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On Saturday, the Chicago Red Stars will play inside the city of Chicago for the first time in the club’s NWSL history. Despite being a stalwart in the Chicagoland area for over 10 years, and drawing from the area’s depth of suburban talent throughout their history, the Red Stars finally get to live up to the Chicago part of their name in earnest.
Saturday will likewise mark the first opportunity for homegrown players like Vanessa DiBernardo, Sarah Griffith, Amanda Kowalski, and Tatumn Milazzo to play within city limits, hopefully in front of the largest crowd of the season. And while the game is just a one-off doubleheader with the Fire, their first since 2019, it does warrant some reflection both on the history and relationship the Red Stars have with the city they represent.
Before Saturday, the only Red Star from Chicagoland to play at Soldier Field was Naperville native Casey Krueger, who will miss Saturday’s match as she’s returning after the birth of her son. She started for the USWNT on the lakefront against South Korea on October 6 2019, Jill Ellis’s last game as the manager of the team. Krueger getting that opportunity was bittersweet, as it was a last-minute victory tour call-up for a major tournament that she was not asked to participate in.
It’s not worth relitigating the circumstances that led to Krueger’s snub in 2019, but her reward in the moment came in the opportunity to play at home, for real this time.
“It’s unbelievable to play in front of my friends and family, half a mile from my house,” Krueger said after that match.
But after that whirlwind moment, the Red Stars have remained an arm’s length away from the city itself.
Even before their move to SeatGeek Stadium (then Toyota Park) in 2016, the Red Stars used to play at Benedictine University on a turf field in Lisle. The western suburb is reachable by Metra, but the facilities didn’t meet the expectations of a professional team in a growing league, and a permanent move to Bridgeview became the only way forward.
As we all know, Bridgeview brings a lot to the gameday experience and the professionalism standards of the team itself, but it does not solve the location issue. It forces teams who call SeatGeek home to prioritize car owners, which is inherently going to limit both the size and demographics of your potential audience.
While the move to SeatGeek understandably bettered the experience for players—not least being able to consistently play on grass rather than punishing turf—the attendance payoff for the Chicagoland Red Stars has only come in spurts. In 2019, their attendance numbers proved mercurial, struggling to bring fans in while international stars were away in France. But in the wake of the USWNT’s World Cup win, amidst a surge in the sports popularity, Chicago drew over 13,000 fans to a pivotal win over the North Carolina Courage in August, and ended the season with season attendance averages that far outpaced previous years.
The pandemic in 2020 essentially ended that momentum, and the Red Stars have since struggled to get it back. Returns to Bridgeview were slow in 2021, as many fans who had their first women’s soccer experiences just two years ago were not returning as regular fans. Add in the roster and coaching staff upheaval in the 2022 offseason, with reporting done that Chicago wasn’t always the beacon of progress the team set themselves up to be publicly, and 2022 has been more of a mixed bag.
Now the primary tenant at SeatGeek, the Red Stars have at least temporarily seceded the ability to be reachable without a car. Before the pandemic, certain PACE buses could take fans directly from Midway airport to the stadium, providing at least a stopgap compromise that allowed fans without a car to make the trek if they were feeling intrepid. The NWSL presence at SeatGeek is much clearer than when it was primarily an MLS venue, with Red Stars banners and game day activations, but the issues that caused the Fire to return to Soldier Field in the first place remain. Soccer’s foothold in Chicago has always been limited by what basically amounts to real estate deals, and it’s a problem that has not been solved.
With that in mind, it’s also been ironic to watch the Chicago Bears this week so clearly turn away from the very thing the city’s soccer teams have been dreaming of for a long time: A home in the city. Lori Lightfoot has done as much as she possibly could to keep the Bears within city limits, including a $2.2 billion proposal that would renovate the museum campus and put a dome over Soldier Field. Regardless, Chicago’s NFL team seems determined to move out to the suburbs themselves, where they can control everything from fan experience to new facilities. They’ve spent over a century as the kings of the city, and have still decided it’s more advantageous to see what the Chicagoland area has to offer.
It seems Soldier Field has become an imperfect vessel for any one purpose: it’s too old and small to compete with the modern American football stadium, it’s too cavernous for either soccer team to fill, and its location isn’t enough to overcome the difficulties presented by the facility itself. If the Bears do decide to bolt, one has to wonder if there isn’t an opportunity to finally create a soccer-specific footprint in Chicago, as the city’s sport.
It also speaks to who exactly these teams want to be, ultimately. Chicago prides itself on being a sports city, and the Red Stars will be the first team to espouse their pride in their Midwestern grit. But in their vision of a perfect future, Chicago’s teams don’t always want to exist in the actual city in which they’re housed. From Lightfoot’s proposed plans to the South Loop, to the mourning of the Wrigleyville Taco Bell, sports can be used to invest in a community, or to turn the city into a tourist attraction for suburban tourists. Many times the latter decision has been made instead.
The Red Stars have barely even begun to touch what they could be to the city if they were able and willing to engage with the community in a meaningful way. As for what they’re producing on the field, one also has to hope that the city of Chicago starts to take notice themselves. Because the Red Stars are young and fun, and their new system is working in pretty impressive ways.
So here’s to the Soldier Field doubleheader, may it be the beginning of something new and exciting too, for both the Red Stars and the city that’s learning to love them.
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