Soccer stadium could score goal in North Side


Patrick Casey

Soccer stadium could score goal in North Side

By Blaise Mesa

With a new United Soccer League stadium scheduled to arrive on Chicago’s North Side in 2020, fans and urban planning experts are still unsure it can survive. 

The USL is a minor league of teams below Major League Soccer. The stadium is being developed by Sterling Bay, a Chicago real estate company, which will also own the stadium’s team; however, the company still does not have a team for the location. The stadium will have 20,000 seats and a retractable roof for year-round events. 

The stadium is part of the 70-acre Lincoln Yards development project and has been linked to Chicago’s bid to house Amazon’s second headquarters. 

“If the financials for this stadium are based on selling 20,000 seats for every soccer game, that’s a problem,” said Joshua Drucker, an associate professor in the Urban Planning and Policy Department at University of Illinois at Chicago. 

The USL surpassed more than two million fans league-wide in 2016 attendance; however, ESPN alone drew 6.9 million viewers for the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, according to an April 28 press release from ESPN. 

“Chicago barely supports the [Chicago] Fire [Soccer club] as is. There isn’t going to be a lot of support to fill a minor league soccer stadium,” said Christopher Sampson, 28, technical support for a health insurance company from Matteson, Illinois, who has been watching the Fire since it came to Chicago in the inaugural 1998 season. “I don’t see the stadium being worth the money.” 

The Fire—the city’s MLS team—ranked 18th of 22 teams in fan attendance during the 2017 season. Since the team moved to the southwest Bridgeview suburb, its attendance has dropped, according to the MLS website on all-time attendance. 

From 1998–2005, the Fire played a majority of its home games at Soldier Field, and was able to average 17,000 spectators or more a game in three seasons. Since moving to Toyota Park in 2005, the team has only been able to hit the 17,000 mark once, during the 2016 season, according to the Fire’s attendance website. 

“Once the Fire moved out of downtown to Toyota Park, it got even more difficult to support a local club in the city,” said Mark Biery, 34, from Lakeview and owner of social sport league LTS Chicago. This new stadium and team will fill the soccer void the city has been missing, he added. 

The stadium is also expected to host other events such as concerts, rugby games and lacrosse matches. 

With concerts and other smaller sporting events in the stadium, it could be successful, said Julie Lewis, 55, rebate analyst for truck parts distributor Vipar Heavy Duty in Lake in the Hills, Illinois, who has been watching the Fire with her children for years. The Sears Center, which only has one concert in the next four months, has had trouble filling seats by booking semi-professional sports teams there, she added. 

The new stadium would join Wrigley Field as the only other stadium on the North Side. With this location, the stadium will potentially be in an ideal spot to capitalize on local traffic, and the owners need to focus on that, according to Drucker. 

The USL season only has 32 games, half of which are away, meaning the stadium would only need to support 16 regular season games each year. 

“There are some stadiums that have been developed in other places that sit empty a lot of the time because they can’t get events,” Drucker said. “I don’t know if that is likely in a downtown site.”