Situated near the intersection of Harlem Ave and 71st street in Bridgeview, essentially in the middle of a giant plot of land, sits Toyota Park. Surrounding the gorgeous home to the Chicago Fire, is an abundance of parking, and, well, more parking. Aside from the awkwardness of such a beautiful stadium in the midst of nothingness, there are major complaints about getting to and from Toyota Park. Those complaints coupled with the lack of a pregame atmosphere are a driving force behind stagnant attendance and a reluctance of new or casual fans to attend games at Toyota Park. I think with expanded facilities inside and outside the park, ranging from restaurants to a team museum, Bridgeview and Chicago can become home to the crown jewel of not just MLS but of North American club soccer.
For fans who don't live in Bridgeview, or a nearby suburb, the commute to Toyota Park can be quite cumbersome. Shuttle buses are organized at various downtown Chicago bars and restaurants. That makes for a very logical and simple transportation arrangement for those who live near the pickup and drop-off location or those willing to at least drive for part of their commute. Taking the CTA Orange Line to the Midway stop, and going onboard the express bus to Toyota Park is another simple sounding, yet often criticized form of transportation. It's convenient in a sense, yet not convenient enough. Lastly, there is the tried and true method of driving your own car the entire way. Traffic can be horrendous, especially the day of an event, but if you allow yourself enough time, this method will work out great. More forms of public transportation to and from Toyota Park will never come to fruition unless fans consistently flock in droves on match day.
I think if fans are given something more than the game to look forward to, they undoubtedly will flock. Toyota Park is already built. The hard part is over. What it lacks is a reason for casual fans to get there early, to really soak in the match day experience, and from the club's perspective, pour more money into the club. Most importantly, the new and/or casual fan can easily be transitioned into a loyal die-hard if Toyota Park can reach its full potential.
The Chicago baseball model
Those who have attended a baseball game at either Wrigley Field or U.S Cellular Field are familiar with the Captain Morgan Club and Bacardi at the Park. Each establishment is a bar/restaurant that accommodates a few hundred people. The added benefit to an addition like that is a common gathering place for Fire fans to have a proper meal and a beverage or two before kick-off. An ideal location for something like this at Toyota Park would basically be behind the current Miller Lite party deck. Expansion can start from there and extend to outside the concourse, which would allow for patio seating much like the Bacardi at the Park model. The Miller Lite sponsorship is already in place, so the expansion to a restaurant would need a simple re-name such as "The Miller Lite Party Lodge" or "The Miller Lite Fire Station" to keep with the Fire theme. A casual fan who just wants to have a good time and previously felt that Toyota Park is lacking or dull won't feel that way ever again with an addition like this.
No need to rush to your seat
Outside of a small amusement area for kids, there is nothing to do on the outer concourse. There is a nice team shop, but if it isn't researched or learned about through word of mouth, it's almost impossible to remember that it exists. Once your ticket is scanned the only thing that is left to do is find you seat and grab a concession. Why not have more options outside the gates? With all that land, the Fire and the city of Bridgeview should get together and work on bringing in businesses to set up shop just inside those gates. A simple stand or kiosk would even suffice. Bring in an Adidas soccer store, a Jamba Juice, a Chipotle, or a few food trucks from local restaurants. You personally may never frequent any of those places but others do. I believe it'll draw more people to Toyota Park.
Something else that is lacking at Toyota Park is a fully fledged Chicago Fire Team museum. Fifteen years, six trophies and a long list of legendary players is a good amount to really catalog and display in a unique setting. There is no better chance at really defining the importance, prestige and history of a US Open Cup championship. Blow up a giant photo of each team that won the MLS Cup, the Supporters Shield or an Open Cup. Allow the trophies to be displayed and really shine. Exhibit the game worn jerseys of legendary players in glass displays. All of that will make fans understand the history of success at the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. It will make them crave wanting to be around the next time history is made.
With the typical MLS stadium seating roughly 20,000 spectators and failing to secure a succession of sellouts, talk of expansion is rare. If the Fire were to take the above advice, and expand the outer concourse and add a restaurant/bar to rival the Captain Morgan Club and Bacardi at the Park, I believe they'll start to see sellout crowds. Soccer is a growing sport in the U.S. Chicagoans simply need a nudge, or some bait, if you will. Once they bite on an improved Toyota Park, they'll be hooked. There will be time for a fan to attend a Cubs, Sox, Bulls, or Blackhawks game. A soccer game however (a Fire game specifically), much like a Bears game, is an event and should be treated as such. It comes around once a week. Once those fans are hooked, the next step in the evolution of Toyota Park is seating expansion.
The Harlem End houses the passionate Section 8 supporters. They easily provide the biggest vocal support from start to finish, each and every week. When their numbers start to increase, a second level of seating will become necessary. Toyota Park was essentially built with expansion in mind, so the same can be done in various sections throughout the park. An added level to the Harlem End specifically, will rival Jeld-Wen Field's Timbers Army section as best in MLS. Keep expansion going around the stadium and the conversation switches to best in North America.
The Fire have always drawn fairly well. A loyal and growing fan base has existed since day one. It would be a shame if the nation's third largest metropolitan area didn't take full advantage of tapping into a fan base of the world's most popular sport. Toyota Park has been an under appreciated, underutilized bastion of Chicago soccer and the Chicago sports landscape. More can be done to draw fans to gorgeous Toyota Park. As I laid out above, the keys are expanding the Miller Lite Party deck into something huge; a gathering place for fans to socialize, eat and drink. The outside concourse can use another element of shopping choices, whether for apparel or food. Give people a reason to come to the park. Soccer sells itself to the soccer fan. Toyota Park, if given the opportunity to grow and prosper can sell itself to an entire city, and become the crown jewel of North American soccer.