Hostile soccer crowds in Chicago, but we still won!

The U.S. men's soccer team heads out onto the field.

The U.S. men's soccer team heads out onto the field.

This past weekend was the culmination of something I had really been looking forward to for the last several months — the World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Honduras men’s teams!

It almost was by chance that I found out about the game this past winter. I was looking up soccer games in the Chicago area, and while I had hemmed and hawed over several possible Chicago Fire games over the past couple seasons, it was this game that really got my attention!

First, it’s a World Cup qualifier. No exhibition match, no international friendly. This one had much at stake. It may not be the World Cup itself, but it was an important match for the U.S. if it was going to make it to South Africa next year!

Second, it’s a game between national teams. Yes, games between professional teams or clubs also can provide plenty of great soccer action and passion, but there’s something about national teams that up the ante quite a bit, especially when a trip to the World Cup is at stake.

Third, it was at Soldier Field, the one Chicago sports stadium I had yet to ever see in person. I’ve been to Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, the old Chicago Stadium, the United Center and U.S. Cellular Field (and Allstate Arena, once known as Rosemont Horizon, if that counts) but never to Soldier Field. My only regret is that I never got to see Soldier Field before it was renovated, but hey, better late than never. And I’m pretty sure going to a Bears game is not in my future anytime soon.

From right: Megan, Joe, Kate and Cecelia head toward Soldier Field. Even though we were outside, we could already hear the crowd noise!

From right: Megan, Joe, Kate and Cecelia head toward Soldier Field. Even though we were outside, we could already hear the crowd noise!

So this was it. The new Soldier Field, for a major soccer game. Since it was such a big experience and I knew about it well before the tickets even went on sale, I decided to ask around to see if anyone else wanted to go. I asked my dad, my sister’s family and my co-worker, who is an even bigger soccer fan than I am. (My wife Megan also would be going. I didn’t really have to ask her; she has said she’s always up for going to a sporting event with me. What a sport she is too!)

So I marked the day that the tickets went on sale, and my co-worker, Cecelia (The Gazette’s food editor), offered to do the buying so that we’d have seats together. She got them the day they went on sale earlier this spring, and the waiting game began.

…OK, waiting game’s over, Saturday, June 6, was the big day! The final lineup in our group of seven who were going: Me, Megan, Cecelia, her friend Kate, my dad Raymond, my brother-in-law Joe, and my cousin Maggie.

The five of us on my side were to meet up with Cecelia and Kate outside Soldier Field. It wasn’t until the day of the game, as Megan and I were preparing for the drive to Chicago, that I read that U.S. fans were to wear red, and that the Honduran colors were blue and white. (I finally got to wear my red Adidas soccer shirt!) I notified everyone in our group about that, and only that morning decided to check where our seats were. I read that more than 50,000 tickets were sold for the game, and suddenly felt anxious about where we’d be.

HOLY CRAP, WE HAD FRONT-ROW SEATS! Section 104, row 1! I did several double-takes when I saw where that was at on the seating chart. Somehow I just assumed we had a front row seat but in some upper-level section!

So it was a very exciting trip to Soldier Field, except that there was a helluva lot of blue and white-clad fans heading there as well. Sure, there were pockets of fans sporting red too, but they (we) were outnumbered. And pretty much drowned out. Even while standing in line to get in from outside the stadium, you could hear big roars coming from inside. It was nerve-rattling, and we weren’t even in there yet!

The U.S. fans may have been outnumbered but they were still plenty boisterous!

The U.S. fans may have been outnumbered but they were still plenty boisterous!

Finally, we got in. And despite getting a little lost, we got to our section, and tried to make it down to our row and seats. Problem was, it was filled with drunk Honduras fans who a) couldn’t speak English, and b) were already plastered, so they didn’t give a crap about the fact they were taking our seats.

Actually, we could get to our seats, but they were standing in front of us, Thankfully, Cecelia and Kate (who were smart enough not to bring bags so they got inside faster) made it to their seats, and we fought our way in to our seats, and now we had to get the Hondurans out of our way.

I don’t know what happened for the others in our group, but I got into a shouting match with one Honduran guy who reeked of booze. He kept shouting the same question to me in a language I didn’t understand. I held up my ticket that said this was my seat, and shouted over and over, “WHERE IS YOUR TICKET??? THIS IS NOT YOUR SEAT!!!”

Then he just stares at me and flips me off. I wanted to rip that finger off and poke his eyes out with it, but I knew better. Shout all you want, but get into a fight and I’d get kicked out, not to mention get my ass kicked by him and the hordes of other Honduras fans nearby.

We called security over (one of the perks of being in the front row: it’s easy to wave down the security crew that’s on the field right in front of us). That guy said he’ll send someone over, but it took forever. They should have done a much better job with security there. I’ll blame that on the fact that there aren’t too many soccer games in Soldier Field. Regular American football games, they know what to do (or so I hope). But it took awhile here.

But oh, how nice it was to see security come in and clear the area! And soon the players headed in after warmups, we heard endless advertising until the teams came back out in the ceremonial procession back onto the pitch, and the anthems of both countries were played to deafening cheers.

We also realized we had allies — the seats behind us were also occupied by U.S. fans! I turned around and told them I was glad they were sitting behind us. They said they were glad we were in front of them!

The ref blows the whistle, and it's game on!

The ref blows the whistle, and it's game on!

So finally, game time. And it started out ugly. The U.S. players seemed slow to react and just not as aggressive and crisp with the ball as the Hondurans were. And Honduras made them pay, scoring only 5 minutes into the game!

Despite all the problems, it was really cool being so close you could see everything going on when the ball was in our corner. The players’ faces, the ball control, the thumping sounds when they struck the ball. (Megan said it sounded really painful when they headed it!)

When the ball was far away from us, though, it was hard to see what was going on. We were so close to the field that we lost any sense of depth perception regarding the action on the field. What I thought looked like a player close enough to make a tackle was actually someone 10-15 feet away from the ball. (For example, when Honduras scored, we couldn’t see where the players were positioned; we only could see that the ball was kicked hard, U.S. goalie Tim Howard dove, and the ball went by him and into the net. Couldn’t tell how close he was to saving it.)

But we could still see enough to know what was going on, including seeing the hand ball that led to the penalty shot by Landon Donovan! Here’s where the big screens in the stadium were helpful. You could glance up at it to determine field position, and then look back at the live action.

Landon’s penalty kick was on the other side of the field, but we could still see him,  the goalie, the ball and the net. And of course, we could see the throngs of U.S. fans behind the goal, swaying and gearing up for the kick. He kicked it, the ball ricocheted in and out of the netting, and the U.S. fans went nuts, to the Hondurans’ chagrin! And with it being a penalty kick, hell yeah I was going to film it! Got it all on film. It was great. (More about that below.)

That pretty much ended the first half, and we were excited to have the U.S. offense on our side of the field. During halftime, a bunch of U.S. fans came down the aisle and hung out by our seats while Cecelia, Maggie and Kate went to get some food. I didn’t mind the U.S. fans being there. They were younger, more well-behaved and were cheering the good guys, and, most importantly, they stayed in the aisle and out of our seating area. The trio from our group didn’t return in time for the second half, and eventually a female bodyguard came down and shooed those fans in the aisle away, flashing the police badge beneath her parka for emphasis. (Apparently the person working in the food stand was more interested in watching the game on a screen than helping the customers.)

Clint Dempsey of the U.S. team (far left) chases after a Honduran player and the ball.

Clint Dempsey of the U.S. team (far left) chases after a Honduran player and the ball.

About 10 minutes into the second half, the U.S. team got another corner kick opportunity, on the other side of the field from us. Time to film again, just in case it might turn into a goal. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened! It was a thing of beauty, the ball flying up about 30 feet in the air and curling back down, off the head of Clint Dempsey, off another head of a diving Carlos Bocanegra and bouncing low into the net. The place went nuts again–we took the lead!

I wish I had kept filming the celebration, but I stopped it so I could soak in the revelry. But I got the important part, of course.

So from here it was tense, watching the U.S. team trying to protect its lead. The Honduras fans were getting annoyed, and one took his frustration out on on of the ball boys in front of us, apparently angry the kid didn’t throw any out-of-bounds balls back to the players to get the play started fast enough. He kept yelling at the boy and tried to take his picture, and a bunch of us started yelling at him and cheering the boy for doing a good job. Even the Honduran guy’s buddy was trying to get him under control.

Oh well. Even though he was a complete jerk, it was nice to know his team was losing.

Soon we went into extra time, and it was here (and also at the end of the first half) that I learned the clocks in the stadium stop running and only the referee keeps track of the time. When the game’s on TV they keep track of the extra time, but not in the stadium. It definitely adds to the suspense!

When the referee blew his whistle to end the game, the cheers seemed to be as much for relief as for happiness of a win. As Honduras fans started streaming out of the stands, we stuck around to watch the U.S. team applaud the crowd and make their way past us one last time. Donovan stayed and did an interview right in front of us, and many of us took pictures of that moment before heading out ourselves.

Megan and I celebrate the U.S. victory!

Megan and I celebrate the U.S. victory!

Cecelia and Kate headed out on their own while the rest of us made our way back to the car. We had to stop back in Chinatown to get some food from my grandmother’s house, and on the spur of the moment decided to go get some bubble tea before heading home, where my mom was trying out cooking some Korean BBQ and we ended up having another little impromptu late-night snack.

A great ending to a great day. It definitely had its frustrating moments, but in the end, the U.S. team won, and that made it all worthwhile. I’m definitely excited to keep on following them and cheering them on through the 2010 World Cup and beyond.

OK, this was a really long post. Hope you enjoyed it and my apologies if you didn’t. Either way, I hope you enjoy this video I put together of the day’s action!

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~ by davidllee on June 10, 2009.

2 Responses to “Hostile soccer crowds in Chicago, but we still won!”

  1. I totally want a copy of that picture of you and I! This is a cool video, nice job! And we were probably just a few feet ahead of you in the “USA” tunnel! I think I see us!

  2. You’ve got that photo, it’s your Twitpic! Where do you think I got it? =)
    Thanks for checking it all out, glad you like it!

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