Cheap Seats: Soldier Field of dreams

after all, one of us is a father! -- and we've changed with it, which is why we are still such good friends. We don't get together to rehash the past. We get together to create new memorable moments. (Yes, I'm a cheesy sentimentalist. So sue me. I bet you cried at the end of "The Black Stallion," too, and if you didn't, then you have no heart and I feel sorry for you.)

***

Saturday dawned sun bright and scorching. The heat was at Bayou levels, the miniskirts were at Daisy Duke levels, and the B.O. on the El was at noxious levels. We rode the Red Line downtown and joined the flow of Fire fans walking toward Soldier Field. The Fire were playing D.C. United, and you could feel the Adu-mania in the air. Or maybe it was just the humidity. Seriously, I think I broke a sweat just blinking.

"Man, the new Soldier Field is so much better," said Rags. "The old place had an edge, you know? Guys used to be two deep peeing in the sink."

"Was that the stadium or was that the Bears fans?"

"A little bit of both."

We could see it now, just to the south, behind the Field Museum, silhouetted by that blue, blue Lake Michigan sky. From afar, the stadium is massive, otherworldly, a gargantuan traffic jam of metal and glass and Greek-revival columns. The entire thing resembles an absinthe-fueled collaboration between Frank Gehry and Pythagoras.

"It looks like a space ship," Cohen declared.

"Or a giant airplane toilet bowl perched on top of the Parthenon," I suggested.

"It's got great views of the city, though," Rags said.

"So it's got that going for it," Chief said, "which is nice."

The game kicked off with typical MLS fanfare: an echoey rendition of the national anthem, some mistimed fireworks that produced so much smoke I thought I was inside one of those airport smoking rooms, and, of course, the ceremonial "first kick." Boy, do I love the ceremonial first kick. Honestly, nothing fires me up for a soccer match more than watching some gawky girl no one knows make a poorly executed 10-yard pass to Chris Armas. Please, MLS powers-that-be, if it's not going to involve a president, a foreign monarch, or a Keira Knightley, get rid of the first kick.

This match, of course, was further electrified by the presence of Freddy "the Man Cub" Adu. A big crowd showed up at Soldier Field for Freddy: 15,000 to see if he could turn Powerade into wine, and 10,000 to watch Chicago defender Jim Curtin kick him all the way to Indiana.

The first half was a magnification of both teams' seasons. The Fire dominated from the opening whistle while D.C. looked like a pub squad that hit the pub before the game. Chicago moved the ball quickly, crisply, highlighted by Andy Williams pinging balls over the top, DaMarcus Beasley buzzing up and down the left flank, Damani Ralph scoring the first goal of his eventual hat trick, Ante Razov kicking Brandon Prideaux in the face. (How was Ante not fined for that? Troy Dayak was fined for criticizing the refs, but Ante escapes after half-volleying Brandon's head?)

The flip side: Except for goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who simply played out of his mind, D.C. looked lost, like a bunch of 5-year-olds who had just been dropped off at summer camp. Without Ryan Nelsen, D.C.'s backline was in total disarray. Ben Olsen just doesn't seem to have his timing back yet. Coach Peter Nowak seemed clueless about what to do, like a guy being yelled at by his girlfriend in a crowded restaurant. "Can I just get up and leave?" he seemed to be asking himself all day long.

Down in the southeast corner, the Barn Burners were going berserk. I'm pretty sure they were all tipsy before they even left their houses. They shouted, screeched, blew horns, held aloft their scarves and waved flags from the first whistle 'til the last. I think they even cheered the ceremonial first kick. This was my first in-person encounter with the Barn Burners, and I've got to say, they were awesome. Truly, awesome. If every team had a band of wackos like this, who knows where MLS could be.

"Freddy's bumming me out 'cause he's being a wuss," Rags said after Freddy got knocked off the ball for the umpteenth time and then sat on the turf glaring at the ref.

"At least there's a lot of action!" Cohen said, staying positive.

Cohen disappeared, running up to the fancy club-level bar to get more beer just as the announcement that three minutes of added time would be played at the end of the first half was made -- in English, Spanish, and Polish.

"Wow, all three languages," Chief said. "Good marketing, those MLS people."

"Yeah, geniuses," I said.

"It makes me feel very worldly," Rags said. "Otherwise my exposure to Polish would consist of a girl I dated in college whose name ended in -ski. And Polish sausage."

Midway through the second half, my cell phone rang. It was Cohen.

"I'm inside at the bar," he said. "The sun is frying my head. I'm staying here."

I couldn't really blame him. One of the nicest things about Soldier Field is the club level promenade: When the game goes sour, you can go into the AC, sit at the faux-fancy bar, wonder why the bartender has to wear a bowtie just to pour a Bud wide-mouth into a plastic cup, and watch "Three's Company" reruns. Not that I did that, of course.

Besides, the game had turned uglier than an XFL cheerleader, and the Man Cub came out in the 60th minute to smattering of applause. Pity claps.

A couple of minutes before the final whistle and about an hour before Smarty Jones "missed it by that much," I headed down to the Barn Burners' standing-only section. They were still going strong, cheering and singing and having a grand old time, though by then, I doubt any of them could see straight. At one point, being the gonzo journalist that I am, I accosted one young buck.

"This #%?& is crazy!" he yelled, spilling his beer, which made him momentarily sad.

"Is this your first time?"

His spirits bounced back. "Yeah, but I'm a virgin no more!"

"Coming back?"

"Hell yeah!"

So there it is. Soldier Field in a nutshell: a beautiful day on the shores of Lake Michigan, a toilet bowl on top of the Parthenon, a game full of goals and storylines, and a guy who's not a virgin anymore. Yup, this is MLS. It's your game.

***

Mortal Lock: My beloved Crew let me down last week by not notching their fifth win "on the trot," but they still got their seventh positive result in a row. This week, both Columbus and I are in D.C., where the Crew's streak started in earnest with that last-second penalty kick (I'm not counting the 0-0 tie at home to Dallas): Columbus over D.C.

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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