On the face of it, no person with a reasonable bone in their body would spend several hundred dollars to go watch a last place team take on the Montreal Impact in Québec.
For those that do not know, the word fan originated from the word fanatic which means “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.” Yep, that describes my travel partner and me precisely. It made no sense for my brother and I to concoct a plan in the late spring time to fly to Montreal for a long weekend and take in a Chicago Fire game. We probably had our normal early season visions of sitting comfortably near the top of the Eastern Conference when we would meet the Impact at Stade Saputo on Aug. 20th. We assumed we would go and get a big win and show Didier Drogba what he missed by shunning the Fire’s attempt at his signature a year earlier.
As the summer progressed, we were filled with doubt that any of this would happen. But we are fans, and the most die-hard fans will always keep that zealous optimism.
My travel partner was my younger brother, Trent, and we have been talking about starting the annual away game weekend for the past few seasons as a way to make sure we get one weekend of fun together a year. When adult life hits, it is hard to remember the days when you had a weekend of fun every week, but now we just aim to make sure it happens once a year.
We did a bus trip to Columbus a few seasons ago and had a blast, even though we were defeated handily. Each season we look at the schedule when it comes out and try to decide the best game to target. We usually start with the teams that are closer to Chicago to avoid flying and increasing the weekend’s budget, but we are in an MLS wasteland with the closest teams being Eastern Conference foes Columbus Crew SC and Sporting Kansas City (which is now in the Western Conference, meaning we will play at SKC once every two years). The calendar was already pretty packed and we settled on either Toronto or Montreal because those weekends were free. Montreal became the choice after comparing flight and hotel costs between the two cities.
A Saturday night game makes a perfect weekend trip because it is possible to do without taking either Friday or Monday off work. Since we were making the long trip and could swing it, we chose to fly first thing on Friday morning to maximize our time in the wonderful city of Montreal. We flew on Porter Airlines out of Chicago’s Midway Airport, both of which make the flying experience out of Chicago as comfortable as possible. Porter is a regional Canadian airline that makes several international stops in the Eastern portion of the U.S. They fly only prop planes and the flight attendants are dressed in retro styled navy outfits as they serve you a complimentary snack (think real snack, not a few pretzels or peanuts) and complimentary beer or glass of wine. And when I say glass, I mean glass. No plastic cups on board with Porter!
We had to stop in Toronto to change planes, but on this route it is not a typical layover. Porter flies in and out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport which is on an island near the heart of the city. Imagine landing on an island just a few hundred feet from Soldier Field or Navy Pier. Flying in and out of the airport gives passengers a fantastic view of the city and Toronto FC’s BMO Field. While waiting for the flight connection in Porter’s customer lounge, customers are free to enjoy complimentary cookies, soda, and an assortment of espresso based beverages. My brother and I didn’t think the weekend could get much better at this point!
After an uneventful flight to Montreal, we purchased a three-day pass for the public transit system and waited in a long, but fast moving line for the bus to downtown Montreal. In a world of cabs and Uber, it is definitely worth researching public transit if traveling to a major city. We got three days worth of rides on the buses and subway for the price of one Uber ride from the airport. Being free to hop on the subway to check out a lunch spot and then go back the same direction for some sightseeing is quite liberating. After arriving to the hotel and checking in, we headed out to grab a snack and see Old Montreal, a charming section of town that dates back to the 1600’s. While its historical value is evident, the commercialization and overly touristy nature of it sent us heading back to the hotel for a quick nap before heading out to dinner.
I had made a dinner reservation at Joe Beef, a small place in the Little Burgundy neighborhood that is known for its urban garden and rich, gluttonous food. This meal was quite a splurge for us but the experience was priceless. We ate more than we should have but managed to walk back to the subway station and head back downtown. Before turning in for the night after our two and a half hour meal, we stopped at Dominion Square Tavern for a few 1920’s era cocktails. The drinks were excellent and the atmosphere was perfect for a couple of laid back out-of-towners. It was also here that we remembered that every time we looked at a price on the menu, we could basically take 20% off because of the favorable USD to CAD exchange rate. That would become one of many happy surprises of the weekend!
The next morning we headed back down to Old Montreal to rent bikes to see some more of the city. Montreal hosted the 1967 World’s Fair and the 1976 Olympic Games, both of which still have a prominent imprint on the city. It is a remarkably bike-friendly city with miles of dedicated bike trails and many bike lanes in the city’s streets. We rode down along the St. Lawrence River across to two of the many nearby islands and back to the downtown area. The highlight of the morning was riding around the 2.71 mile Circuit Gilles Villeneuve Formula 1 track, a must for racing fans or those seeking to do something unique.
After nearly 15 miles of riding, Trent and I decided we had better get another nap in before we took the subway up to Stade Saputo for the 7:30 PM game. As a side note, it is important to never underestimate the power of a quick nap. They kept us going well into the night on Friday and Saturday after getting up way too early for our flight out of Chicago.
There is not a whole lot of eating or drinking establishments near the stadium, something for which Chicago Fire fans are all too familiar, so we stopped for a good ol’ American style cheeseburger and fries. Again, the freedom of the three day metro pass cannot be mentioned enough.
The subway has two stops in the Parc Olympique de Montréal area which are both a short walk to the stadium. Section 8 had arranged our ticket purchase with the box office and we picked them up at will call upon arrival. We entered the south entrance so we could walk around the stadium and get a good feel for the place. After buying two Budweisers from the French speaking woman near the entrance, we started walking through the sea of blue and black (it felt very strange that Budweiser was one of the only beer options available at the stadium and is, perhaps, more a reflection of the American based league rather than the Canadian club). If you are waiting for a Green Street Hooligans style story here, you will be disappointed. We got a lot of looks in our 2006 Fire jerseys, but nobody gave us a hard time.
When watching on television, the stadium looks wonderfully decorated and has an atmosphere Chicago fans envy. I can tell you the envy should stop there. The venue is more like a stadium you would find on a smaller college campus for American football than one a professional soccer team calls home. One section of the stadium is a permanent structure for the premium seats and suites, but the other three sections are bleachers. Honestly, other than being in the city limits and having a train stop, it has nothing on Toyota Park.
We sat at the top of the north end of the stadium with another half dozen or so Fire fans and we did everything we could to make our voices heard every time the ball hit the back of the net. The first goal caused several hundred fans in front of us to turn around in puzzlement as they hadn’t realized we were camped out above them. It was a brilliant evening to be a Chicago Fire fan and one I’ll never forget.
The next morning we got breakfast at Beautys Luncheonette, a retro diner that dates back to its 1942 opening. Hymie, the original owner who is now in his mid-nineties, greets you at the door with a direct question, “How many?” He then returns to his post near the door to wait for a table to clear out. We ate at the counter and wouldn’t have it any other way. Afterwards, we took a hike up Mount Royal to see the city from above and work off some of the smoked meats we were digesting. We nearly got caught at the top in a rain storm and decided to head back downtown and leave for the airport a little early in case the impending storms caused trouble with our travel plans. Our arrival back to Chicago was slightly delayed, but nothing could spoil the fun we had over those three days in Montreal.
That concludes story time and now it is time for a call to action.
First and foremost, make sure to call up the Chicago Fire ticket office to get your 2017 season tickets. I’d say I am an innately trusting person and I think Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunović have the team on the right track. The 2017 season is sure to be a better than any of the past few (I know, you have thought that before) and you will want to get to as many games as possible.
The front office is not telling half truths when they say it is the best value in professional sports and we, as a fanbase, need to start filling up the stands week in and week out to show our support. Bring a friend, or your Mom, or a coworker, or your boss out to a game next season (I have done all of those). No matter what you think about certain parts of the club, the players go out every week and leave it all on the field.
If you think it has been hard to get the motivation to drive to Bridgeview to watch a game, imagine what players feel day in and day out. They put in the effort to improve the results and become a force in the league once again and they deserve to have our support during their most trying times. The players must be disheartened every single time they finish a game and walk around the field seeing the seats half full.
I had the pleasure to meet Patrick Nyarko last November after a game and he was defeated. The club to which he gave his all had failed him. We, the fans, had failed him. The most consistently dangerous player on the team for the better part of 8 years asked to leave the club just a month later. I cannot blame him for his decision because he never got the chance to win and he had to play most of his career in front of a declining fanbase that protested the state of the club by staying home. We have to do better and we have to make sure each and every player wearing the badge knows they are the most important people employed by the Chicago Fire Soccer Club.
Secondly, call up a friend or family member and make plans to take a trip to an away match next season. Sure, it is easy to spend more money on one weekend trip than it would cost to buy a pair of season tickets to for the 2017 season, but the experience can bring you back from the brink of giving up hope on the club. Just add the cost into your season ticket allowance and consider it part of the package.
Visiting an opposing stadium allows a small group of opposition fans to feel close to the club and give each and every person in attendance a feeling of exclusivity. In case you forgot, the win that my brother and I witnessed in Montreal was the first road win for the Chicago Fire in over two years. We were there to witness history. A total of 10 Chicago Fire fans made the trip to French Canada to watch a frustrating and often hopeless team thoroughly outplay a more talented team on the road. For all the pain and heartbreak Fire fans have endured over the past 7 or 8 years, it all washed away for one night. We walked away from Stade Saputo proudly wearing our red and white and we were the champions...at least for that one August night in Montreal.