Chicago Fire Chief Operating Officer John Urban is pointing to a patch of grass around 20 feet from the podium, at one end of Soldier Field.
“Frank’s finest moment,” he says, grinning.
Somewhere behind us the “Frank” in question — one Frank Klopas — is warming up to host a very special Soldier Field announcement. In a few minutes he’ll be regaling an invited crowd, that includes long-time fans and players, past and present, about driving through standstill game day traffic, on his way to play in the first ever Fire game at Soldier Field in 1998. He recalls missing his exit as he realized the backup was due to Fire fans heading to that first match
Klopas would score the first ever Fire goal at Soldier Field that day, from roughly the spot on the field that our COO has just pointed to. Since that historic goal Klopas has served as a player, coach, technical director, Club ambassador, and now broadcast presenter. If anyone gets the significance of an event announcing the team’s return to Soldier Field next year, beginning with a home opener on 21 March against Atlanta United, it’s a Chicago kid whose life has been bound up with the life of the Club and the city.
And reflecting on the aftermath of the event, a persistent theme ran through the day — deep-seated connections and personal histories with the team and the city. It’s in Klopas of course — at one point popping up amid a teaser video sequence of Chicagoans staring down the camera, with a face of personal, hard-won experience. It’s a theme that’s also in our owner, Joe Mansueto, having Mayor Lori Lightfoot characterize his recent acquisition of the Fire as just the latest act in a continuum of investment, leadership and philanthropy within the City of Chicago.
And, of course, it was crystallized in the moment Mansueto told the group of 68 individuals who have purchased season tickets every season since 1998 that the Club were gifting them their 2020 season tickets, by way of thanks for their unmatched support.
That moment was marked with a scarf being presented to superfan Andy Braudy. As one of the most iconic representatives of the “98ers” Braudy knows a thing or two about the journey with this team. Despite the demands of work and family commitments, he has had the Club at the heart of his life for over two decades — his infamous game day swim cap a famous image of home team support.
Andy Braudy and Frank Klopas
I didn’t ask if Braudy had skipped work to attend Tuesday morning’s event — as he had once done to witness the team winning the 2003 US Open Cup in New York — but it was pretty touching to see him and his fellow supporters rising to applaud Joe Mansueto for the gesture to them as “the heart of our support."
Afterwards, Braudy is grinning broadly. “I didn’t know this was happening — I mean I knew I was coming up for a photo or something, but not the free tickets. That’s great.”
He gestures round at the field and the stadium looming above us. “This is great. Just seeing everybody here, and everything with Joe coming in. I mean you can just feel the excitement building. And I’ve been waiting for it. I mean, I’d have to check, but I’ve been to around 150 road games at least. I’ve been doing this a long, long time.”
Braudy’s comments illuminate another big takeaway from the event. As I say hello to MLS Commissioner Don Garber on his way off the “stage,” I reflect on the number of times I’ve attended or watched events like this in recent years, when I was a member of the media watching Garber speak as yet another expansion team was rolled out. I’d go to the events, witness the speeches, the big plans, and the collections of fans in brand new merchandise, eager to represent and enjoy a new team to ground their enthusiasm in. I never got cynical about it exactly (I’m one of those people who still love the SuperDraft for the opportunity to witness young people experiencing life-changing moments), but I was always aware that for all the planning these new teams could now do to fast track success, their lack of history was a dimension that would only be addressed by living through games. Wins. Losses. Draws. Games. Season after season. Learning who they were from experience.
Chicago has earned its history — all of it. And looking again now at the scene behind me, I see Klopas in conversation with Mike Magee, who as a kid begged for Fire season tickets for Christmas to watch Klopas and his peers play.
Magee would go on to become a League MVP in front of his home city fans, playing under Klopas as coach. The pair of them are laughing at memories, as long-time fans, many of whom I recognize from Bridgeview tailgates, or vintage Fire photographs, take it in turns to come up and say hello and ask for photos. Similar cameos are taking place all around me. As the collective mingles and laughs, and buzzes around the Soldier Field turf, repeatedly walking over the spot Frank Klopas swung his boot to score that first goal from, I glance around at other spots I’m pulling from half-remembered highlight reels — summoning ghosts our next Chicago Fire team will soon mingle with again.
And then I’m back looking up at a beautiful, cloud-free sky — the color of the river bands on the Chicago Flag — framed by the looming stands of Soldier Field. I think of Andy Braudy and his fellow 98ers, who’ve all been “doing this a long, long time," and the triumph of hope that it takes to remain a fan through every turn of a team’s history. Waiting for moments like this, where you look up at a clear blue sky, from ground steeped in memories, and you tell the world you are Chicago, and that you are coming home.