There was absolutely no traffic. That was the first clue this was going to be a strange experience. It was like that tiny window on Sunday mornings where everything in the city is quiet, except this was Sunday night, and I was about to attend a pro sporting event, where everything should have been loud and chaotic.
The parking deck was nearly empty. I pulled right up—no lines—gave my name to the attendant, and grabbed a spot near the front. There were no flags waving, no music playing, no smells of sausages grilling, and no kids kicking a ball around.
I walked through the underpass and checked out the statue of Walter Payton, then continued on to a tent set up outside Gate 10, where I had my temperature checked, had to answer some questions, and had to sign my name on an iPad, swearing I was telling the truth that I didn’t have symptoms of COVID-19. Then it was through security, up the elevator, and into the press box in the southeast corner of the iconic stadium.
I was officially now one of the few people to have attended a Chicago Fire FC home match at Soldier Field in 2020. The Fire were set to take on the New England Revolution in their second home match of the season, back in their original home stadium on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The players came out for warmups. Loud music blasted over the stadium’s speakers. The two absolutely enormous video boards played a loop of graphics the club designed for the season—graphics not many people will actually get to see. They looked incredible. Even if you hate the new logo—trust me—these looked sharp. The south stands—where Section 8 should be—was decorated with banners. The team used red and yellow t-shirts to write out a giant “CFFC” across the east side seats, giving Soldier Field a slightly-European feel.
But the stadium’s blue seats were almost entirely empty, except for a few photographers in the end zones, and new owner Joe Mansueto and his family sitting between the benches in the west side stands, several rows up, just below where Tyler Terens and Tony Meola were stationed to call the match on WGN and ESPN+.
Raphael Wicky and Bruce Arena walked out with their staff members in tow, and the players followed soon after, just like they would if there were people in the seats. The public address announcer called out the Fire’s starting XI, as the video boards displayed their names—“FROM FORMOSA, ARGENTINA, NUMBER 30, GASTON GIMENEZ! FROM DOS TORRES, SPAIN, NUMBER 10, ALVARO MEDRAN!”
There was no National Anthem. The players took their formations on the pitch, took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the referee blew the opening whistle. As the players ran around, fake crowd noise came through the speakers—sometimes ambient and low, other times loud with familiar chants.
It was eerie.
The Revolution took the early lead after a costly failed clearance from Francisco Calvo, and the Fire answered not long after with an equalizer from Fabian Herbers. Halftime came and went, and the sun faded away as the stadium lights grew brighter. Early in the second half, a Teal Bunbury cross floated long and went into the net, giving the Revs the lead. There were no fans, and yet it somehow felt like energy faded out of the stadium at that point. Maybe that was all in my head, but maybe that’s what home field advantage really is—an illusion.
The Revs won the match 2-1. Instead of heading down to a press room or the locker room, the journalists remained in their seats, and talked to Wicky, Herbers and Elliot Collier over Zoom from across the stadium. I plugged some quotes into the shell of a game story I already had written, said goodbye to some friends, and started the walk to my car. On the way out, I asked a Monterrey Security guard what it felt like working at a stadium with no fans to protect, no fights to break up, no obnoxious drunk guys to eject. He summed it up well:
“It’s really weird.”
Yes, it was. I feel pretty lucky to have gotten to experience a Fire game in person this season. But, I can’t wait until you’re all there, too. A traffic jam heading into the stadium sounds pretty good right now, if it means things are back to normal.