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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.
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".
The first sign of a good food experience at a stadium is the nose test, and the whiffs you get around Toyota Park certainly pass with flying colors. Taking a lap around the concourse you'll find plenty of stands offering top-notch versions of stadium favorites as well as a few unique options.
Of note, they use Bobak's sausages ($5.25) which are a step above the typical brat, hot dog, and Italian sausage. You can find really good pulled pork sandwiches ($6.50) provided by the Patio. I found it to be tasty, but a little dry, so if you like, ask for extra sauce on your sandwich.
Other meaty options include the Philly Cheese Steak ($8), Smoked Turkey Wrap ($7), and footlong hot dog ($6).
The beer selection is definitely a step above with plenty of microbrews (I recommend the Lagunitas IPA), and a good selection from Mexico, including Modelo, Modelo Negro, Dos Equis, and Corona all on tap.
Toyota Park is meant to be the center of the Illinois soccer universe. There are displays on the south end of the stadium serving to allow fans to get a brief history lesson. The Illinois Soccer Hall of Fame sits here, as well as a display for the "History of Soccer in Illinois." Both are modest displays, but worth taking the time to review before the game or at halftime.
The team has an impressive pyrotechnics and fireworks display, which keeps things exciting for player introductions as well as for the National Anthem. If you sit in the front 5 rows or so, you'll definitely feel the heat from the fire that is shot up in the air.
Throughout the game, fans in the main grandstand section stay in the action and keep the energy high. The fans in the north end (known as section 8, even though it is actually section 117) are completely, insanely devoted to their team. You could spend the entire night watching them only, and you would be thoroughly entertained (more on that later).
Toyota Park seats 20,000 for soccer, but the stadium feels much more intimate than that. The game I attended had the stadium at about 65% capacity, but it felt much less than that.
Overall, the energy was good, but not quite deserving that special goose-bump-inducing sort of feel.
The main drag near the stadium is Harlem Avenue, just off the I-55 or I-294 expressways. There are a few chain restaurants, and a couple of bars that could be within walking distance of the stadium, but it would be a bit of a hike.
I stopped in to Mama Luigi's before the game for a little down home pasta. It's an old school Italian joint about a 1/2 mile from Toyota Park. I found the service to be extremely friendly and organized. They had fresh bread on my table within 30 seconds of sitting down. I would think, especially if the weather was a bit cool, that a belly full of pasta and some wine might be great insulation for a game. I had the Linguini with Red Clam Sauce ($14), and a glass of Chianti ($5) and was perfectly happy. There's nothing fancy about this place, just solid, belly-filling Italian comfort food. If you can, try to leave room for tiramisu.
If you just want to grab a beer before the game, you can stop by the Firestation Pub, about a mile north of the stadium. It's a large space with a pool table and 5 beers on tap. No frills here, just some drinks and a couple of TVs to pass some time.
If you're with the kids (or feeling like a kid yourself), you may want to check out Haunted Trails, where they have miniature golf, bumper cars, arcade games, and batting cages. It's a fun place to kill a couple of hours before a game.
The fans sitting behind me had been season ticket holders since the very beginning of the franchise's existence. They were into every play of the game, and had a great grasp of what was going on. I heard many other fans around me discussing the plays, the players, and the team's playoff chances. This interest and knowledge provided a great base for rating the fans, but this group was nothing compared to the ardent "Section 8" in the north end.
Standing the entire game, with constant organized cheers, you couldn't help but be mesmerized by the enthusiasm and organization of this entire section. The group of fans is known as Section 8, because it was the original section where they gathered during the team's inaugural season at Soldier Field. Not only are they a group of organized fans, they are actually a registered, non-profit organization, with an annual operating budget of about $150,000. The section has two or three lead cheer organizers who, with their back to the field, conduct the group into songs, chants, and cheers. They filled an entire section, and from what I could tell, this may have been a slightly smaller gathering than what is typical. In any case, they are some of the best fans I have experienced anywhere in my travels, and they must be commended.
There is plenty of parking around the stadium, but at $15 a car, it seems a bit steep. There really isn't any other choice though, the residential area around the stadium has signs lining the street informing parkers that it is a tow zone on game nights, unless you have a permit.
Restrooms are fine, but can get a little crowded at halftime, so it may be worth your while to sneak away during the 44th minute so you don't spend time waiting in line (that would go for fetching food or drink at halftime as well).
I found the parking to be clearly overpriced, the food to be slightly overpriced, and the seats in the stadium to be slightly overpriced as well. Even in this bad economy, the MLS and the Chicago Fire continue to see good attendance numbers, so I guess the laws of supply and demand allow them to push it on prices, but it feels dangerously close to pricing the casual fan out.
Speaking to the fans behind me, season ticket holders, they do get deals on parking ($6 instead of $15) and several other perks that would make being a season ticket holder a very good value in my opinion, but if you're just going for the occasional game, plan to have more money than you might normally expect.
Section 8 deserves a bonus point for being so well organized and just for the effort it takes to do what they do. If there was a simulcast of the game and this section of fans, I suspect you may end up watching the fans more than the play of the pitch.
I was also very impressed with the fireworks and other pyrotechnics before the game, and it's worth an extra point in my book.
Finally, the simple fact that this is a soccer-only facility shows great devotion of the team, community and fans toward their team, and is deserving of some extra love.
Any Chicago area sports fan should make the trip to Bridgeview to experience at least one Chicago Fire game. It may not be perfect, but you will be entertained, and well fed. If nothing else, go sit near the Section 8 crowd (which again is actually section 117), and you'll have a great time guaranteed.
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.
7500 S Harlem Ave
Bridgeview, IL 60455
6336 S Harlem Ave
Summit Argo, IL 60501
6630 S Cicero Ave
Chicago, IL 60638