The Fire had a field problem Sunday.
The 0-0 tie with Nashville SC in front of a season-high crowd of 15,915 was played on a Soldier Field grass surface with football markings. A day after Notre Dame beat Wisconsin, the game’s “Shamrock Series” midfield logo was covered over with green paint but easily detectable, as were the schools’ colorful end-zone designs. The white gridiron lines had dulled, but not much.
Beyond the optics — which aren’t ideal for a franchise trying to market its product — the grass has been busy recently. Last Sunday, the Bears beat the Bengals at Soldier Field, Wednesday saw the Fire lose to New England, then the Notre Dame-Wisconsin game was played Saturday. And the field was clearly worse for wear, with divots and pockmarks around the entire playing surface, contributing to a forgettable 90 minutes of soccer.
Nashville SC coach Gary Smith brought up the playing surface before taking questions from the media. Smith said the field was “incredibly difficult,” giving both teams fits when they tried to manage the ball.
Smith said it even influenced his decision to rest attacker Hany Mukhtar, who had a hat trick against the Fire earlier this year. Nashville also plays on a grass surface at an NFL stadium, but Smith was “shocked” by the condition of the Soldier Field turf. The grass was too long, there was unnatural movement of the ball and he didn’t think it was watered enough, while the football paint was “acoustically” bad but not a problem.
“I’ve got to say, that’s the worst grass field I’ve been on in a long, long time at this level,” Smith said.
Fire coach Raphael Wicky was less harsh but also blunt in his assessment of the playing surface. He deferred questions to players about how the football lines and markings affected things, but echoed what Smith said about the grass itself.
“The divots, the holes, the bumps, the long grass not wet, that affects the players a lot to play [soccer],” Wicky said. “It is what it is.”
For the Fire (6-15-6, 24 points), the grass is a fall problem as long as the Bears and other football teams hold games at the venue.
Fire goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina was diplomatic, saying the conditions and markings didn’t affect the game because it was the same for both teams, adding that the crew did the best it could.
“The grass is green anyway,” Slonina said. “The green paint is not much of a problem.”
As Slonina met the media, there was green paint on his arms.
NOTE: The Fire honored the Sting on the 40th anniversary of their 1981 NASL Soccer Bowl championship. Fire players wore Sting T-shirts when they arrived at Soldier Field, and Wicky wore one during the game.
Members of the Sting also were recognized at halftime and received warm applause from the fans.
“It’s a special day,” Sting midfielder Rudy Glenn said. “When you think about it 40 years later, we made history that evening, and we’re still around, still thought about, which is pretty amazing. And it’s because of the fans like today. For them to even acknowledge us is just amazing.”