The cheap seats ($20) offer good views of the field, and the next price level ($22) might be the best seats in the house when you factor in the neighboring Section 8 fans. The higher price levels ($50-$70) don't offer a significantly better view than the less expensive sections nearby. Considering that the cheap seats are bleachers, and overall attendance is usually 50-75% capacity, you won't have to pay much for plenty of room and a good view.
Having such distinct groups of supporters in specific areas of the stadium allows you to determine exactly what kind of experience you want to have there. Most stadiums are luck of the draw - there's no way to tell whether you'll be sitting among diehard fans, bitter old cranks, or a sorority outing. But at Toyota Park, you know exactly what you're getting when you buy your ticket, whether you want to chant and yell from start to finish or engage in quiet, intellectual appreciation of the Beautiful Game.
It's also handy that the team doesn't have flexible pricing schemes - tickets cost the same whether it's the star-studded L.A. Galaxy or the dire Chivas USA in town. If you buy tickets from a season ticket holder on the resale market, take note - one menu item is discounted at each game for season ticket holders, such as half-price popcorn.
However, while ticket prices compare favorably to other Chicago professional sports, the food and drinks cost are the same as the city's bigger venues, and the half-hearted execution on certain menu items makes that difficult to excuse.
Merchandise is a bit overpriced, too. Pointing toward the team's struggles to market and retain its stars, there weren't any player jerseys for sale during my most recent visit (July 2013) - especially odd considering that new arrival Mike Magee had been in the midst of a spectacular scoring run for two months at the time. Scarves ($22-$27) are probably the most distinctive items for sale, though even the fiercest supporters aren't silly enough to wear them in July.
While they don't shower fans with the same volume of freebies as the Bulls, at least the Fire's t-shirt cannon is capable of reaching the upper deck. Even in the cheap seats, you're not out of the t-shirt race.
One bonus point for the nifty Illinois Soccer History exhibit near Gate F, which includes chronology going back to the late 1800s and a nicely presented set of artifacts like used cleats, a soccer ball from 1920s, and intense, elaborate trophies for long-forgotten cups.
Another bonus point for the fans, who really are the best part of the game. (Section 8's rendition of the "Tetris" theme song absolutely melted this reviewer's heart). The fans create a fun atmosphere that rings with genuine enthusiasm for the game and the team. It's a great live sports experience for kids.
And a final bonus point because this is a chance to visit a part of Chicago that's off the beaten path but well worth exploring. There's no mistaking the Southwest Side for the areas around Wrigley or the United Center - sports-wise, this territory belongs to the Fire, and it's interesting to observe the evolution of the affair between a neighborhood and a team. Also, forget what's on sale downtown - the hot dogs and sausages here are the reason Chicago is known for this stuff.
If you have children in tow, you could put together a pretty great day with a trip to the world-renowned Brookfield Zoo and/or the Galloping Ghost Arcade, both of which are a short distance away on I-55 in Brookfield, and then a Fire game in the evening. Lots of fun without an excessive amount of time in the car.
In 1998, the expansion Chicago Fire burst on to the scene in the MLS by winning the MLS Cup, the League's playoff championship. Since that time, the team has consistently been amongst the top half of the league, and have only once (2004), not qualified for the playoffs.
This success has resulted in a loyal fan base, and the construction of a new soccer-only stadium, opened in 2006 in nearby Bridgeview, Illinois.
Overall, soccer is not my thang. However, as a 32 year old sports fan living in Chicago, I felt the time had come to see my first pro soccer match. If you are looking for anything to do around the stadium, you'll be looking for a long time. Once you enter the facility though, you are treated to the green grass of Toyota Park, and a stadium that is not so tight-assed that you can't get close to the players during warmups, and appreciate what great athletes these dudes are. I found the food almost delicious...the Patio, which is a Chicago-area BBQ joint I am very familiar with, has a stand on the eastern side, though their menu is very small and the food is not half as good as the actual restaurants. The beer is another high point. There is the cheap swill that your normal stadium will sell, but there are many craft beers available as well, though some has sold out by the end of the evening, so get your IPA early. This would be a great experience for a family...the tickets are not terribly expensive, and the mascots and crowd add a lot to the experience, often times more then what is happening on the field. (We saw a 0-0 tie)
There was a great selection of food & beverage.
Section 8 created a great atmosphere. Having two supporter sections deterred. I've been to two games now and both time the attendance was around 65%.
The neighborhood does not have much, pretty far out of the city. Very few bars or local restaurants.
Section 8 was great, the soccer moms stayed entertained. Fans were into the game.
The ability to get to the game was very limited. There is public transportation to it but it is still so far from the city that it limits access. Parking was definitely overpriced.
Overall it was an average return on investment.
Parking, food options, great beer options, involved fans
I was impressed with the place. I went in not expecting much as my respect for MLS is not great but we had a great experience and have been back several times now. This is not a Bud Light and hot dog place. They have lots to offer and plenty of parking
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