Hostile home games
Hondurans pack Soldier Field; U.S. wins qualifier anyway
I can't get that damn sound out of my head, that annoying symphony of little horns, those kazoos on steroids.
The first time I heard it was in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel a little off Michigan Avenue, and I jumped. It came from a young, chubby kid dressed in Honduras blue-and-white, who was playing it by the bar. It sounded, sadly enough, like the emasculating horn on my Honda Civic, only deeper.
I heard it on the Magnificent Mile and again on the streets of the South Loop. I heard it in the jammed sidewalks of the museum campus, the parking lots of Soldier Field and I heard it, like a deranged symphony, from all outposts of a stadium full of Honduran soccer fans on a chilly summer evening.
I won't forget that sound anytime soon.
Big soccer games in America are their own kind of altered reality, so it's not surprising I got a geography lesson in line for the port-a-potties.
"It's like there's Honduras and there's Little America," 18-year-old Milwaukee native Derek Wagner said. "Little America is over there."
Little America was where Wagner, his friend Nick Collenburg, and other assorted buck privates in Uncle Sam's Army were pre-partying in the Soldier Field outdoor parking lot two hours before the game.
What's the population of Little America? I inquired.
"About 35," Wagner said. "Maybe 40."
That pretty much describes the home-field advantage that Honduras had in its qualifier against the U.S. team Saturday.
Just three days after a dispiriting 3-1 loss on the hellish turf in San Jose, Costa Rica, the tired U.S. soccer team rebounded with an important, if not artistic, 2-1 win over a fairly unimpressive Honduras squad to stay in contention for an automatic berth to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The announced attendance at the new home of Jay Cutler was 55,647, which we were told was the second-largest qualifier crowd on U.S. soil.
But since Honduras fans numbered around 45,000, what that really means is that it was most likely the biggest collection of Hondurans in one place in U.S. history. When's the last time you ate at a really good Honduran restaurant, or attended a rocking Honduran parade? How many Hondurans do you know?
It is further proof that Major League Soccer should just focus on drawing these passionate Latino fans, something the Chicago Fire does extraordinarily well.
It also shows that Chicagoans would rather watch baseball on TV than watch the Beautiful Game live. And if you watched this ho-hummer, you wouldn't blame them. Maybe the U.S. Soccer Federation, headquartered just a few pitches away on South Prairie and 18th Street in the South Loop, should be glad more American fans weren't around to see this match.
As for the 2016 Olympic angle, well, I can say that the city was alive with foreign sports fans, and as far as I know, it's still standing. I don't think Chicago's relative disinterest should count against them for the Olympics, because the general American sports fan is first and foremost a front-runner supporter and a bandwagon jumper, one who turns out for big events and yawns for the middling ones.
Qualifier? Tell me who won. World Cup? Tune me in.
City of blue and white shoulders
Chicago was painted blue and white Saturday. From the lobby of the Doubletree, where the Honduran national team and its rabid fans stayed, to the steps of the Field Museum, where thousands of Hondurans stood two and a half hours before the game, as if they were staging a nonviolent takeover of the museum campus, the small country showed its oversized spirit.
It reminded me of being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan in Indianapolis in January 2006, when we drank Iron City in the square across from the RCA Dome and someone hoisted a Terrible Towel on a flagpole.
A friendly cop working the beat by the Honduras team hotel ("Call me 'Handsome Dick Manitoba,' he said, making him possibly the only Chicago cop who references the punk band The Dictators in casual conversation) was chatting up fans hours before the game.
"The Hondurans are very emotional about their soccer," he told me, also noting the Chicago P.D. would be demonstrating a "show of force" after the game if things got rowdy.
Inside the hotel, fans packed the lobby and its bar, and the most popular empty bottles were, ironically enough, Sam Adams. (The most popular mixed drink was, from what I could tell, was a Coke and Question Mark.) One ballroom was filled with kit bags sponsored by the Honduran lottery. For $30, a fan could get a flimsy jersey, jester's cap, wristband, annoying plastic clapping device and some other crap. Danny Reyes, a 24-year-old who flew in from Monterey, Calif., to help sell the bags, said the police shut down the lobby party the night before, and again Saturday morning.
After walking around Michigan Avenue, where the only U.S. fans were small packs of spindly teenagers, I took the Red Line south to Roosevelt, where I met Erick Hernandez, a Mexican-American Lakeview resident, who joined his eight Honduran friends for the game. Hernandez, a marketing executive, told me families spread out across the U.S. and Honduras picked this game as a spot for family reunions.
Hernandez then introduced me to his friend Hector Vallejo, who moved from Honduras to attend Louisiana State University 15 years ago. Vallejo came in from Baltimore, where he is the manager of Hispanic marketing for DeWalt.
"I was hoping this game would be at RFK [Stadium in Washington] again," Vallejo said on our walk to Soldier Field. "But the last one [in 2001, when Honduras beat the U.S.] was 95 percent Honduran. I don't think it'll make any difference."
It didn't. By the time we made it past the Field Museum, it was jammed with Honduran fans banging drums, unfurling flags, taking pictures. On the other side of the stadium, I found some Americans drinking beers in the outdoor tailgate lot.
"I'm angry about it," U.S. super-fan Andy Coe said of the low turnout for his side. "Even our taxi driver on the way here said, 'Who's Honduras playing?' I expected it to be 50-50, at least, not 80-20."
Coe, 38, didn't just roll out of bed to get here. A constant business traveler, he came from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, with his buddies, who met up in Germany for the 2006 World Cup.
Coe's friend Justin Thomas, 33, who lived in Germany for nine years, was similarly adorned in the attire of an obnoxious sports fan: flag capes and oversized Uncle Sam stovepipe hats.
"I was at the World Cup in 1994," Thomas said of the much-celebrated rebirth of soccer in America. "And it was unbelievable. I expected something similar."
Coe agreed, noting how "blown away" he was in Germany by the U.S. fans, too.
What these two are forgetting is that the American sports fan watches fringe sports (by American standards) only if they're showcase events.
The World Cup is more than just a celebration of world-class soccer. It's a happening, an event every Joe Sixpack can hold an interest in. A qualifier is light-years from a friendly, but it's still not a big enough stage to wow the baseball, football, basketball and hockey Grabowskis among us.
"I think we're used to it," U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu said of the consistently poor American showings. "Uncle Sam's Army and the people who support us do a great job. We hear them during the game, and we do appreciate them. We can't control who comes out."
I'm more surprised that anyone was surprised.
Like other diehard fans of sports that most of their peers ignore, American soccer nuts are an insular breed, like "Doctor Who" fans. If you want to see the average American sports fan's eyes glaze over, start talking about the Premiership, or worse, MLS.
"Oh, the Rapids have a chance to steal a point from Real Salt Lake? You don't say!"
Uncle Sam's Army was rowdy and dominated the section behind the south goal, and pockets of American fans were spread around the stadium amid the sea of blue and white.
They made plenty of noise, unfurled their huge American flag and threw smoke bombs after Landon Donovan's tying penalty kick. (Someone also threw a Timberland boot after the goal, but I'm not sure whether it was a protest or an early tribute to hockey's hat trick.) They sang their own fight songs and worked hard to support their team.
Emphasis on "their," because the real American soccer fans deserve the credit, deserve to be happy, and deserve to go home winners.
Sure, it was a road game at home for the U.S. players, but three points are three points, and they didn't need to go through customs to get them. It's never going to change. The U.S. team -- good, bad or mediocre -- will always have to deal with the kazoos on steroids and the quiet indifference of their home country.
"Still, it was a packed stadium," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "It is what it is."