The Chicago Fire’s time at Soldier Field positioned them as one of the best clubs in Major League Soccer.
Their long-awaited return to the lakefront was supposed to be a landmark day for a team trying to reintroduce itself to the city.
But amid the backdrop of COVID-19 and a very different world landscape, Tuesday night’s match against FC Cincinnati won’t have the pomp and circumstance it should.
Fans won’t be present. The opponent has changed. And the game is taking place about five months later than planned.
Yet there’s optimism around the Fire as they begin this next phase of their history and call Soldier Field home again.
“Everyone was talking about it from the moment I took over, the excitement of the people to actually come here,” Fire coach Raphael Wicky said Monday during a conference call. “The stadium probably would have been sold out in March, so you can see that this means a lot. It’s just nice to be close to the city.”
But fans or no fans, pandemic or not, the Fire finally are back at Soldier Field, home to some of the best and most successful teams in club history.
The Tribune caught up with several former players in February and March — before COVID-19 ground sports to a halt — to ask about their experiences at Soldier Field, from the stadium itself to the condition of the pitch and beyond.
Soldier Field has been more than just the home of the Bears since 1971. The stadium hosted its fair share of iconic sports moments, including the Long Count Fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in 1927 and the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup.
When MLS expanded to Chicago for the 1998 season, the league was only two years into its existence — long before soccer-specific stadiums dotted the landscape.
Sharing a stadium, especially an NFL one, was the norm, and the Fire taking up residence in Soldier Field was no exception.
“It was a different time in the league as far as what the stadiums looked like and having almost no huge soccer-specific stadiums,” said former forward Josh Wolff, who played for the Fire from 1998 through 2002. “Soldier Field was — is — still one of the most iconic stadiums in the country, if not the world, and we were really excited getting to play in the stadium. The first couple years there was a tremendous support and tremendous fanfare, and we were delighted to be there.”
The Fire called Soldier Field home from 1998 through 2001, then had to spend the majority of the 2002 and ’03 seasons on the campus of North Central College in Naperville while the stadium underwent a controversial $660 million renovation.
After construction was complete, the Fire returned to the lakefront for the 2003 playoffs, including the Eastern Conference final in which Chris Armas’ golden goal sent the team to MLS Cup, and for the 2004 and ‘05 seasons.
The Los Angeles Galaxy’s Peter Vagenas gets squeezed by the Chicago Fire’s Jesse Marsch, left, and Chris Armas during the first half of their game at Soldier Field on Oct. 11, 2001. (NUCCIO DINUZZO / CHICAGO TRIBUNE)
Playing at Soldier Field holds special memories not just because of the Fire’s trophy haul but for what the stadium represents, said former midfielder Jesse Marsch, now the coach of Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg.
“Growing up and being given a chance to play at places like Soldier Field, RFK (Stadium) and at the Rose Bowl, that was still pretty cool,” said Marsch, who played for the Fire from 1998 to 2005. “That was a big honor because those were iconic sports stadiums. So as much as they weren’t perfectly conducive for our sport, it was also pretty cool to play in some of these stadiums.”
Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin, who played for the Fire from 2001 to ‘08, had one reason in particular for his excitement about playing at Soldier Field: Da Bears.
“I just knew Soldier Field for (Mike) Singletary and Walter Payton and all the amazing players that had played and walked those hallways,” he said. “That was a kind of a surreal experience for me the first time going out there and starting on an opening day.”
For Fire players who didn’t have an affinity for the ’85 Bears, Soldier Field’s location was perfect for match day, said former winger Justin Mapp, who played parts of eight seasons with the Fire.
“It was awesome just being down in the city,” Mapp said. “Obviously there was easy public transportation for people and the ability to walk up. You’re right downtown with the skyline and everything. I loved that, just being down in the city. You felt like you were actually playing in Chicago.”
Assistant coach Frank Klopas always is up for telling a story, and his story of the Fire’s first game at Soldier Field on April 4, 1998, goes something like this:
He left home early in the hope of avoiding rush-hour traffic. So of course Lake Shore Drive was bumper to bumper as Soldier Field’s colonnades came into view.
Klopas couldn’t help but stare — and miss his exit — heading to the stadium.
“It was the first time I was actually happy to see that amount of traffic,” Klopas told the Tribune in March. “I missed my exit, I went past Soldier Field, I had to turn around and there was a smile on my face. The first time I was actually smiling being stuck in traffic.”
The Fire drew 36,444 for their first home match, a 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Mutiny in which Klopas scored both goals.
That big attendance number wasn’t always consistent, but the Fire drew reasonably well at Soldier Field, especially with the team’s success through 2003: one MLS Cup, three U.S. Open Cups and one Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record.
“When we played at Soldier Field, we really felt like we were Chicago’s team,” Jesse Marsch said. “At the time the Bears weren’t very good. The Bulls had just finished their run with (Michael) Jordan and then they went into a downturn. The Blackhawks were the same. There was a time period where the best team in town was clearly the Chicago Fire.”
The early rosters were stacked with talent, from Fire all-time leading goal scorer Ante Razov to Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik, Zach Thornton, C.J. Brown and beyond.
Chicago Fire defender Diego Gutierrez signs autographs after 1998 game. (Wes Pope/Chicago Tribune)
The team’s successful start under coach Bob Bradley was one thing. But the biggest success might have been a connection between the club and its fans, said Diego Gutierrez, who had two stints with the Fire.
“There was this sense of community that was really nice,” he said. “You were looking at crowds of 30,000 at Soldier Field, which was pretty substantial. It was a special place to play for us. It was a place where we felt we could go out and win every single game. It felt like we were unbeatable at that place.”
Jim Curtin echoed that feeling of invincibility.
“You had all those fans and the ultras and they made it a real fortress for us and a special place,” he said. “A team that came in there was 1-0 down by the time they walked down the tunnel because we had such a strong team, for one, but the fan support was incredible and really intimidating.”
When asked by the Tribune about their Soldier Field experiences, every player contacted cited the connection they had with fans as one thing that sticks out.
Wolff said one of his fondest memories is scoring and leaping into the supporters group Section 8, while Marsch said the players felt the whole city was behind them.
Chicago Fire forward Josh Wolff jumps over the barricade to celebrate with the fans after scoring against the Kansas City Wizards at Soldier Field on June 4, 2000. (NUCCIO DINUZZO / CHICAGO TRIBUNE)
“We had great support, we had great fans, we became a big part of the community and of the city,” Marsch said. “After big games we would leave the stadium and head home and there were skyscrapers that would have ‘Go Fire’ within the windows based on which lights they would light.
“It was a really cool feeling for me because I grew up not too far away in Racine, Wisconsin. Chicago to me was the big city, and so to feel like I was a big part of what was going on in the city was really cool. That was really special, and when I look back at being on the Fire, my fondest memories almost all come from our experiences at Soldier Field and the successes that we had there.”
For every fond memory Fire players have at Soldier Field — the trophies, the fans, etc. — one negative comes up again and again: the pitch.
Soldier Field has a bad reputation among NFL kickers for its tricky combination of wind and less-than-stellar footing.
That reputation is even worse among soccer players.
Chris Rolfe, who played for the Fire from 2005 to ‘09 and 2012 to ‘14, called the pitch at Soldier Field “very firm” and “bouncy” and said things only got worse once Bears season rolled around.
“The sidelines were basically dirt where the football players stood out of bounds, but it was still inside of the soccer field,” he said. “They would spray paint it green to make it look like there was grass there. If you slid in that area, your shoes would turn green, your shorts would get green spray paint on them. Man, it wasn’t the best. It definitely wasn’t the best surface that we played on back then. It was rock hard.”
“They would spray paint it green to make it look like there was grass there.”
Chris Rolfe, Fire forward
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Jesse Marsch, never afraid of speaking directly or honestly, was more blunt.
“It was awful to play on and even worse to watch as a fan with football lines everywhere,” he said.
Marsch and Josh Wolff both said the long, thick grass at times made it difficult to play an up-tempo game because the ball would get slowed down.
Jim Curtin said the Fire had to adapt to the surface to use it to their advantage.
“It was always a choppy, beat-up field at the beginning part of the year and then kind of grew in,” Curtin said. “The grass was always a little longer and it actually became an advantage for us because we were used to it and we knew how to play in that stadium and with the difficult conditions. We made it our home-field advantage.”
How the Fire adapt to Soldier Field will be just one of the storylines as they return to the stadium.
Another is the pitch and how it will hold up with two teams playing two sports on it, potentially just days apart.
After the Fire formally announced their return to Soldier Field in October, Chicago Park District Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly was confident in the city’s ability to maintain a good playing surface.
“This is the best northern climate, natural grass, turf field in the country,” he said in October. “We’ve worked really hard on this over the years and we changed our base from a clay-base sod to a sand-based sod. … We’ve got this building down to a science.”
The Bears play their first home game Sept. 20 against the New York Giants. The Fire play at Soldier Field eight days before; MLS has yet to release the next phase of its schedule.
“It was awful to play on and even worse to watch as a fan with football lines everywhere.”
Jesse Marsch, Fire midfielder
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Regardless of how much time is between the two teams, former captain Logan Pause, who spent all 12 seasons of his pro career with the Fire, said it’s just something the Fire will have to get used to.
“There are always situations that you just have to work around,” he said. “When you look at the field dimensions, when you look at the type of grass, you look at the length of the grass, there’s a thing about soccer players that you want the grass to be as short as possible. You want the field to be as big as possible. You don’t want football lines on it.
“But knowing that you’re sharing the venue with another professional sports team, that was just part of it. We didn’t really even think about it. The objective was to win games, and we did a lot of that at Soldier Field.”
As MLS continued to develop, the business model changed. Suddenly, most clubs were in a race to build the latest soccer-specific stadium, often capped at 20,000 or 25,000 capacity, and almost all located in suburbia.
By the early 2000s, the Fire were seeking control of their surface, their schedule, amenities, concessions, everything.
So something of a bidding war began as the Fire requested proposals from suburbs that could offer about 50 acres for a stadium and parking.
Excluding the city, 12 communities responded. The list was narrowed to five locations: Elgin, Hoffman Estates, Hanover Park, Bridgeview and Chicago.
Bridgeview got the nod, and Toyota Park — now known as SeatGeek Stadium — opened June 11, 2006, at a cost of about $100 million. The Fire were locked in through the 2036 season.
Initially things went well, with the Fire winning their fourth U.S. Open Cup a few months after moving to Bridgeview.
And bolstered by the signing of Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco in early 2007, the Fire drew well too.
Chicago Fire attacking midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco reacts during a match against the Kansas City Wizards on April 20, 2008 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
“When we were at Toyota Park and we had just opened the stadium there, the atmosphere was electric and it was so good,” Chris Rolfe said. “The huge support from the Mexican fan base because of Blanco, I mean, it was lively, it was loud, it was energetic. Then to compare that to our time at Soldier Field, even if we had 30,000 to 35,000 people, it still felt dead. The atmosphere just was incomparable. Toyota Park was much better for us.
“When you’re playing in a big, cavernous football stadium and you’re not Atlanta United or Seattle, it feels pretty bad and empty. That’s what it was like when we used to play at Arrowhead, the Cotton Bowl, some of these big football stadiums. You could hear the conversations going on in the stands as the game was going on. There were popcorn bags blowing across the field, like it was an old western or a ghost town.”
Unfortunately for Bridgeview’s taxpayers, the Fire’s initial success at the stadium didn’t correlate into a financial windfall.
Compounding matters was the Fire’s growing lack of success, going from perennial playoff team to just two playoff appearances from 2010 to 2019.
That made it tougher to draw fans.
“I don’t think anybody really could predict or understand what the Fire would be sacrificing as far as the urban fan and the difficulties that we would face to bring in people,” Diego Gutierrez said. “Even though we now had our specific stadium in Bridgeview, getting people out on weekends was a very difficult task. And with the team’s struggles, it’s rather understandable, especially given that geographic location.”
Fans still dedicated enough to attend matches became restless with the lack of success and a string of poor signings. And as vocal fans and different iterations of the front office started to clash, a growing disconnect was on the club’s hands.
Soon, the issues simply became too much, and the Fire averaged just 12,324 fans in 2019.
“You’re going to have to choose one or the other,” Justin Mapp said of being accessible in the city or having your own stadium in the suburbs. “I think having the location, even though it isn’t soccer-specific, and being back in the city just opens up the ability for a lot of people to come back to the club. It’s just really tough to get out to Bridgeview with traffic, and it’s just far in general.”
Few dates have greater significance to the Fire than Oct. 8. For one, the Great Chicago Fire occurred on that day in 1871. The Fire unveiled their name in 1997, and in 2019 the club formally announced its return to Soldier Field during an event at the stadium.
The Fire, under new owner Joe Mansueto, agreed to amend their lease in Bridgeview and return to the city. The cost? A cool $65.5 million.
Chicago Park District Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly, left, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Fire Owner and Chairman Joe Mansueto and MLS Dommissioner Don Garber pose at Soldier Field after a news conference announcing the Chicago Fire’s return to the stadium in 2020, Oct. 8, 2019. (Camille Fine / Chicago Tribune)
“This sports fan is bursting with pride. I am so happy about this announcement,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at the event in October. “(The Fire) will be successful with this return home to the city of Chicago and to Soldier Field. We want to make sure we make up for all the lost time over the years.”
The Fire — who rebranded in the offseason with a new crest, tweaked name (Chicago Fire Football Club) and new primary colors — originally were scheduled to play Atlanta United on March 21 in what was supposed to be a momentous occasion for the club.
Instead, they will play their first batch of games in front of an empty stadium because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the occasion is not lost on coach Raphael Wicky.
“I’ve known and felt since I arrived here how much this means to the people and to the club,” Wicky said Monday. “Everyone was extremely excited when I arrived here and they announced the club is going back to Soldier Field, being back downtown … where obviously the club had a big history and it’s a very historic stadium. Everyone is really excited and it means a lot to the club, and I’m aware of that and I’m very, very excited to be here.”
Wicky’s excitement has extended to the Fire players who once called Soldier Field home and still reside in the city.
“I’m excited for the club now on this side of it,” Logan Pause said. “I still live in the city. I’m a huge fan of the club. I spent almost a third of my life with the club, and so I’m excited for them to move to Soldier Field and move back downtown. I can’t wait to see them not only performing in that building but hopefully winning championships.”