True football: an Englishman's take on Chicago soccer | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

An Englishman surveys Chicago's love-affair with soccer

Football fans got some relief when football's prolonged lockout ended. But for some Chicagoans, life was just fine without the NFL and "Da Bears;" they watch the other football, or what some folks call soccer.

Eight Forty-Eight's intern and resident Brit, Mike Wilson, knows his football. But even he had to rethink the sport once he began watching it among the Yanks. Wilson shared his experience on the heels of an exciting visit from Manchester United last weekend.

1994 is a year many Englishmen want to forget – and not just because that’s the year somebody decided it was a good idea to make Four Weddings and a Funeral. It was also the football world-cup finals. We had failed to qualify; and the location of the finals only made things worse.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our “special relationship” with America – almost as much as you love our royal couple. But we always liked it when you didn’t pay much attention to “our” sport. You had your football; we had ours.  You had baseball; we had cricket. You had basketball; we had netball-for-men.

But now football was making the journey across the pond and we were worried it would never be the same again. Not only was it coming back to us with a new name – just the mention of the word “soccer” is enough to send shivers down an Englishman’s spine – but there were rumors circulating in my school playground.

Apparently, “the Americans” didn’t like the fact that soccer games can be tied; so they wanted any tied game to be decided by a penalty “shoot-out.” The Americans didn’t like that soccer games were low-scoring; so they wanted goals to count for more if they were outside of the box. The Americans didn’t like the pace of the game; so they wanted power-plays, with extra balls put on the pitch (or field, as they called it) to make things more interesting. We were scared. The beautiful game – born on the playing fields England’s public schools – was about to be Americanized.

Fast forward nearly two decades and I find myself living America. Like football, I was quickly given a new name unlikely to catch on at home – “the Brit”. And when it came to sports, my mind was filled with my playground prejudices. But I was in for a surprise. Not only did I end up liking American sports a lot more than expected, but it turns out Chicago is a football savvy city – I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to say “soccer”.

As Zach Rose – a younger fan – explained to me, there are plenty of places to catch a game: “Temple Bar, Fado, the Globe…” And thanks to American TV rights, it’s actually far easier to watch English football in the States than it is at home. So it wasn’t a total surprise that tickets were in high-demand when Manchester United – England’s reigning champions and one of the most lucrative sports franchises in the world – came to town. They played the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field last weekend.

Besides those packed into Soldier Field, some fans paid $100 to watch their idols up close in training at Toyota Park the day before the game. Admittedly, some were slightly more excited than others. Take Anna Mulch: “This is just a dream come true, to be this close to the boys. You see them and you watch them play and you never, ever, ever, ever think you are going to be within looking and screaming distance because they never come … Here they come! … [SCREAMS].”

Despite such enthusiasm for English stars, it’s proven hard for the US’ own soccer league – the MLS – to break into the established order of American sports, as the Chicago  Fire’s captain, Logan Pause, acknowledges: “Obviously, it’s a big sports town so sometimes we get lost in the mix, but we’re just trying to do everything we can to grow our own team and our brand here in Chicago.”

But the fans I spoke with think that soccer’s lack of popularity compared to the “Big-Four” sports can be overplayed. Whereas in Britain we’re struggling to tempt teenagers away from their PlayStations and back out onto the abandoned football fields, in the US young people are already playing – as lifelong soccer fan Ricky Austin explained to me: “I think the media likes to play that story of “is it taking off or not,” but I think it has. If you look at the number one sport that’s played by kids it’s soccer.”

And Sir Alex Ferguson – who has been so successful as Manchester United manager that he’s been knighted – sees significant changes on the horizon: “I think in a few years’ time you’ll see a massive difference. The US will grow even bigger, because the kids are playing. That tells you there’s a future”

But these kids are important not just for the future of the country’s professional soccer leagues and national teams. They are also drawing their parents into the game.

At 6’3’’ and 285lbs, CJ Rose’s sport growing up was always going to be American football. But since his kids started playing soccer 7 years ago, his interests have shifted: “They started playing rec league and became really interested in all the superstars in Europe and stuff. And as a good parent I just followed them and said, ‘Hey, let’s go see this game, and this game,’ and they started getting the chance to see their superstars play in front of them.”

Now a season ticket holder at the Fire, he thumbs the sports pages looking for soccer news and not the traditional American sports: “Honestly, I do – I look for soccer. I do, because my kids ask me questions about it and with them asking me questions, it made me want to follow soccer.”

And he’s not alone. There definitely was no lack of fervor among the Fire fans at the game on Sat – even if they did lose 3-1.

So, soccer in the US is not just a youth game with promise, or the sport of choice for hipsters turned off by the Wrigley’s brashness. It seems it’s quickly becoming a family-passion – as I found out when my friends called me a “soccer mum” for buying a station wagon.

Putting the snarkyness to one-side, the truth of the matter is that us Brits don’t so much look down on American “soccer” any more. We’re now looking over our shoulders, worrying that the next generation of Americans will turn out to be very good at it.

Then you might just join the rest of the world at being better than us at a game we invented.

A correction has been made to this story.

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