Chicago’s soccer history is a rich one with many layers, reflecting the city’s diverse communities and a passion for the world’s game that threads back to the nineteenth century. Having grown into one of the nation’s soccer hotbeds, the city can trace its roots in the sport back to late 1800’s when British immigrants helped popularize the game by playing through their places of work, school, churches or bars.
The first organized soccer match in Chicago occurred in 1883 when Pullman Car Works and Original Wanderers faced off. Ten years later, the world turned its eyes to the city for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when the Chicago’s World’s Fair hosted an “association football” competition – Braidwood, a club located just outside of the city, participated.
At the turn of the century, neighborhood clubs came together to form Chicago’s Association Football League, which provided steadier competition, while also working to attract foreign clubs to the city for some of the nation’s first soccer tours. In 1909, Peter J. Peel, who would later become the president of the Illinois State Soccer Association and the United States Football Association (now U.S. Soccer Federation), donated the Peel Cup — a trophy awarded annually to the winners of a competition in the city and eventually to the state champion of Illinois.The Peel Cup was one of the nation’s oldest annually awarded soccer trophies until being retired in 1970.
The rise of other non-British ethnic populations in Chicago saw different leagues form and merge throughout the 1920s and 1930s before the Chicago Soccer League and International Soccer Football League came together to form the powerhouse National Soccer League (NSL) of Chicago in 1938. Still in existence today, the NSL has long been supported and dominated by clubs representing many of the city’s collected ethnicities: Czech club Sparta dominated the league early before Hakoah Center , Vikings, A.A.C. Eagles (later Polish Eagles), Slovak, Ukrainian Lions and the major German representation of Schwaben, Kickers and Hansa, all took their turns as league champions through the 1960s.
Nationally, NSL clubs represented Chicago well in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s National Challenge Cup, now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, U.S. Soccer’s own cup competition. Sparta won two national championships in 1938 and 1940, followed by Viking (1946) and Falcons (1953) and later A.A.C. Eagles (1990).
Though the U.S. Men’s National Team wasn’t involved, the 1966 FIFA World Cup was shown in the United States and pushed the game’s popularity and interest in creating rival professional leagues. The following year, Chicago had entries in both leagues, with the Chicago Spurs playing in the United Soccer Association (USA) and Chicago Mustangs in the National Professional Soccer League. A year later, the leagues merged into the original North American Soccer League (NASL), with the Mustangs carrying on before folding in 1969.
Bring the Sting
After some years in the wilderness, professional soccer in the Windy City received a timely revival in 1975 as Lee Stern, a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, launched the Chicago Sting as the city’s new entry in the NASL. The Sting had some trying years early on, but created a strong soccer identity in the city, playing at historic Chicago venues like Soldier Field, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park.
Things began to turn for the club as Chicago soccer icon and former Sting player Willy Roy took over as head coach of the team during the 1977 season. On the back of German signings Karl-Heinz Granitza, Arno Steffanhagen and Ingo Peter, Dutchman Dick Advocaat, U.S. players Charlie Fajkus, Brett Hall and Rudy Glenn, the Sting qualified for the playoffs over each of the next three seasons.
Adding Argentine attacker Pato Margetic, things would come full-circle for the Sting in 1981, as they defeated the star-studded New York Cosmos in that year’s Soccer Bowl held in Toronto. The triumph was the first professional sports championship won by a Chicago team since the Bears won the 1963 NFL Championship. In recognition of the Sting’s accomplishment, City of Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne hosted a championship parade on La Salle street.
Three years later, the Sting defeated the Toronto Blizzard in the 1984 Soccer Bowl, bringing a second professional soccer championship to Chicago before the NASL folded shortly after. During the Sting’s glory years, NASL clubs also participated in the indoor MISL during the outdoor offseason. Upon the NASL’s exit, the MISL filled the professional soccer void in the United States, with the indoor Sting giving launch to Chicago’s next homegrown soccer star, Frank Klopas during the mid-1980s. The Sting’s efforts were later followed up by the Chicago Power, who were led by NASL Chicago CEO Peter Wilt and won the 1990-91 NPSL championship. The Chicago Storm and later the Chicago Riot (also presided over by Wilt) and the Chicago Mustangs have also kept the city’s indoor connections alive.
The World’s Game In Chicago
On the international front, the city of Chicago first hosted the U.S. Men’s National Team in a 1-0 defeat to Poland at iconic Soldier Field in August 1973. Though Chicago didn’t welcome the national team again for some time, it would be named as a host city for World Cup ’94, when FIFA awarded the hosting rights to the United States on July 4, 1988. Three years later, the lead up to Soldier Field hosting five tournament games, including the World Cup’s opening match, the U.S. Soccer Federation relocated its headquarters within earshot of Soldier Field at 1801 South Prairie Avenue. After proving itself one of the best host cities at World Cup ’94, Chicago also welcomed the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where it hosted four matches, including the U.S. Women’s 7-1 triumph against Nigeria in the group stage.
In total, the Chicago area has played host to a combined 26 U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team matches, including World Cups, World Cup Qualifying, CONCACAF Gold Cup and coming in 2016, will welcome the historic Copa America Centenario to Soldier Field. The Mexican National Team has also been a frequent visitor to the city over the years, while highly regarded international clubs such as Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool FC, Chivas de Guadalajara and Club America have all graced the shores of Lake Michigan.
Fire and Red Stars
Following the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation was charged with setting up a first division league. Major League Soccer began play in 1996, but it wasn’t until Oct. 8, 1997 that the Chicago Fire entered in the league’s first round of expansion. Named after the Great Chicago Fire which occurred exactly 126 years to the day of the club’s founding, the new MLS entry was led by the team’s founding General Manager Peter Wilt and future U.S. Men’s National Team Coach Bob Bradley. The Fire took the league by storm beginning with a still unprecedented MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double in the club’s inaugural 1998 season.
Reigniting the excitement felt around the Sting’s triumphs of the 1980s, the Chicago Fire were an MLS powerhouse in the club’s first nine seasons, winning another three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups, making two more MLS Cup finals appearances and becoming the only MLS club in history to win both the Western, Eastern and Central Conference championships. The Fire won a fourth U.S. Open Cup title in 2006.
Much like his launch of the Chicago Fire years earlier, Wilt, along with Chicago NASL partner Jack Cummins and an ownership group also including Arnim Whisler, helped establish the presence of professional women’s soccer in the city, as the Chicago Red Stars began play in Women’s Professional Soccer in 2009. Under the direction of Whisler, the club has found continued success in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), capping a strong 2015 season with a semifinal playoff appearance, led by U.S. Women’s National Team star Christen Press.
Led by Wilt and Cummins, Chicago’s entry into the new North American Soccer League will carry on the city’s long and compelling tapestry in the world’s game, while continuing to honor the heritage of those that have built soccer across Chicagoland.