BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (Aug. 11, 2010): It is a beautiful though hot, muggy August evening in Chicagoland.
After struggling for much of their second WPS season, Chicago's Red Stars are in position for the playoffs. So why is Toyota Park nearly deserted at the opening kick?
As the game progresses, the stands fill out a little more, but from the press booth the crowd still looks like one of the smallest of the season.
In the meantime, the action on the field is primarily dominated by Chicago in the early minutes, as first-year sensation Philadelphia Independence scraps to remain unbeaten by the Red Stars.
At game time, Philadelphia (8-6-4) sat in command of second place with 28 points and Chicago (5-8-6) was tied with Sky Blue FC of New Jersey/New York at 21 points.
The crowd is so quiet, the shouts of the players are audible. In the 13th minute, Chicago midfielder Megan Rapinoe races down the right flank for a one-on-one with Philadelphia keeper Karina LeBlanc, and there is only a slight increase in crowd noise.
It doesn't even qualify as noise, just slightly accelerated chatter.
Rapinoe's shot is easily rebuffed by LeBlanc and the action moves the other way.
By the 15-minute mark, the stands have filled out a little more, and I'm estimating the gate at the high two's.
The organist plays a few lame bars of "Lets go Red Stars," but no one follows and the music stops abruptly.
The action moves back and forth, in the middle third primarily, with an occasional foray by Chicago into the final third.
At the 18-minute mark the Independence makes their deepest penetration. Chicago defender Marian Dalmy puts the ball out to the left of the goal bringing up the first corner of the match. It is well-defended and the Red Stars take the ball back toward Philadelphia territory.
A few seconds later, Chicago enjoys their first set piece. Philly defends well, and the action moves back to the middle third again, with both clubs lacking in intensity. Maybe it's the heat.
In the 25th minute, the crowd finally regains consciousness as Chicago forward Casey Noguiera, also suddenly springing to life, races down the left flank, cuts toward the middle, and has an opportunity to make her signature shot on an unprotected LeBlanc.
Unfortunately, Noguiera takes too much time and one too many touches looking to set up her shot and loses the ball. At least everyone seems to be fully awake on the field and in the stands, at this point.
I'm starting to feel better about the crowd's involvement in the match until I realize it is Benny the Bull, the Chicago Bulls mascot, who is creating all the commotion.
A few minutes later, a group of young girls who appear to be together as a youth soccer team, begin to do their own cheerleading, and things stay moderately rowdy after that. At least until the little girls get tired.
I look out and the crowd seems a little larger yet again. Must have been the traffic keeping people on the expressway a little longer than normal. My experienced eye is estimating the crowd somewhere in the three's now.
An announcement in the second half proves me right. The attendance is 3,152. Better than it looked like it would be at the opening kick, but worrisome, when considering the team's long-term chances for survival.
Meanwhile, I'm drawn back to the team's more immediate survival issues, trying to survive the play on the pitch. So far so good. The half ends 0-0.
The second half proves to be a better game, with both teams seemingly energized by their half-time pep talks.
Chicago continues to show at least a slight edge in game domination, but unfortunately their ability to control the game causes Chicago keeper Jillian Loyden to be a little too complacent.
Philly's Amy Rodriquez catches Loyden out of the box and exploits the opportunity for the game's first blood in the 53rd minute.
Nine minutes later, Chicago pulls even. Noguiera makes a beautiful cross in front of the goal. Ella Masar goes airborne, heading the ball into the net for her team-leading sixth goal of the year.
Then in the 78th minute, Natalie Spilger draws a questionable foul just outside the penalty box.
Her verbal objections to the call earned her a yellow card caution on top of the foul. Philadelphia's Lianne Sanderson took the ensuing free kick, putting the ball in the back of the net on the far bottom right corner, just past Loyden's diving reach.
Of the call, Coach Namazi said, "That was no foul. It was a terrible call. I don't care if I have to pay a fine for saying this. But, you still have to be able to win in those situations."
From there, Philly tightens their defense and the Red Stars have few good opportunities to equalize a second time.
Chicago is further handicapped by the absence of midfielder Karen Carney, who is not dressed, due to the flu.
Later in the game, defender and team captain Kate Markgraf suffers a concussion and is replaced by Lydia Vandenbergh.
Shortly after that, Julianne Sitch, who had replaced Brazilian forward Cristiane, suffers a serious injury on a collision in front of the Philadelphia goal, and is replaced by Nikki Washington.
"It didn't help to lose three players," Head Coach Omid Namazi said, following the game. We lost one before the game (Carney), and then two during the game."
He went on to report that Markgraf's concussion seemed mild and he anticipated she would be ready for the club's next match in Washington next Thursday, Aug. 19. Namazi continued with speculation that Sitch's injury is a torn ACL, which would be a season-ending injury.
If losing three key players wasn't bad enough, recently acquired striker Veronica Boquete was not dressed for the match tonight.
Namazi reported that the Spanish international has run into problems with her visa, after spending most of the season in the W-League, playing for the league champions, the Buffalo Flash.
Namazi expressed his hope that Boquete will have her immigration issues resolved in time to dress for the Washington match.
As this rather strange Chicago evening comes to a close, the Red Stars find themselves again out of playoff position, falling into a fifth-place tie with Washington, who were defeated by FC Sky Blue this evening.
The two clubs are knotted at 21 points each, but Washington has one game in hand. New Jersey pulls ahead into sole position of fourth, with 24 points.
The Red Stars' inability again to win a must-win match is discouraging enough for fans and team members alike, no doubt, but as I mentioned earlier, perhaps the score at the gate is the more foreboding result of the evening.
Chicago's attendance in their second season is running close to a thousand less than their first season-average in 2009. It is also consistent with the overall trends in WPS, also in its second season.
Since the clubs need to average in the neighborhood of 5,000 to break even, the future of the Chicago franchise and all of Women's Professional Soccer is at least a little bit in doubt.
All the more reason for Chicago fans to hope against hope the Red Stars can make a playoff run the rest of the way. It may be their last opportunity.