I sent this last week, and several people reported that it went into their spam folders. I apologize if you’ve already read this—if so, please proceed with your day, with which I wish you all the best! I have configured my newsletter software to send these emails via my custom domain, which is said to improve deliverability. (Firefox tells me “deliverability” is not a word. Get with the times, Firefox.)
Spring is starting, and it’s been too long since I’ve last written to you. Let’s ease back in with a photo and video essay recounting one of our recent recreational outings.
They were the second-best seats1 I’ve ever had at a sporting event: a few weeks ago we attended the Chicago Fire Football Club’s home opener—that’s our local Major League Soccer team—downtown at Soldier Field.
This first shot is from the 11th minute of the match, in which we see German midfielder Fabian Herbers milking a challenge in the box. It’s not uncommon for soccer players to sustain serious injuries jumping or lunging for the ball, but it’s also not uncommon for them to pretend like they have, in order to convince the official to look upon them with favor. This is one of the latter situations. I think my favorite thing about this shot is that I caught the videographer in the very bottom-left, and you can see their close up on defender Rafael Czichos (who plays for the Czicago Fire) arguing with the official, to no avail.
Here’s what happened next—after Herbers peels himself off the turf, Xherdan Shaqiri and his gargantuan calves (nickname: The Power Cube) amble over and take the corner kick, which is short and easily cleared. Then Herbers cynically revenge-tackles an Orlando City player in an extremely heinous manner:
Ashley got some great action shots from this same sequence:
This is the part of the game when Chicago most looked like scoring, with Shaqiri taking several corners from both sides, all of which were kinda short and stunted like that first one. One did dribble through the box off a deflection to the foot of winger Stanislav Ivanov, who charmingly wears no. 99. Ivanov blasts it straight on goal and forces Pedro Gallese to make one of his four saves on the night:
The only complaint I can make—as these seats were amazing and we were there because Ashley won them in a silent auction that benefitted the Federally Qualified Health Center she used to work with—is that the supporters’ section was on the opposite end. Luckily we could hear them very well, because they were engaged and loud—although I question the wisdom, if not the legality, of screaming “Fire! Fire!” in the middle of 20,000 spectators. I was pleasantly surprised with the game atmosphere. Sure, it was the home opener, Shaqiri’s first game in Chicago, and an unseasonably warm day, but this felt sustainable.
Shaqiri was as advertised in every way. A major figure on the European soccer scene, having played on star-filled pitches for both club (Liverpool FC) and country (Switzerland), he decided to come to Chicago to build something of his own. The Chicago franchise has been somewhat moribund, and when big stars come to play in America, they usually opt for New York or L.A.
The fans loved Xherdan. He dominated the run of play at times and pulled a few wizardly tricks in midfield, picking out some incredible passes and crosses—the Fire’s two best chances were both close headers off absolutely perfect balls from Shaqiri—and he was tough to bring down in open space. In this clip, Orlando’s César Araújo very gently rides him away from the net, Shaqiri goes down, he complains a bit, and then he receives a friendly pat from the official. It didn’t look like much contact, but hey, it was a very windy day by the lakefront.
There were a few moments like this, watching him saunter away from a call that he didn’t get or a play that a teammate didn’t make, where you wondered if he wondered what he’d gotten himself into with this MLS thing. On the other hand, the fans do adore him, and since the original draft of this piece, the Fire went on to win their next two games, and it’s looking like they’ll be strong contenders to make the playoffs.
As the second half wore on, Orlando started to take control, winnowing what had been a 60-40 possession deficit down to 52-48, and generating some near chances. Finally in the 72nd minute they appeared to break through with Junior Urso’s shot deflecting off a defender and past 17-year-old goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina:
But if you watch the very beginning of that clip again, you can see that at :03 the ball comes down out of the air onto Orlando substitute Ercan Kara. We’d noticed that Slonina had been agitating the officials constantly since the goal, and right before the Fire kicked off to continue play, a replay challenge began. After a very long review, the officials disallowed the goal for handball on Kara. (In the stadium, sadly, we had no idea what they were looking at or why the goal was disallowed.)
Only in soccer, of all sports, could the biggest cheer of the match result from a failure to score. But that decision was effectively worth two points in the standings, the difference between a tie and a loss, and everyone knew it. The fiery Slonina led the celebration from his goal box. He was my favorite.
Slonina also made a tough save in added time (which lasted six minutes thanks to the earlier video review), denying Orlando City a goal on what was basically a two-on-zero attack, to preserve the 0-0 draw. Yes, the nil-nil draw: the classic citation for non-soccer fans’ claims that it’s a boring sport. You only have to watch these snippets to understand that it’s not the case.
Having moved back to Soldier Field, and with an international star leading the way, the Fire are exciting for the first time in many years, and it’s hard not to take notice. Walking back north on Michigan Avenue after the game, Ashley and I pointed out location after location where we’ve made memories since beginning our regular visits to Chicago in the mid-2010s, and then, for possibly the first time since early 2020, we rode the “L” home together. The blossoming of our local soccer team echoes the blossoming of our city, in more ways than one, as spring settles in. May it be a long one this time.
1The best seats I ever had for a game were on press row at the Missouri Valley Conference basketball tournament in March 2006. As part of my senior year sportswriting class at Wash U. in St. Louis, our professor—a writer of some renown—used his connections to help us practice doing actual reporting at actual big-time events. It was a surreal experience. One of the teams playing was eventual champion Southern Illinois (I can’t remember which round it was), who were bitter rivals of my Creighton Bluejays, but whose star player happened to be the cousin of one of my best friends from St. Louis. He won tournament MVP, and as of 2020 he was still averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds per game in the Liga Națională, the Romanian top flight.