North Avenue Beach, Chicago

On Sunday, July 30, as part of MLS All-Star festivities, you can join us for free beach soccer at one of Chicago’s most iconic summer spots — North Avenue Beach.

But beyond the fun of just playing a game there and grabbing a cold (and free) brew, this is an essential stop for lovers of both natural beauty and early-modern urban history. What’s now one of Chicago’s most beautiful locales arose initially out of one of the city’s darkest hours. 

In the years following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, one of the frequent points of contention among politicians and various stakeholders as they rebuilt the city was its expansive lakefront. The metropolis sits on the southwest coast of a vast freshwater ocean most of us know as Lake Michigan, and that vast stretch of lakefront — spanning 18 miles in the present day — is undoubtedly Chicago’s most valuable natural asset. 

While many Chicagoans saw the lakefront and saw nature at its most majestic, the city’s business and political elite saw dollar signs. For decades business leaders and politicians tussled over what to do with it. Railroad companies laid down track. Landfills were created in order to open up more property. 

he World’s Columbian Exposition was held on the lakefront twenty years after the fire, showcasing the city as an engine of progress and a good place to do business. For a time, it looked like the lakefront would be swallowed up by corporate interests.

And then in 1909, architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham released The Burnham Plan of Chicago and made a bold and radical claim.

“The Lakefront by right belongs to the people,” he wrote. “Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”

These kind of reports tend to get buried in Chicago’s legendarily obtuse bureaucracy. But the Burnham Plan made the lakefront we all know today possible.

Few sections of the lakefront exemplify Burnham’s legacy more than North Avenue Beach, which draws people from all over the city and the region looking to have fun and relax. It attracts joggers, bicyclists, volleyball players, and sightseers, usually checking out the beach house built like a streamline moderne ocean liner). There are young couples on lengthy strolls, and even chess hustlers, all enjoying public space, with the northernmost edge of Chicago’s skyline looming just ahead.

How history, planning gave Chicago its must-see summer beach soccer scene -

The pavilion at North Avenue Beach. Photo CC by 2.0, via Flickr

It’s also a superb place for beach soccer. While most of the action there consists of groups of friends or pickup games, plenty of adult rec leagues trundle toward North Avenue for sand, warm weather, and a little 5-a-side. The vast lake provides a gorgeous backdrop for soccer, as well as a natural coolant for those really hot summer days.

And it’s not just the adults who take advantage of the lakefront to get in some beach soccer. For the past few years, Illinois Youth Soccer has held a beach soccer tournament for kids at Montrose Avenue Beach, open to youth teams throughout the city and the wider Chicagoland region.

“The Adult Soccer Association used to hold it years ago,” said Chris Jamrozy, IYS Communications Director. “We had partnered with them for a few years, and then we kind of started doing our own one for youths, because of the growth of the event.”

This year’s tournament was held this past July 22 and 23, although weather forced all of Saturday’s games to be held the next day. The 2017 edition of the tournament also featured a first — an interstate championship game.

“We had our first year where we had some teams from out of state come and play,” said Jamrozy. “And the team from Wisconsin that made it to the final game. So we had our first interstate championship match. Luckily for us, the team from Illinois prevailed, so they defended their home turf.”

Paul Cadwell, the Senior Director of Youth Development for the Chicago Fire, also fielded some teams in the beach soccer tournament from the club’s Fire Juniors program. While they didn’t progress as far as Cadwell would’ve liked, he tells me that these kind of events provide an invaluable experience for the kids.

“Our teams don’t [participate for competitive purposes], not necessarily about winning a championship for those teams,” he said. “It’s just more a case of keeping active during the summer, getting as many chances on the ball as possible, and then obviously when you’ve got a beautiful lakefront like Chicago does, it makes for a good outing not just for the players, but for the families also.”

With the city gearing up to host the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target on Aug. 2 — at yet another gem in Chicago’s lakefront crown, Soldier Field — there’s no better time to check out both North Avenue Beach and the soccer scene there. On Sunday, July 30, from noon to 9 p.m., everyone's welcome to come down to North Avenue Beach and enjoy beach soccer and free Heineken and Coca-Cola products, as well as other special giveaways. (Full details are here.) 

How history, planning gave Chicago its must-see summer beach soccer scene -

A past view of rec soccer on the beach. Photo CC by 2.0, via Chicago Fire Rec Soccer on Flickr

And on Aug. 2, the day of the actual All-Star Game, a clash between Major League Soccer’s best and brightest and Real Madrid, the reigning Champions of Europe, sounds like a daunting task. But Chicago isn’t a city that’s easily overwhelmed. After all, Burnham is famous for another quote: “Make no little plans,” he said. “They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized.