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Lionel Messi

Even in absence, Messi mania is good for MLS

Chicago Fire rewards crowd despite Messi's advance

CHICAGO – While scrolling my email in the morning early this week, I was caught off guard by the Chicago Tribune’s sports alert on the Chicago Fire. In Chicago a news alert on soccer is as rare as a 60-degree day in January.  

The alert was to inform the masses that the greatest soccer player of his generation wasn’t going to make the trip to Chicago for his MLS regular season tour that has sold out all venues he’s played in.

In this case, the legendary Argentinian was scheduled to play at historic Soldier Field on Wednesday night. There would be no Messi in the Windy City, though. Nonetheless, the Fire drew a franchise record crowd of 62,124.

Messi is compared with the late Pele and Maradona as one of the greatest to ever play the beautiful game.

The hype in town leading up to the match was the biggest since Messi’s last visit with Argentina’s national soccer team for Copa America Centenario 2016. Seven years ago, Messi treated a sold-out crowd of over 61,000 to three goals in a 5-0 pounding of Panama. 

A couple days before the match between Messi’s Inter Miami and the Fire, the news and hype were about his absence. The focus was on what it meant for the  Fire and the Windy City. Chicago is suffering through one of the worst sports cycles in many years. Also, the Fire’s average attendance is one of the lowest in MLS.

Soccer wins with Messi in MLS

Tickets for the match were over $1,000 before fans realized Messi would likely miss. A scroll through the secondary market revealed that those tickets had gone down to $30 by kickoff. As a Chicagoan, Chicago Fire supporter and someone who works in professional soccer and bringing soccer to my city there was concern for my colleagues and friends on the fan reaction. 

After it was announced that Messi wouldn’t play, the Fire offered fans credit for future tickets.

The publicist in me was concerned the Fire were making headlines because their record attendance was due to a player who wouldn’t grace the crowd with his presence. 


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I had the privilege to make it to the match. How could I miss it?  Traffic was a mess as I tried to make my way into Chicago’s famous museum campus on the lakefront. From there, I knew it was big, resembling sold out events I’ve helped execute at the stadium. 

When I walked in, I was pleasantly surprised to notice Soldier Field resembled a primetime Bears game.  I was worried fans would skip the trip to the lakefront. As I settled in, I noticed the crowd was into the match and the atmosphere was electric.

Rowdy home crowd for Chicago Fire

Fans cheered for great plays. They truly appreciated the great effort the Fire put out Wednesday evening. Lost in the hype was the fact that the match was a must-win for both clubs as they battled for a spot in the MLS playoffs. 

The Chicago Fire played with a sense of urgency. They treated the record crowd of 62,124 to a 4-1 victory over Inter Miami CF. They got into one of the final playoff spots with a couple weeks to go.

Late in the second half the crowd broke out into the famous wave to the cheers of many. At that moment, I knew the Chicago Fire were the winners on the field. I also realized that Messi Mania is good for American soccer.

An opportunity is here if a venue that’s record attendance for international matches can get a complete sellout for a domestic match.  American soccer has arrived and will compete with the top four pro sports leagues – the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL – in the United States. Soon we will talk about the Big Five with the MLS. 

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