If you’ve perused this website since its launch a little over two weeks ago, you may have noticed the Friends of Chicago NASL page which includes a list of prominent individuals who have made local and national contributions to the game and support the movement to bring professional soccer back to the city of Chicago.
Chief among them is former Chicago Sting owner and U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, Lee Stern. Having overseen the Sting’s 1981 and 1984 NASL championships, Stern served as a lynchpin for the growth and awareness of the game in Chicago at a time when it was still finding its footing in North America.
“I’m very proud of what we accomplished with the Chicago Sting in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It created the excitement of championship soccer both locally and internationally,” Stern said referring to the club’s NASL championships and extensive international schedule. “Today I’m thrilled that Chicago’s getting a new professional soccer team that can continue what our goals were with the Sting — bringing championships and exciting soccer back to the city of Chicago.”
Another notable name on the list is long-time Chicago Fire defender and Ring of Fire member, C.J. Brown. Having spent 13 years with the Fire, Brown cut his teeth with the club at the time they called Soldier Field home. In part, his support of Chicago NASL draws on Brown’s experience of what it means to play matches in the city and the enthusiasm it can garner to galvanize a supporter base.
“There’s no feeling like playing in the city,” Brown said. “Living in the city and going to the stadium on game day, seeing the build-up with fans — everybody is so involved and so in tune – there’s something about it that makes you want to play harder and be more competitive. That was always a thrill in my early years with the Fire – my first few years at Soldier Field, the excitement was unbelievable.”
Currently an analyst on Fox Sports soccer coverage, three-time U.S. World Cup veteran Eric Wynalda backs the Chicago NASL cause by drawing on the experiences he had with the Chicago Fire in 2001.
“Playing in the city brings a whole new feel to things,” agreed the U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer. “Playing at Soldier Field was a great memory and a lot of that was because of the fans. It was more accessible to the majority of the fans in Chicago who like being a part of something big and fun — that was always the atmosphere we had there. With this club, Chicago can experience that again.”
A long-time board member with the Illinois Youth Soccer Association and current president of the Illinois Women’s Soccer League, Flo Dyson is excited by the prospect of what a Chicago NASL club will bring to the area’s youth.
“Having professional soccer in the city again will be a huge advantage, but especially for the kids that live there,” she told ChicagoNASL.com. “From a transportation standpoint, both for those in the city and in parts of the suburbs, kids will have an easier time to see high-level matches on a consistent basis than they do currently. Beyond that, kids that live and play in the city will have their own professional players to identify with and draw connections to. Chicago NASL has the potential to draw in a whole new base of support just via their planned location.”
One of the obvious questions around bringing an NASL club into the city of Chicago is the aspect of competition it would provide to Major League Soccer’s Fire. Brown sees the idea of competition as a sort of rising tide raises all boats scenario for the sport in Chicago.
“We’re involved in sports because we love competition,” he said. “I think one of the best things this new club can bring is that it won’t allow either organization to be mediocre — you have to do everything you can to be the best, whether that’s winning on the field, attracting new fans or doing things the right way – the bar gets raised across the board.”
Another aspect that should keep NASL’s potential Chicago entry competitive is the supporters’ trust ownership component, which will allow fans a minority stake and a voice in the club’s soccer governance. A former forward for German clubs FC Saarbrücken and VfL Bochum and an analyst on Fox Sports’ Bundesliga coverage, Wynalda is familiar with that nation’s “50 + 1” ownership model, which decrees that Bundesliga sides must allow club members to hold a 51 percent ownership stake in their respective organizations.
“Inclusion is always cool,” said Wynalda. “We’re always yelling and screaming about transparency. So having a voice within the club is a great idea, I applaud Peter Wilt and the Chicago NASL group for welcoming that. Giving the fans a say in decisions, some ownership and a voice is the way it should be. It’s a smart idea, it’s a unique scenario for the American landscape, but for the most part, I think it makes things interesting.”
The club’s ownership group will also have a local flair, being based in Chicago as well. It’s something that Stern, a Chicago native, is adamant about when it comes to the success and health of professional sports organization.
“Local ownership is very important,” he told ChicagoNASL.com “You’ve got the Black Hawks, the Bulls, the Cubs, the Sox and the Bears – all local ownership there and that’s why Chicago is such a great sports town. They understand the attitudes of the fans here, they have the feel for the landscape and what it takes to connect. It just makes it part of the whole picture.
“Part of the success of the Sting was the fact that we had local ownership. Local ownership makes the players feel at home and part of the community – a lot of Sting players that were stars on the championship teams, whether from somewhere else in the U.S. or in Europe, still live in Chicago. We made it fun for them. The city made it fun for them and they’ve never wanted to leave.”