I should note that after yesterday’s note about the STL United FC ballkids having a chance to meet and work near some of the greatest players in the world, their excitement was probably matched by some of the adults accompanying them. We’re just not expected to wear uniforms and stand in one place along the dasher boards. That said, I spent plenty of time along those boards, creeping back and forth, ostensibly to check on the kids, but also to secure as many vantage points of the action as I could. It was a tactic that allowed me to see four of the six goals from close-up. To literally hear a ball cracked, the stadium collectively holding its breath and then a keeper fishing a ball from net… what a piece of luck!
Uh, yeah, I enjoyed it as much as any grade-schooler.
The opportunity to see an international game from that proximity can’t be overly praised On TV, you can see a player boldly scoop a ball out of a tight space, three defenders forming a triangle as they come in, only to see the ball squirt out of their reach with a quick flick. But witnessing that from about 10-yards away borders on the unbelievable. Soccer at this level is faster than you think, true, the shots are coming faster and harder than you’d think, sure. Yet, more than anything, watching a game from field level is an exercise in appreciating a world-class player’s ability to think in space. Open space. Or tight space. It’s really awe-inspiring to view Brazil’s collective skill with the ball at their feet, but let’s not sell this US team short on that count, either. Both teams on Sunday were able to negotiate space in a way that I sort of knew, but couldn’t comprehend until I saw it in person. I probably missed some of the “macro”
themes of the game from that close-in. But the “micro”? Wow.
But even before the game, there was still plenty to see.
Pulling into the Soldier Field parking lots/garage ($25 for a gameday fee; yow!) at exactly 12:24, we had six-minutes to get to Gate 14, the designated meet-up spot. That allowed for plenty of time to watch fans tailgating on the top floor of the shallow, two-level garage. The scene suggested that the US fans were going to be outnumbered by the Brazilians, unless the US fans were going to bum rush the joint late. Already, the dozens of yellow flags were flying, mixed with the smoke of dozens of mini-grills.
Small pockets of youths and adults were kicking mini-balls and hackey-sacks in compact quarters, while the smell of meat, fish and vegetables filled the air. The Chicago skyline was a stunning backdrop. All senses were put to use.
Inside the stadium, we were still a half-hour away from match-time, but the kids and I had negotiated the ranks of overly serious security staffers. (Once in-hand with USSF officials, we were fine, but occasional security folks treated us as if we were US Congressional officials touring an outdoor market in Tikrit. Good grief. Calm down.) A stadium on gameday, even when empty, is quite a sight and the newly remodeled Soldier Field is a strange view, indeed, with the historic lower levels topped by a glass-and-metal addendum that’s at least part spaceship. From field level, the look up is something else.
After the kids were given their flag instructions, they were hustled to the bowels of the stadium to change and drink. I got separated, but wandered around. The US team arrived by bus, driving into the lower levels and I made eye contact with assistant coach Mike Sorber, seated in the front seat of the bus. We nodded to one another and I realized that I usually see Mike at Hermann Stadium or OB Clark’s, so this was a cool, if only passing, “hello.”
In the tunnel, a few Spanish-language media types were entering the field, being cheered by the fans that were now in the building and huddling near the tunnel exits. Eventually, I recognized one guy in an Under Armour t-shirt and khaki shorts as Carlos Zambrano, who arrived with escorts and a young kid, assumedly his son. Sunil Gulati and numerous, other soccer honchos milled about, walking the field in suits.
When the game began, as noted, I wandered the field and watched the fans, especially the Brazilians. This was done solely as a research mission, as I wanted to study their ways. The fact that Brazilian fans dress and prepare for soccer matches so enthusiastically is to be applauded. I’ll sort of leave that analysis, at that. It was fun to watch them, okay? Okay.
And, judging by the applause after goals, the crowd tilted Brazilian, maybe to a 60-40 edge. No way to say, for sure, and people in different sections may’ve heard different things. But down low, there were roars when the US scored and even bigger ones for the four Brazilian tallies.
(I actually, in my head, wrote a whole piece today on whether fans of US soccer should be disappointed or heartened by this kind of thing. Maybe for another day. Suffice to say, when the US plays in front of certain, partisan audiences, they probably face torrents of abuse. The 25,000-or-so Brazilian supporters in Chicago were there to party, to cheer Brazil, to cheer good soccer. I may’ve turned around a lot on this subject over a few hours this weekend. These fans pretty well sold me.)
Watching the Brazilian fans (did I make that point, yet?), Sam’s Army and all the various, mixed-up groups down low… it was all fun. And it made a great complement to the action on the field, which, again, was just top-notch. The US went toe-to-toe with Brazil, played aggressively, and, as noted on several post-match stories, made the game a whole lot closer and more interesting than a 4-2 score might indicate. This was world-class stuff.
And lastly… on leaving town, we took about 20-25 minutes to exit the garage, partially because a US fan was strapped to a restraint board, while being transported in front of us on the back of a golf cart. (Hope he’s okay; don’t know what happened.) On leaving the stadium complex, we hopped right onto Lake Shore Drive, then the highway. Five minutes on, though, we decided to jump off, to grab a bite.
After taking the team to McDonald’s after our recent trip to Jefferson City, I swore to never do that again. Definitely, we wanted to give the kids one last “Chicago experience” and we exited at Damen and drove down to Archer, where, after passing a host of taquerias, we stopped at one, almost at random. The kids quit their griping about wanting Burger King from the down the street and we enjoyed a dinner, with more time to talk about the game, the city, life in general. It was an authentic, very Chicago moment and the kind of thing you can get in a major town, near a major stadium, if you take a few extra minutes to slow down and enjoy.
If the day had already been something-beyond-words for both the kids and adults, the fact that an almost-numbingly-awesome burrito was still in the picture was just a ridiculous capper to it all.
On the stadium’s PA prior to the match, the board op twice played U2’s “Beautiful Day.” It turned into a prescient and apt choice.
A perfect choice, really.