At 5:53 p.m. Tuesday night, the Fire emerged from the northeast tunnel and hit the playing surface at Soldier Field. The moment, anticipated by the club after effectively buying its way into an amended lease with the Village of Bridgeview, was met with blaring music that sounded like a regular match.
But there were over 60,000 empty blue seats to greet the Fire, who beat FC Cincinnati 3-0. The authentic cheering that would’ve met the team beginning their pregame warmups for their planned March 21 opener was absent, and the only visible signs of supporters were large fan-created banners behind the south goal and a few social-media messages that were displayed on the video boards at Soldier Field.
Forty minutes after warmups, the Fire returned to the field. Unlike typical circumstances when the teams walk out side-by-side, the Fire walked out first. They were followed by the referees and then FC Cincinnati. Everybody was wearing masks.
Indeed, COVID-19 was hard to forget. It’s why the opener was postponed, why it was rescheduled for Tuesday, and why Soldier Field’s doors were closed to fans. There were some doubts the match would be played after an unnamed Fire player tested positive Friday.
The match went on, but the vibe the Fire (2-4-1, 7 points) crave for their home games will have to wait.
“Obviously, we wish that today there would have been 50-60,000 people here and the team would have been able to celebrate [this victory] in a normal world,” coach Raphael Wicky said. “I only can imagine how it must be to win games here, score goals in a full stadium.
“The experience overall was great. It’s a great start for us, coming back to Soldier Field for the club and having a clear victory.”
Even outside of Soldier Field, there was an eerie and unusual silence. When the stadium hosts major soccer events, there is a pulse and soundtrack around the perimeter as fans celebrate, mill around the campus and tailgate before kickoff. That atmosphere, which was anticipated for the spring debut, wasn’t to be found and was replaced by traffic passing on Lake Shore Drive.
Though there weren’t supporters in the stands, they were heard. MLS gave teams the option of creating crowd noise, and the Fire took advantage. The replica soundtrack included consistent sound, specific team chants, cheering when Fabian Herbers, Alvaro Medran and Ignacio Aliseda scored, and polite applause when an FC Cincinnati player returned to his feet after taking a hit.
In the second minute, Herbers became the answer to a trivia question by scoring the team’s first MLS goal at Soldier Field since 2005. The goal was originally ruled offside but allowed after a review, putting the Fire ahead.
The public address announcer and signs on the screens credited the goal to striker Robert Beric. Alas, there were no fans in the stands to be confused.