Second City, soccer city: All-Star Game gives a worthy showcase for Chicago

CHICAGO – It’s been a damn good year for soccer in this town, and it’s far from over. But Wednesday night’s MLS All-Star Game, presented by Target at Soldier Field offered up a fittingly elegant midsummer celebration of the Windy City’s enduring love affair with the beautiful game.

The hometown Fire are resurgent in the MLS standings, a proud club revived after painful years of struggle. World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger has charmed the city – and vice versa – since his headline-grabbing arrival in the spring.

And this week mighty Real Madrid and the brightest luminaries of Major League Soccer descended on the shores of Lake Michigan, prompting the likes of Dwyane Wade and a crowd of 61,428 -- one of the largest soccer audiences ever at Soldier Field -- to flock to Lake Shore Drive for a memorable night rich in theatrical heft regardless of its exhibition status.

“These kind of nights, you could see that the fans are happy,” said Schweinsteiger after the 1-1 draw with the reigning European champion.

“It’s a city of sport. Chicago has great teams and I think it was today a great atmosphere at Soldier Field, a lot of people came over and it was a great event. It was good for Chicago as a city.”

Some will inevitably attempt to use the match itself to draw some sort of deeper conclusions about the state of the league. But there was no sign of such feverish pondering in the host team’s locker room.

“The atmosphere was unbelievable: sold-out stadium, Soldier Field – my first time playing here, actually. An unbelievable feeling,” said Fire and All-Star midfielder Dax McCarty, who played a key role in the equalizing goal scored by Dom Dwyer. “It’s truly a beautiful stadium and I think the atmosphere was amazing all night.

“It was full right from the first minute – even when it was raining, the fans stayed. The fireworks, everything – it was just a great spectacle for everyone. You want to entertain people, you want them to leave having fun. So I think the fans of Chicago have certainly had a very positive year, with the Fire doing as well as we have and the All-Stars Game here with Real Madrid.”

McCarty’s teammate Nemanja Nikolic, who nearly gave the home fans a perfect moment when his angled shot flew wide and rippled the outside of the netting in the 70th minute, saw things similarly.

“I think what was most important was that we sent a good picture to the world that soccer here is growing every year,” said the MLS Golden Boot frontrunner.

“This city deserved this. They show that they know how to make a fantastic atmosphere. It was more than 60,000 people – it’s a lot – and we enjoy it also on the pitch.”

The Fire’s long playoff drought may have allowed some outside observers to lose track of just what a soccer mecca their home market is. But 11 years after its last visit, the All-Star circus hit town at the perfect time. The Second City has rolled out the red carpet for the league and its illustrious guests this week, infusing the All-Star experience with its particular brand of ambiance.

“The city put on a great show,” said Houston Dynamo veteran DaMarcus Beasley, who made his name as a fresh-faced winger with the Fire at the turn of the century. “I arrived on Sunday and throughout the week, it’s been first-class, from the different events and the fans to the energy and the vibe through the city. I love this city – it gave me a lot of love when I was here for four years.”

Now Chicago turns its focus back to the Fire, who are hungry to keep pace with Toronto FC in the Supporters’ Shield race, end their five-year playoff drought and maybe – just maybe – treat the local audience to some more fireworks later this year.

“In regards to the potential of our community in Chicago, I agree absolutely – I think it’s huge,” said Fire and All-Stars coach Veljko Paunovic. “I think we are putting the pieces together in our club and it’s very important to represent the community, starting with our club in MLS, and we’ve had some progress.

“In the coming years I believe we can light up the rest of the critical mass that is needed … we want soccer to be important in this city and in this community and obviously in this country.”

Added McCarty: “It’s all about playoffs, it’s all about winning trophies, and the fans of the Fire have been seeing losing seasons for too long. So it’s time to get the Fire back to where they deserve to be, which is competing for trophies, making the playoffs and being one of the better teams in the league. So I think we have a long way to go still, but we’re on the right track.”