Always one of the premier events of every MLS season, the All-Star Game spotlights soccer in the United States in a way no other annual event can. Imagine our excitement at the GESM office when the announcement was made awarding the 2017 game to our home city. Color me biased because I was born and raised in the Chicagoland area, but Chicago is not only a hotbed for soccer, but has so much to offer to fans, players, and sponsors alike.
The history of soccer in Chicago (the #12 ranked soccer marketing in our 2016 GESM Soccer Market Rankings) is a vibrant one with multiple layers that reflect the city’s diverse communities and a passion for the world’s game. It’s the ideal backdrop for any All-Star event. Chicago offers an energetic culture with great food, music, and theater that can set the scene for an amazing ASG week.
Before we look ahead to August 2nd when 60,000-plus will fill Soldier Field, let’s take a quick look back at the foundation of soccer in Chicago…
Chicago Soccer Kids
As the third largest metropolitan area in the US with nearly 10M people, the youth soccer scene in Chicago is a sight to behold. The Illinois Youth Soccer Association has approximately 95,000 players, coaches, and referees. From the city to the suburbs you will find field after field filled on any given weekend in the spring, summer, and fall with kids playing and families watching.
Youth and family engagement make Chicago a perfect backdrop for the 2017 MLS All-Star Game. The ability to bring in the biggest stars from MLS combined with the international star power of Real Madrid is sure to create a dynamic not normally experienced in the U.S.
Chicago’s Long Lasting Soccer Bonds
The National Soccer League (NSL) of Chicago was founded in 1919 and is one of the oldest soccer leagues in the US. Started because of the rise in the non-British ethnic populations in Chicago, the NSL has long been dominated by clubs that represent many of the city’s diverse ethnicities and neighborhoods.
I have a personal connection to the Semi-Pro soccer scene in Chicago. Working for the Spokane Shadow of the PDL in 1999 I saw my hometown Chicago Sockers FC travel to Spokane, WA and win the PDL Championship over the Shadow, 3-1. My hometown team robbed me of a chance to win a title that night but in all honesty, I won just being there.
There is an intrinsic relationship between the amateur / semi-pro soccer community and the city that has fueled a connection that winds its way through the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago.
After many years of varying professional soccer directions, in 1975 the Chicago Sting of the NASL were launched. After some trying years early on they created an identity in the local soccer community and played at the most popular venues in the city – Solider Field, Wrigley Field, and Comisky Park. They won the 1981 Soccer Cup, making them the first Chicago team since the 1963 Chicago Bears to claim a championship for the city.
In 1997, the Chicago Fire joined MLS. Named after the Great Chicago Fire which just so happened to occur 126 years to the day of the club’s founding. The Fire took the league by storm winning the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double in their inaugural season.
Sitting in the middle of the Eastern Conference so far this season, the Fire have been invigorated by the offseason acquisition of Dax McCarty and the addition of German international superstar Bastian Schweinsteiger who has taken the city by storm.
Chicago Red Stars
In 2007, the Red Stars were born and were members of the now defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) and are now members of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The Red Stars currently play at Toyota Park and boast one of the strongest teams in the league with the likes of U.S. Women’s National Team members Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Christen Press leading the way, adding to the rich tradition of soccer in Chicago.
To add some insight to the 2017 All-Star Festivities, I asked for some input from two Chicago industry experts that I have access to on a daily basis: GESM founder, John Guppy, and GESM Managing Partner, Scott Hutchison. John is a long-time Chicago resident and has been in the industry for more than 25 years. Scott is a Chicago native with more than 20 year’s experience in the industry.
Most vivid soccer memory in Chicago?
I’ve got a couple. The first dates back more years than I’d like to admit, going to a Chicago Sting match with my Dad. There was just something about those jerseys and the flair of Glenn, Granitza, and gang that made me an instant fan. The second was when Chelsea came to Chicago in 2006 for an exhibition against the Fire. Coming off back-to-back titles, it was pretty neat to pose with the Premier League trophy, but it’s also kind of interesting to know that John was the architect behind making that match take place and I’d never have guessed that four years later we’d be working to build GESM together.
I have two. The US Cup ’93 match between the U.S. and Germany was my first time in Chicago. I was working for the event promoter. My other favorite memory is the U.S. Open Cup Final in 2006 – the crowning moment of the opening season for the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park.
One place someone who has not been to Chicago should visit.
If you’ve not been to Chicago yet, the first question would be: what’s taken you so long? But seriously, the first stop for anyone coming to the city would be Wrigley Field with a pit stop at Murphy’s Bleachers for a Chicago style hot dog and a beer.
Do you have a favorite MLS All-Star game memory or moment?
My favorite MLS ASG was probably 2014 in Portland. It truly felt like the grandest show in town. The streets were buzzing with anticipation and most people you’d bump into were beaming with pride to show visitors why they say Portland is ‘Soccer City USA.’ We executed week-long programs for multiple clients as well, which always makes these special events a bit more special.
The 1996 ASG at Giants Stadium simply because it was the first one and played in front of 70,000-plus fans.
Tell us about your current view/analysis of the Chicago soccer market?
Chicago has deep soccer roots at all levels. From successful youth and amateur clubs to the presence of both MLS and NWSL teams, to the rich flavor of international soccer. Chicago has a diverse love for the beautiful game.
I’ve grown up watching soccer in the Chicago pub scene and I’ve witnessed the explosion of fandom (and options) first hand in these establishments city-wide. What started as a few Irish bars charging $20 cover to watch Premier League matches has transformed to almost become as ubiquitous as Big Ten football in the watering holes throughout our city.
What is your favorite restaurant in Chicago?
Favorite restaurant in Chicago is RoSal’s on Taylor Street, a quaint little Italian spot that’s been a hidden gem of our restaurant scene since 1990. No frills, just legit Sicilian food and an even more legit Sicilian vibe.
Le Colonial on Rush Street. A French-Vietnamese restaurant was one of the first places I visited after joining the Chicago Fire in 2005.
The excitement is already building and a month and a half into the MLS season Chicago is preparing for a world class event in the world class city. We hope to see you there and if you need any pizza recommendations you know where to find us!