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Soccer Wed Jun 11 2014
It is upon us.
The worldwide spectacle of the FIFA World Cup, the quadrennial celebration of the beautiful game of soccer is just days away. And while the sport is often dismissed here at home it is unavoidably growing in popularity in the past years. It has progressed from snaky, grasping tendrils seeking purchase at the start of the century to now, where networks are spending nearly triple what they had in years past to secure broadcast rights. The domestic game has never been stronger as it prepares to enter what analysts are anticipating to be its golden year in 2015, when it will debut its 20th and 21st teams in New York and Orlando, and begin its largest ever television deal with ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and Univision all broadcasting weekly matches.
But this is not just about the state of soccer in America, this is about the World Cup, the planet's largest sporting event. It is about the coming together of people from all nations to watch the biggest stars in the game, to gorge on the smörgåsbord of abundant narrative and intrigue. It is a time when the hopes of nations ride on the backs of just 23 men, and spirits rise and fall with their undulations. The World Cup is simply a month-long festival of the theatrics of sports, played on an incredibly macro level, soundtracked by the fierce tattoo of thudding hearts around the globe.
So what about Chicago? Where does our fair city on the lake come into play while the focus is trained on the stadiums in Brazil? Well, to begin with, Chicago is the official capital of soccer in America. This is not some baseless declaration about its popularity here, it is a little-known fact that the US Soccer Federation is quartered on the near-south side at the eponymous Soccer House. This is precisely why in 1994 the US-hosted World Cup held its opening game at Soldier Field, arguably the largest sporting event in the history of the venue.
Once again we are lucky enough to benefit based on our arbitrary proximity to Soccer House, as US Soccer will be hosting official watch parties for all three (thus far) games the Yanks will play in Brazil. Not just watching-at-a-bar watch parties, but full-on, thousands-of-fans-in-Grant-Park-with-a-free-concert-from-Lupe-Fiasco kind of watch parties.
If Grant Park is not your jam, you can also check out this helpful listing of bars showing the games, including nearby places to eat, as put together by Gapers Block's own Robyn Nisi. But I stress getting out and watching the tournament among others, as it adds so much to the experience.
Part of the brilliance of watching these games in a group is in witnessing the eventual coalescence of the spectators into a single entity; breathing strained breaths as one, feeling the tension, the weight of dreams whilst standing on eggshell realities. It is a transformative experience, an indoctrination by lightning strike into the world of international soccer.
The details, and storylines, for each game is as follows:
Monday, June 16 at 5pm - USA will play Ghana, the Paris to our Achilles. Ghana have made it to two World Cups in total, and in both of them they sent the US home. Ghana also has the ignominious stink on them for eliminating former US head coach Bob Bradley from reaching the World Cup as the coach of Egypt during the qualifying round.
Sunday, June 22 at 5pm - USA vs Portugal. The test. This game, more than any other, has filled fans of the USMNT with dread. Dread for having to face Christiano Ronaldo, the reigning Ballon D'Or winner, the walking six-pack of perfectly toned handsomeness. He is basically a superlative of superlatives. Most likely to be most likely, at everything. Plus ten other men, of course.
Thursday, June 26 at 11am - USA vs Germany. Finally, in a World Cup group stage with more wrinkles than a Shar-Pei, the ultimate reflexive one lands. Jurgen Klinsmann, current head coach of the USMNT, faces the team he led to win the World Cup in 1990, and coached in 2006. The current US squad also features a number of prominent US-German internationals such as Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Timmy Chandler, and Julian Green. Of all, Green, who plays for Bayern Munich, was the most hotly contested. His inclusion in the squad is seen by many as the bartering chip which Klinsmann used to tip Green's hand into choosing to play for the US over Germany. The German side will be playing without Marco Reus, arguably the best player on their national team, but his absence will mean little for a side as talent-stacked as that.
"So, Ben," you're saying, "what about the Fire?" Well, I'm glad you ask. During the World Cup, Major League Soccer will be taking a break from regular play until the 27th of June, when the Group Stage has wrapped up. In the interim there will be at least one match held at Toyota Park, when the Fire take on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL-Pro division as part of the 101st annual US Open Cup. The Open Cup, which is one of the oldest team sports competitions in the United States, is played among all levels of soccer teams from amateur to MLS and everywhere in between. Tickets for the match, which will be held on Wednesday, June 18 at 7:30pm can be purchased here.
In the week since the Fire hosted the Los Angeles Galaxy quite a bit has happened. The Men In Red went to Denver at the midweek to take on the Colorado Rapids and then returned home to Toyota Park to host the surging Seattle Sounders. Wednesday night's game ended in a 0-0 draw, marking the first time all year that the defense and goalkeeper Sean Johnson have been able to keep a clean sheet. The lack of offensive creativity can easily be blamed on the relatively short turnaround between games.
In their final game before the break the Fire hosted the Sounders, a game which had stomach-tightening anticipation painted liberally around it. Seattle has turned their side around so thoroughly from the season previous that they are the early favorites to win the Supporter's Shield and possibly MLS Cup. This is the same team that nearly fired head coach Siggi Schmid before deciding to give him one more shot to make good with the pieces he had. And what pieces. Even with Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin off with the USMNT in Brazil, they do not look like a team wanting for their best players.
Nor did they look that way on Sunday. The Fire fell to the Sounders 3-2 in wild fashion. It was a game that saw both teams end the match with just 10 a side, with red cards being shown to Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Obafemi Martins. Before getting sent off Martins scored a pair of goals for Seattle in the first half. The Fire were not content to let the Sounders walk all over them, though, and fought back impressively. Rookie sensation Harry Shipp made strides in securing his place in the firmament of Fire legends by scoring a brace as well, tying him with Quincy Amarikwa for most goals by a Fire player this season.
When regular season play resumes at the end of the month, the Fire will face a bit of a gauntlet run of opponents. They host Toronto FC, who may have Michael Bradley back in their fold (though one would hope not, because it would mean the US are still in the World Cup), then they travel to Kansas City, who may have Graham Zusi and Matt Besler back (though one would hope not -- you get the idea). The break will give players like Mike Magee and Gonzalo Segares time to get back to full match fitness, and hopefully the team will be able to recapture some of last season's back-half heroics again.
The team officially parted ways with Orr Barrouch, the Israeli international, today.
The Fire Foundation will be hosting their third annual Brews and Bites fundraiser Saturday, June 14th at Carmichael's Steakhouse. Info is here.