Toyota Park – Chicago Fire
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Can the Fire Burn Bright in Bridgeview?
Perhaps Toyota Park was doomed 135 years before it was built.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city that existed at that time, leaving almost a third of its inhabitants homeless. It was a seminal moment in Chicago history, providing the impetus for the city to rebuild on a wide scale, develop superior architecture, and become an economic colossus.
But the Great Chicago Fire didn’t reach the farms out in Bridgeview, a sparsely settled village to the southwest. And so it was that when the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer arrived in 2006, something stayed behind within city limits.
Founded in 1997, the Chicago Fire capped their first season with victories in the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup– a remarkable feat for an expansion team. Success on the field continued throughout their years as the junior tenants of Soldier Field, but the well ran dry after their move to Bridgeview.
After three MLS Cup appearances in their first six years, there were none in the next eleven; after inaugurating their new stadium with a U.S. Open Cup victory, the Fire have managed only a single runner-up showing in the years since.
Can the Chicago Fire overcome history at Toyota Park?
Food & Beverage 4
There are three types of concessions: standard walk-up stands, cook-to-order stands, and carts. The cook-to-order stands tend to be worth the wait, but bear in mind that there is a wait. The best of these is the Village Grill, behind section 134, which offers a decent view of the field while you wait. Other cook-to-order stands are in the outer concourse, without even overhead televisions to keep you up to date on the game.
The Village Grill does pulled pork sandwiches ($9.50), veggie burgers ($9.75), and other good sandwiches, all served with fries. For dessert, the best thing in the stadium is the sublime ice cream nachos ($8) from the stand in the outer concourse behind section 106.
For walk-up concessions, the easiest stands to find are in the Harlem End, but the lines can get backed up, and some of the options – Corner Kickin’ Chicken? – are too clever for their own good.
Ultimately, in this area of Chicago, a stadium is going to rise or fall on the quality of what comes off its grills. Polish sausages are delivered well and with a minimum of fuss ($7.25). Don’t overlook the Italian beef sandwiches ($9.50) either, which are piled high with giardiniera.
Basics like popcorn, ice cream, and jumbo pretzels cost around $4 and are handled well enough. Pizza slices are $5.25.
Pepsi products are $5.25 in 20 oz. bottles or cups. Domestic beers are $7.75, while imports and premium drafts (Heineken & Amstel Light, Newcastle, and microbrews like Goose Island 312 and Lagunitas IPA) are $9.75 and up. The beverage carts on the exterior concourse have the widest variety of beers, including Blue Moon, Dos Equis, Killian’s Irish Stout, Leinenkugel’s, and Modelo on tap. They’re scattered throughout the stadium, so keep walking if you don’t see what you want.
The lines at the carts vary wildly in length. The hot dogs ($5.25), from Red Hot Chicago, are kind of puny by Chicago standards – by no means bad, but smaller than their peers elsewhere.
On the whole, the quality of the food at Toyota Park is pretty good, but the organization is sort of a mess. Say you want a pulled pork sandwich. There’s only one place that serves it, Village Grill, and that’s fine if you’re on that side of the stadium. But if you’re sitting on the other side (as plenty of people are), you have to travel the entire length of the horseshoe-shaped stadium to get there. And unless you’ve had the time to explore the entire stadium (thereby missing part of the game), or you’ve read this review, you probably don’t know it even exists. So some repetition would help.
On a beautiful Saturday evening, there may be about a dozen groups of tailgaters grilling in the north parking lot – plenty of space to spread out, but still lively. The atmosphere is borderline idyllic, in fact, with kids roaming freely and fans showing off their footwork with soccer balls. It’s worth parking up there to soak up the pre-game atmosphere.
Toyota Park is a soccer-specific stadium and it displays the sport well. The sightlines were clearly designed with soccer in mind, and the natural grass field appears to be kept in excellent shape, a lovely shade of green. For night games, every inch of the field is perfectly lit.
The team relies on their fans to create the bulk of the atmosphere, and the fans definitely come through – no stadium production is necessary to exhort them to make noise. Sound effects and music cues are kept to a minimum during game action, aside from a round of fireworks for every goal, which is a nice touch. Uniquely among Chicago venues, public address announcements are bilingual in English and Spanish.
Seats are a mix between metal bleachers and molded plastic seats with cup holders – reasonably comfortable, though the bleachers can get pretty cold. Handicapped seating offers a good, clear view of the action. The video screen is on the small side and has some digital artifacts during replays; it’s also located at the far south end of the field, so many fans don’t have a great view, but it is hardly essential to enjoy the game.
Regardless of where your seat is located, it’s worth taking a walk down to the Harlem End at some point during the first half. The air is full of the aroma of good food being grilled – no other Chicago-area venue can match it. Note, though, that the Harlem End gets packed during halftime.
Bridgeview is a working-class suburb that fits seamlessly alongside the nearby Southwest Side of Chicago. To the west of the stadium are acres of single-family homes, while freight trains periodically rumble by to the north. There isn’t much in the way of local nightlife; if the area is known for anything, it’s hot dogs and sausages.
For meals before or after the game, try Portillo’s (5332 S. Harlem Ave.), an Illinois chain that serves good hot dogs, hamburgers, and pasta, or grab an Italian beef from Beefy’s (5749 S. Harlem Ave.), a friendly retro-diner a few minutes from the stadium. If you need supplies for tailgating, stop by Joe and Frank’s Market at 7147 W. Archer Ave. or venture a little further north to the renowned Bobak’s Sausage Co. at 5275 S. Archer Ave.
For drinks, the king of the roost is Grand Duke’s Restaurant, a Lithuanian powerhouse at 6312 S. Harlem Ave. across the road from the stadium. The bar menu specializes in Lithuanian and Estonian beers and liquors, but there are plenty of other European and domestic drinks as well. Dinner will more or less guarantee a food coma.
Otherwise, if you’re tired of encased meats, Vito and Nick’s (8433 S. Pulaski Rd.) is a mere 15 minutes away, and serves – hands down, there is no debate over this – the best thin crust pizza in Chicago, along with some vintage South Side atmosphere.
If you’re looking for something else to do in the area, stop by the world-renowned Brookfield Zoo or the Galloping Ghost Arcade, both of which are a short distance away on I-55 in Brookfield.
Toyota Park has sections set aside for hardcore fans (Section 8, 116-119), hardcore fans who prefer to sit during the game (Firehouse, 115 & 120), Hispanic fans (Sector Latino, 101), visiting fans (134), and several other classes of fans. Stadium aficionados can probably tell you where to sit to signify your interest in House Lannister, knitting, or supply-side economics.
The most celebrated group of fans is Section 8, and they deserve the reputation. The chants begin about ten minutes before match time and don’t let up until well after the game is over. There’s no sense of exclusivity – anyone who’s willing to match Section 8’s fervor is welcome to join in or sit on the periphery and enjoy the excitement they create.
Though much smaller than Section 8, Sector Latino delivers an equally impressive performance, keeping chants and a good beat going throughout the game. Occasionally, fans in neighboring sections pick up the rhythm from Sector Latino and start dancing on their own.
Fans throughout the stadium are attentive to the game. Everyone stops what they are doing to celebrate goals, and there’s applause to recognize good defensive plays, without need of a cue from sound effects or music cues.
Unfortunately, talking to Fire fans, it’s clear that the Bridgeview location has become a drag on the game experience. It’s a long way from almost everywhere, and all the worse when that trip home follows 90 minutes of uninspired soccer, week after week.
Bridgeview is about 30 minutes from downtown Chicago via I-55 to Harlem Ave., or from the western suburbs via I-294 to I-55 N or 95th Street. Parking is $15 in lots along Harlem Ave. (Bus/RV parking is $30 in lot N2.) Tailgating is allowed in lot N2, near Gate C, while ADA-accessible parking is in lot N1, between Gates C & D. There are elevators for wheelchair access to the 100 level terrace.
Public transportation is cheap, but very time consuming. Express buses run from the CTA Orange Line station at Midway Airport, starting two hours before the game (departures every 20 minutes until match time) and returning 30 minutes after it ends. The bus stop is at the corner of 71st and Harlem Ave., the southeast side of the stadium (exit from Gate F). From there, it’s 35 minutes on the CTA Orange Line (last train departs Midway at 1:00 a.m.) to the Loop, where connections can be made for most CTA and Metra train lines.
The team does seem to be aware of the problem, but there’s only so much that can be done. The Pub to Pitch program offers round-trip shuttle bus rides from several bars in Chicago, encouraging fans to drink before and during the trip. Tickets should be bought in advance online if possible ($15), but if space is available, they can be bought on the day of the game at the pubs ($20).
Restrooms are big, wide, and clean. There are lines at halftime and after the game, but not unreasonably long. If time is a factor, check around – some restrooms (especially near the corners) have much longer lines than others.
Return on Investment 4
Planning ahead pays dividends, as more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better at Toyota Park. The cheap seats ($20) offer good views of the field, and the next price level ($22) might be the best seats in the house when you factor in the neighboring Section 8 fans. If you’re seeking a pure experience of soccer aesthetics, the upper level seats offer a beautiful view of the entire field, especially for night games.
The higher price levels ($50-$70) don’t offer a significantly better view than the less expensive sections nearby. Considering that the cheap seats are bleachers, and attendance averages about 75% capacity, you won’t have to pay much for plenty of room and a good view.
Having distinct groups of fans in specific areas of the stadium allows you to determine exactly what kind of experience you want to have. At Toyota Park, you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy your ticket, whether you want to chant and yell from start to finish or engage in quiet, intellectual appreciation of the Beautiful Game.
It’s also handy that the team doesn’t have flexible pricing schemes – tickets cost the same whether it’s the star-studded L.A. Galaxy or a cellar dweller from the MLS outlands. If you buy tickets from a season ticket holder on the resale market, take note – one menu item is discounted at each game for season ticket holders, such as half-price popcorn.
One bonus point for the nifty Illinois Soccer History exhibit near Gate F, which includes chronology going back to the late 1800’s and a nicely presented set of artifacts like used cleats, a soccer ball from 1920’s, and intense, elaborate trophies for long-forgotten cups.
Another extra point for the variety and enthusiasm of fans at Toyota Park. These supporters really do make the atmosphere and overall experience enjoyable.
If the best part of a game at Toyota Park is the fans, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that those fans are in open rebellion against the team as of late 2015. Instead of Chicago Fire flags, Section 8 has been waving the skull and crossbones of late, which is a surreal sight; credit to them for not sulking or turning on the players, but it gives a sour note to the experience for casual attendees, as if you’re trying to enjoy your meal while the family at the next table is fighting over somebody’s drinking problem.
After ten years, while other MLS teams are enjoying strong attendance, it’s not clear if the Bridgeview experience is ever going to work out. But there’s the old saying in sports that winning heals all wounds, and as far as miracle cures go, that’s a lot easier than packing up the stadium and moving it.
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