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Kicking It Up
Jim McFarlin | Photo: Katrina Wittkamp | May 27, 2014
The Chicago Fire prepares to engage the community like never before with its new North Side soccer center.
Andrew Hauptman, the ambitious owner of the Chicago Fire, says his ultimate objective isn’t only to bring another MLS championship to this city.
His vision is far more expansive. “Our goal isn’t just to have a winning team,” he says. “It’s to engage the soccer community in our city at every level. It’s about growing the passion for this incredible sport and for our very special club.”
There’s no shortage of sports bars in this town with Fire logos displayed in the window, but Hauptman seeks an even bigger kick. He wants his franchise to be as elemental to Chicago as the earth of Wrigley Field, the wind of its nickname or the water in Lake Michigan. That’s why he’s currently building the massive new Chicago Fire Soccer Center on the North Side, at Talman and Addison. Hauptman and his minority partners in the project plan to invest more than $20 million in the center.
When it opens in part this summer, the 140,000-square-foot facility will feature a pair of regulation-size turf fields. By fall, it will boast the first air-supported dome structure in the city. Built on 4.7 acres of what was a manufacturing complex, it will provide a year-round home to the adult-rec Chicago Fire Recreational Soccer League, professionally based youth club the Chicago Fire Junior City team, and other squads, in what Hauptman sees as a burgeoning, soccer-crazed metropolis.
“There are more than 600,000 people actively playing the game in the Chicago area,” he says. “That’s the second largest soccer playing community in the United States. The Chicago Fire Juniors program has grown from 400 players to more than 12,000 in the last four years.” The team partnered with soccer association Windy City Wanderers last year to launch the Chicago Fire Recreational Soccer League, in what Hauptman describes as a huge step toward the Fire becoming Chicago’s largest adult-rec soccer provider. All told, the organization now has more than 5,000 players between the ages of 21 and 35 wearing its badge, and expects the rec league to double in size in the coming years.
“Ask any player or soccer mom in the city, and they will tell you there is a massive shortage of field space,” says Hauptman. “They’re hungry for more places to play and more opportunities to be with other soccer supporters.” Building a Fire-run soccer center in the city, he says, is the logical next step in filling a need and growing the sport.
Surrounding schools and colleges also are expected to use the facility. And, of course, the big Fire will be on the pitch from time to time as well, training for matches against sides with turf fields.
The soccer center’s location in the North Center neighborhood was less brand-growing strategy than serendipity, says Hauptman. “This amount of space in the city doesn’t come around every day, so we jumped at the chance,” he says. He and his partners liked its access to public transport, location on the river and the fact that they could build a dome there. The organization will host leagues, youth camps, coaching seminars, viewing parties and many more soccercentric events. He anticipates drawing upward of 250,000 visitors annually from all parts of the city.
Complete development won’t be finished until early 2015, when a 15,000-square-foot mixed-use building will be unveiled, housing management offices and retail operations. It will also include a restaurant and bar, a Fire merchandise store and a 125-seat space for viewings and lectures, as well as a training center for the pro team.
Such a multifaceted facility will allow soccer-lovers to play a rec game, then join friends for a meal and watch the Fire play a nationally televised game, with a former Fire legend hosting the viewing party. The goal, says Hauptman, is not just to provide field space to play, but a soccer experience.
Clearly, Hauptman doesn’t just want to be part of the soccer conversation in Chicago; he wants the Fire to be the conversation.
“Of course I’m biased, but I believe the Fire is singular among MLS teams,” he says. “The club and this sport in Chicago have an incredibly rich history. Some of the greatest soccer legends have worn the Fire badge, and now we have the current MLS MVP, Mike Magee. Combine that with a new coaching and technical staff that has won three MLS Cups and three Supporter Shields between them, and it adds up to a club our fans and community can be proud of on and off the field.” And, one might add, be more involved with than ever before.