For the second time in half a decade, an indoor soccer team is coming to the Sears Centre Arena with hopes of sparking interest among suburban enthusiasts of the sport.
In the first of 13 home games, the Chicago Soul FC is playing against the Rochester Lancers at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the arena, 5333 Prairie Stone Parkway in Hoffman Estates. The Major Indoor Soccer League team has been on the road since early November, during which time numerous players have suffered injuries, attributing to the team's 2-5 record.
Owner Dave Mokry admits starting up a new team and gaining a fan base is a work in progress. But he said the injured players are getting healthy again, and he is confident the team will find success at home.
"Nothing's easy right now in the economy that we're in, but I know the way we're setting things up, we're setting ourselves up to be here for a long time," he said. "I think the Chicagoland area is ready to embrace an indoor soccer team. We just need to give them the right reasons to come."
Ben Gibbs, general manager for the Sears Centre, called Mokry "an enthusiastic owner who's very invested in the community."
"I think they're going to give us a lot of good entertainment," Gibbs said of the team, which is one of seven in the MISL. "I just hope that the fans will tell their neighbors and their friends. The best thing we can have is good word-of-mouth."
MISL teams draw an average attendance of around 4,000 people, according the league's website.
Before the Soul, the newest team that called the Sears Centre home was the Chicago Express, a midlevel professional hockey team that folded earlier this year after just one season. Another indoor soccer team, the Chicago Storm, had a stint at the arena between 2006 and 2009. Gibbs said it's hard to compare all the teams, though.
"There's no common denominator between the Express and the Storm and the Soul. They're all individual businesses," he said. "It's just like restaurants; some do good, some fail."
"There's nothing we can do to keep them from folding," he said. "They have a deal, we feel, that should keep them solvent, but there's never a guarantee."
Mayor William McLeod said he is interested to see how the Soul's first season goes.
"We've got a local operator who I believe knows what they're doing," he said. "You're not going to make a profit your first year. You have to make a longer-term commitment."
Head Coach Manny Rojas said the 18-member team is a mix of experienced players and young athletes who have never played professional indoor soccer before, but who are learning quickly.
Rojas also acknowledged that getting regulars to attend the home games will be a challenge, but he is focused on winning so people will become interested in the team and keep coming back.
"If you don't win games, then everything starts falling apart," he said.
Mokry said they are trying to gain fans through grass-roots efforts. There will be specials, such as $1 beer and $1 hot dog nights, and giveaways that he hopes, along with the affordability of tickets that start at $10, will appeal to local families.
The team will begin to find success, Mokry believes, if it can capture the interest of even just a portion of the Chicago area's large youth soccer market. He said on Friday there will be a parade of youth teams before the game and players will stay afterward to sign autographs for every kid who wants one.
As for competition, Mokry said the Soul's season does not compete with the Chicago Fire, a Major League Soccer team whose fans he hopes will be drawn to the Soul because they play during the Fire's off-season. Plus, he said, an indoor soccer game is much different from one outside.
"It's a lot more action, a lot more scoring," he said. "There's really no slow points in the game. It's high excitement and lots of speed."