Fire's tribute to Stern, Sting a thanks to soccer's pioneers
In 1981 a high school soccer player huddled in front of an old radio in his kitchen, listening to the Chicago Sting defeat the New York Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl for the North American Soccer League championship.
The game was not on TV and the Internet was years from entering the home, so radio was the only way to follow the game. He felt fortunate to have that.
Sometimes in noticing how far soccer continues to lag behind other sports in this country in terms of popularity, it's easy to forget how far the sport has come.
It's also too easy to forget the men who laid the groundwork for Major League Soccer.
That's why it was so nice to see the Fire honor at Saturday's game the 25th anniversary of the Sting's 1984 championship, the last one it captured before the NASL folded and the Sting headed indoors for its final few seasons.
"It was a thrill, it was really nice. What was more important more than anything else was that these players who played (25 years ago) get some recognition, so to speak," Sting owner Lee Stern said in the Toyota Park players' lounge after Saturday's Fire game. "I got stopped by a lot of people tonight who were thanking us for all the thrills the Sting gave them down through the years."
At Saturday's ceremonies were former players such as Frank Klopas, Rudy Glenn, Pato Margetic and Frantz Mathieu, coach Willy Roy and Stern, the founding father of Chicago pro soccer. Even a former ballboy was there, but Brian McBride was too busy to join the pregame and halftime ceremonies.
It's not unusual to see Stern, 82, around Toyota Park. Fire owner Andrew Hauptman seeks his advice occasionally, Stern said, as did previous owner Phil Anschutz. He's a regular at the stadium, and the Fire players all know him. He's got plenty of stories to tell them.
For instance, he could tell about the "many, many millions of dollars" he lost investing in the early days of American professional soccer.
"But I think we provided so many thrills for the people of Chicago when there weren't many winners around," Stern said of the Sting's 13-year run, "that the longer it's gone the more I realize the money was well-spent. Would life for the Stern family have been any different if we had not lost all that money? I doubt it very, very much. It was money well-spent."
Then again, said the man who's had a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade for 60 years, "Anybody can trade soybeans, but not anybody can own a soccer team."
Here's a question: Would the Fire exist if not for the Sting?
"Would there be a league if the North American Soccer League hadn't started?" he asked rhetorically. "It's hard to say, because really when we started there was - I don't know - 800,000 people involved with soccer and when we finished it was three or four million, and today 20 million. So I think it all just worked together."
It's all worked together pretty well. Soccer continues to grow; MLS is expanding to 18 teams in a couple of years, and those teams continue to build their own stadiums. Nothing suggests a long-term outlook like bricks and mortar.
In November the MLS championship will be televised in prime time on a major cable network. Thanks to pioneers like Lee Stern, Willy Roy and their players, American soccer fans can enjoy it without sitting on the linoleum or leaning over the dish rack, confident in the knowledge that this league is here to stay.