Soldier Field, with a capacity of 61,500, may be the smallest stadium in the NFL (as the home of Da Bears), but its importance to US soccer looms large. First opened in 1924, it has been completely renovated twice, with the second rebuild occurring as recently as 2003.
Though more famous as an American football venue, it has a rich soccer history as well.
The Chicago Fire played in Soldier Field from 1998-2001 and from 2003-2005, which is fitting because the stadium was officially opened on the 53rd anniversary of the disaster for which the team was named. The Chicago Sting of the NASL also played two seasons on Lake Shore Drive during the 1970s. It is best remembered soccer-wise though as a venue for the 1994 World Cup and the site of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, which the US won over Mexico.
Of course, that game was decided on Benny Feilhaber’s 73rd minute goal, a memorable rocket-like volley from outside the box. It was a majestic sight, and equally on par with the beauty of Soldier Field’s huge doric columns, a hallmark of the Greco-Roman architecture which inspired it. Soldier Field is, in many ways, America’s Coliseum.
The Fire have moved on to Toyota Park, a beautiful soccer specific stadium in nearby Bridgeview. Despite brokering the deal that led to this $100 million new home, Peter Wilt, the Fire’s founding GM and long time President, was let go by AEG in 2005 prior to the new stadium’s inaugural game.
To protest, the members of Section 8, Chicago’s most dedicated supporters group, wore all black to the 2005 season’s first game at Soldier Field and even draped their section with black fabric. When Wilt’s replacement, John Guppy, was let go in April 2008, Fire fans ardently voiced support for Wilt to return to the team.
Alas, he had moved on to WPS, where he has helped build a team that looks like another immediate contender with Carli Lloyd, Kate Markgraf and Lindsay Tarpley (and maybe even Brazilian star Christiane, the #2 women’s player in the world, who is expected to sign soon if she hasn’t already). The Red Stars will play their home games at Toyota Park, not Soldier Field, but I am glad Wilt will get to take his team to the park he was pivotal to building. He should have got to go with the Fire, but he was unfairly denied that chance.
Peter, good luck with the inaugural WPS season, I’ll be rooting for your side and covering the league right here on STO. Also, thanks for making MLS a success and for keeping me honest on this site. I hope I won’t overlook Chi-Town again, but with my short memory span, I’ve likely already omitted them from another one of my inane lists!