Waiting for Soccer

by © 1997

My memories of professional soccer in Chicago are like those of most non-soccer fans. During the heyday of the North American Soccer League (NASL), I followed baseball, and I was only aware of the Sting when the outfield grass of Wrigley Field was marred by their chalk lines. Soccer came to the attention of the sportscasters if there was ten seconds to fill in a broadcast. Their condescension toward the "Der Shting" seemed borne of a happiness that something in sports was held in more derision than sportscasters.

I am told that in 1981, when the Sting won the Soccer Bowl, that Chicago celebrated finally having a champion in those days when DePaul basketball outdrew the Bulls. Every day I read Gil Thorp, followed by the rest of the sports section, and I don’t recall this triumph. After 1981, the NASL faded like the Cheshire cat. Each year a few more teams dropped out, either going out of business or moving indoors, until by 1985 the league had disappeared. I didn’t notice.

Channel surfing past the Spanish station one Sunday afternoon in 1992, my attention was caught by a soccer player juggling the ball along the sideline, attempting to keep it in play against two defenders. Those few minutes held everything I came to love about the game. The evident skill required to do this, coupled with the beauty of the play, made me stop and watch the match. It was exciting, but I didn’t know the rules. I only picked up that the player’s name was Ruud Gullit and I was watching an Italian team with the very strange name of "AC Milan." It made me wonder if there was a "DC Milan" out there.

The following week I invited my buddy Eric, who was known for keeping late hours during the World Cup, to come over and watch soccer and explain the rules to me. Eric was accommodating and eager to convert me into a fan, so we began to watch every Sunday afternoon, often taping matches during the week and watching double-headers. I don’t know Spanish, but I picked up a few phrases, tiro de esquina, saque de meta, and goooaaalll!

I was excited to hear the 1994 World Cup was coming to Chicago, but I wasn’t sure if I would find live soccer as interesting. This may sound like an odd thing to question, but I thought perhaps it would be easier to follow the play on television. Now of course I know I had it backward. USA vs. Germany in the summer of 1993 was to be the test. If I enjoyed the match, then I would go to the World Cup. If I tell you that I was at a World Cup quarterfinal game in Boston, then I think you will understand that live soccer met my expectations.

Along with the World Cup came announcements of a new league. I was desperately disappointed that Chicago was not to be a part of it. How unfair to have to continue taping matches while other cities had professional soccer teams.

There has been a lot of waiting on my part. I waited for soccer to find me, then I waited to see a live match. I’m still waiting for the US team to come back. I waited to see if the league would materialize, and finally I’ve had to wait two extra seasons for Chicago to get a team. I suppose I should be happy that now all I have to wait for is the season to begin.

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