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U.S. national teams struggle to draw fans to Toyota Park
By Orrin Schwarz | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/24/2008 12:04 AM

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The U.S. men and the U.S. women combined to go 2-for-2 this month at Toyota Park.

The U.S. Soccer Federation went 0-for-2.

The women, fresh off winning another Olympic gold medal, drew a paltry 5,390 fans to Bridgeview on a beautiful Saturday night.

The men drew 11,452 for a World Cup qualifier.

The Fire can draw 11,000 fans on a school night. In bad weather. Against a mediocre team. With no big, marketable names.

These games were special, a big deal.

Both the men and women earned shutout victories, dominating their opponents and playing entertaining soccer. This was supposed to be a victory tour for the women, but they didn't get to share it with many of their fans.

Kate Markgraf, who will play for the Chicago Red Stars in the new Women's Professional Soccer next spring, put a positive spin on the situation, opting for quality over quantity.

"I'd rather have a small crowd with a lot of enthusiasm than a large crowd that is quiet, and this crowd was cheering from the first minute to the last," Markgraf said. "So I was really happy. We heard them the whole, entire time."

I'm not so charitable. Both teams deserved both a loud and a big crowd, and neither got it.

"It's not like we're not doing stuff, and people can argue we're not doing enough, which is easy to say from afar," said U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe.

Guilty as charged.

But when soccer fans tell me they didn't even know the men were playing in town until after the game, you know there's a problem.

When U-10 girls can't go see their heroines because their parents feel a $35 ticket is too steep a price to pay - and it is - you know there's a problem.

When you learn U.S. Soccer didn't take full advantage of the resources from the Fire or the Red Stars to help sell tickets, you know there's a problem.

Buethe said the federation advertised in all the local papers in the days leading up to each game and especially targeted the city, with ads on CTA buses. That might explain why those of us in the suburbs didn't get the word.

Soccer remains the unwanted step-child of the U.S. sports world. It needs to get the word out when its national teams come to town, and it needs to make sure tickets are affordable, especially in a bad economy like this.

Until U.S. Soccer changes its ways, soccer will remain a second-class sport in this country.