Opening Day Optimism

Opening Day is special.  It is a day of renewal.  There is a sense of optimism that pervades every team. A sense that anything is possible and everyone is expected to be part of the festivities. It’s an annual holiday for all teams. Not every team gets to host the All Star Game, not every team gets to play in the finals, but every team does get an Opening Day.

I used to be obsessed with opening days in baseball. One year, I think it was 1981, I managed to attend five “openers”. The first was the New York Yankees spring training opener in Fort Lauderdale where I recall following Oscar Gamble’s Rolls Royce through the streets of south Florida afterwards. Then I hit the local hat trick of opening days - Cubs, Sox and Brewers. For the Sox opener, I organized a bus trip of fellow Marquette students. It provided good career training for someone who would be selling group outings for a pro sports team two years later.  And finally I managed to catch a minor league opener.  It may have been the Kenosha Twins – who sold pasties at their concession stands.

Last Saturday I hurried back from a Florida vacation to get to the Chicago Red Stars 2010 home opener with that same sense of excitement, possibility and optimism that accompanies each new season. While I have moved on from my day to day duties overseeing the Red Stars, I retain ties to the Red Stars as a team owner, one of four members of the team’s board, a member of the team’s charitable foundation board, a team consultant, a member of the WPS sponsorship committee, an alternate governor on the League’s Board of Governors and a season ticket holder.

After taking my wife home from the airport and unpacking, I stopped at the Milwaukee Wave office to pick up my game tickets and headed south for the 90 minute trek to Toyota Park.  On the drive down from Milwaukee, I received three messages on my BlackBerry – ok, I probably received a “few” more – but three that are pertinent to this column. One was from Alfredo Gomez that his daughter Miranda asked out of the game, because she was tired from a late night.  It sounded more like Fredo’s excuse to me, but he assured me that it was the Girl Scout overnight event at the Museum of Science and Industry that caused their cancellation!  Then indoor soccer legend Michael King texted me to say he was cancelling his trip from Milwaukee with his family, because something came up. This disappointed me, because I had gotten the ticket and food package for him and was looking forward to introducing him to Red Stars GM Marcia McDermott.

I was beginning to worry about the crowd,  and then I received the third message. It was Marcia’s pregame owners update where she tells Red Stars owners the starting lineup, expected subs, attendance projections and other information about the game. I was excited to see that Formiga would likely get some second half playing time and was encouraged by the projection of 4,000 to 5,000 fans.  I wasn’t surprised that highly touted rookie Casey Nogueira was listed as a sub, but later her father, Milwaukee Wave legend Victor Nogueira, told me that the non-starting status was the reason Michael King cancelled.  Michael knew Casey while he and her father starred for the Wave for many years.

Arriving at Toyota Park about 50 minutes before the game, I paid my $15 and pulled into the east lot near dozens of tailgate parties which were well under way beneath the sunny spring sky. I walked over to Local 134‘s party to find super fan Pott Rodriguez preparing beer bongs for thirsty fans. Though I certainly drank a lot of “what made Milwaukee famous” over the years, I had to admit that I had never ingested it this way.  Various fans got on their knees and chugged as Pott released the liquid.  I tried it and thought I did well not to spill any of the 12 ounce can of Miller Lite.  I was humbled later by my friend Colin Deval of  Match Pricks fame who told me that his first beer bong was an OE 40 oz.

I stopped at another tailgate party and talked to Chicago soccer gadfly Alfonso Mitchell about the incredible Patti Smith book “Just Kids” that I finished reading on the plane that day. It beautifully details the poet rocker’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and the New York City art and music scene of the late 1960s and 70s. The Patti Smith Group was the first alternative music concert I ever attended.  It was in the Milwaukee Auditorium (later the first home of the Milwaukee Wave) on June 6, 1979 and opened my eyes to a new world of music that became the main focus of my life over the next few years.  The book is an engaging and fascinating love story that I highly recommend.

After selling Fonsos on the merits of “Just Kids” it was on to the will call window to pick up my credential and Michael King’s tickets. I figured the tickets were wasted, but at least I could use the $20 in Levy Concessions money.

Standing in the will call line I spoke with several old friends including former US Soccer Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher who was accompanied by his wife Ruth Anne and niece Ingrid.  Also had a chance to catch up with former Wave goalkeeper and Chicago Fire executive Yaro Dachniwsky.  What are the chances that two former Milwaukee Wave goalkeepers would be at a Chicago Red Stars game?!?  Yaro is now representing Chicago Red Stars exclusive healthcare partner Weiss Memorial Hospital in their partnership programs.  After picking up my credential I walked to the north gate past half a dozen sponsor booths and interactive areas including a popular Radio Disney sing along stage. These areas, which were inside the Toyota Park gates last season, played very well outside the stadium entertaining fans who arrived early and didn’t want to go inside right away.

After having one of my four season tickets scanned, I walked into the stadium and saw two of my favorite Red Stars fans – Laura Rissover and her young daughter Jane. At the previous Saturday’s Fire game I had given Jane my 50/50 raffle tickets which she told me didn’t win (I buy 50/50 tickets at almost all Fire and Red Stars games and in a dozen years, have yet to win). I told Jane that she was going to bring luck today, so we went in search of a 50/50 raffle seller. After 10 minutes of searching all we found were two more people — IWSL President Flo Dyson and longtime Chicago soccer supporter Sue Ruby — who were also in search of 50/50 raffle ticket sellers.  I finally found a seller, but had parted with Jane by then, so when the numbers were called in the second half, I was hardly surprised that I didn’t benefit from any of Jane’s good fortune.

     Nic Buchel, Jim Kogutkiewicz and Colin Deval in the back row and Robyn Vinje and me in front at the Red Stars game last Saturday.

Nic Buchel, Jim Kogutkiewicz and Colin Deval in the back row and Robyn Vinje and me in front at the Red Stars game last Saturday.

I had an easier time finding the new Suncast Ball Toss promo tent where I ran into a crew of friends from the Highbury Pub in Milwaukee.  For $10, I purchased six balls to try to throw into targets at halftime on the field.  I kept one and gave the other five away.  Two thrown by my fellow Highbury Pub crew went in and a young boy I gave a ball to in the front row went in as well.  I gave my last ball to the same young boy since he did well with his first attempt.  His second toss went in – and then out of the target.  The Red Stars selected winners from those that went in the target and two of my balls were chosen.  Later, I distributed the prizes of T-shirts, scarves and buttons to the good tossers.

Along with the Highbury crew, I hung out in section 134 with the Red Stars supporters group Local 134.  My friends from the Highbury include Jim Kogutkiewicz and Colin Deval, writers of the Match Pricks blog.  The Match Pricks are also very entertaining soccer commentators on ESPN 540′s “Soccer Saturday Presented by the Milwaukee Wave“.  We invested Michael King’s Levy Dollars – and a few George Washington dollars – in a round of Miller Lites and hot dogs which were user friendly priced at $1 apiece!

Soccer supporters Jason Kekeis and David Racis, aka Capt. Chaos, who shares his drumming skills with the Chicago Storm, Rockford Rampage and Chicago Fire, tried with limited success to get the Local 134 supporters to chant, clap and cheer on the Red Stars, who were equally unsuccessful on the field in the  first half.  Red Stars goalkeeper Jill Loyden saved a hard Tina DiMartino shot in the 4th minute, but the rebound fell to the feet of Saint Louis Athletica’s Lori Chalupny.  Chalupny, a USWNT stalwart took full advantage and finished the chance.

Peter Wilt and Capt. Chaos (David Racis) drumming up support with Chicago Red Stars supporters group Local 134.

Peter Wilt and Capt. Chaos (David Racis) drumming up support with Chicago Red Stars supporters group Local 134.

The Match Pricks bought more dollar dogs and more beer and we continued to try to liven up the section, but the efforts were to little avail.  Red Stars forward Ella Masar made several dangerous runs including one where she recklessly dove for a cross narrowly missing both the ball and the right goal post.  The Red Stars couldn’t seem to create any full chances until late in the half when Cristiane drilled a blast from the top of the box off the post to Hope Solo’s right leaving the home side with a 1-0 halftime deficit.  During the first half, visitors stopped by our perch in section 134 including Red Stars GM Marcia McDermott who mentioned that Red Stars Superfan Katie Ibarra, who was sitting one section away would be conducting a special halftime interview of Red Stars Coach Emma Hayes.  The star high school goalkeeper handled her interview over the stadium sound system as flawlessly as she protects the Joliet Catholic Academy goal.

At halftime I saw two of my favorite Brazilian Red Stars supporters, Debbie Pacchioni and Camila Bodini.  Camila, who helped greatly with Cristiane’s acclimation to Chicago last season,  recently moved to Italy, so it was wonderful to see her during her two week return to Chicago.  I then went up to the Red Stars suite where I ran into USWNT Head Coach Pia Sundhage.  We discussed the first half and the previous week’s Red Stars loss at Sky Blue and agreed that the potential of the team was far greater than the early returns.

Also in the suite were two fellow Red Stars owners, Arnim Whisler and Jack Cummins, as well as an old friend, Jerome de Bontin, who calls the Chicago area home, but recently served a term as President of AS Monaco.  The man who brought Freddy Adu to the principality of Monaco and I spoke about our mutual friend, longtime Amherst soccer coach and athletic director Peter Gooding who has served the sport longer and more deeply than I could ever hope.

Whether it was Coach Emma Hayes halftime talk or her substitution of Casey Nogueira into the lineup at left mid pushing Kosa Asslani into Ella Masar’s forward spot, the Red Stars had a new energy at the start of the second half.

Milwaukee's Erin Benson saw her first professional outdoor soccer game last Saturday, got a free scarf and became a Chicago Red Stars fan.

Milwaukee's Erin Benson saw her first professional outdoor soccer game last Saturday, got a free scarf and became a Chicago Red Stars fan.

I heard a fan shout my name from the stands and saw that it was Milwaukee Wave season ticket holder Mark Benson who was with his wife Kris and their daughter Erin.  I left the pretensions of the suite – and free beer – several minutes into the second half and visited the Bensons who were attending their first professional outdoor soccer game.  Erin was excitedly telling me about all the different positions she plays for her soccer team when Red Stars rookie Casey Nogueira settled a cross inside the penalty area, curled a gorgeous right footed shot around Solo’s outstretched left arm and inside the far post for her first professional goal to tie the game.  We both missed the goal and stared impatiently at the video board for a replay that never came.  As you can see from the video above, it was a great goal to score whether it was her first or not.  As I left, I told Erin I was giving her my Red Stars scarf, because she brought us luck.  Seeing her brilliant smile get even bigger was one of the highlights of the day.

I moved from the Bensons to the Hacks who were sitting in the last row of section 125.  Nicole saved a seat for me next to her mom, Vivian, who I hadn’t seen since her husband Al’s wake two months previously.  We both enjoyed talking about the game and the new look Red Stars.  She was taping and didn’t want to know the score of the the Fire vs. DC United match, which was being played simultaneously, so I teased her with vague versions of the Twitter updates I was receiving.

I left the Hacks late in the match to find the Highbury crew.  On the way Casey Nogueira missed a point blank shot over the goal that would have likely won the match and made her an instant Red Stars hero.  I also went past a concession stand that was out of everything…except hot dogs.  So I rejoined the crew with another round of dollar dogs just in time to see a furious Red Stars extra time scramble for a winning goal that never came.  Even with defender and team captain Kate Markgraf moving well into the box in front of Solo, the Stars didn’t align that night and the game ended in a 1-1 draw.

Red Stars Super Fan Katie Ibarra poses with Red Stars and England National Team midfielder Katie Chapman

Red Stars Super Fan Katie Ibarra poses with Red Stars and England National Team midfielder Katie Chapman

We sat in the northeast stands finishing our final dollar dogs of the night and waited for the, 5,100+ fans to file out of the stadium.  We shouted at Ella Masar as she ran up the stairs for an autograph signing while ignoring our supportive cheers.  We then turned our attention to Red Stars players signing autographs along the sideline wall. I yelled out to 20 year old Swedish phenom Kosa Asllani who looked at me blankly as I took her picture.  I spoke briefly with new Red Stars equipment manager Scott Emmens who was helping coordinate the autographs.  I joked with him that he was no Billy Barmes.  He played along, but had no idea who I was.  I then noticed England international Katie Chapman signing autographs not far from where Katie Ibarra was standing, so I told the star high school goalkeeper to move near the world class midfielder, so I could take a picture of the two Katies.   I’m no Robert Mapplethorpe, but I know a good photo op when I see one (right).

From there, I snuck my Milwaukee brethren into the Toyota Park Stadium Club for some soccer VIP shoulder rubbing.  The entry into the Stadium Club is always delayed for first time visitors by the requisite stop at the Chicago Fire’s two trophy cases.  Note to New York Red Bulls, that’s two cases, not two trophies.

Post game in the club is always fun after a good match.   There are plenty of old friends to talk with including fans like Joe Pakovits and Tim Schulz, internet media members like John Schulz and Enrique Fernandez, and Toyota Park staffer and Red Stars fan David D’Andrea who appreciated the Red Stars scarf I gave his wife for their anniversary.  There is also a mix of soccer royalty (Pia Sundhage and Victor Nogueira), Red Stars staff (Marcia McDermott, Pat McNamara, Greg Zaskowski, Alyse Lahue, Carrie Sear and David Quinn), Red Stars players (Marian Dalmy who addressed the crowd and Karen Carney) and Red Stars coaches Emma Hayes, Denise Reddy and Nathan Kipp.  Arsenal supporter Colin Deval was in Gunner heaven seeing former Gunner Katie Chapman, talking to former Gunner Karen Carney and being recognized and hugged by former Gunner coach Emma Hayes.  My postgame highlight was holding Lucas, the two week old baby of Red Stars Director of Sales Greg Zaskowski.

The Highbury crew’s Nic Buchel, also an Arsenal supporter, received an added bonus by getting to meet his childhood hero Victor Nogueira - though he was surprised by the nonplussed attitude of the world class goalkeeper.  Victor and I discussed the Red Stars coach’s decision not to start his daughter in only her second professional game.  Even though he’s a soccer professional, he’s also a soccer dad.  He supported his daughter’s case by stating that Casey should have started, because she is on the national team.  I asked him how many national team players he thought were on the Red Stars.  After he replied “three or four”, Victor seemed a bit surprised and a little more understanding, when I told him that the Red Stars have 12 to 14 national team players on their roster.  I told him that WPS is the EPL of women’s soccer and in any case, his daughter will likely be starting soon enough.

Even though the Red Stars failed to take a full three points for the second time in as many matches this season, there was a feeling that the Red Stars got the better of the play in both matches.  As we walked out of the stadium, this knowledge fortified the enthusiasm we brought into Opening Day and kept the Opening Day optimism train chugging beyond the first home game.

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