Last season, the Chicago Red Stars earned their first playoff berth in the NWSL, on the strength of Women's World Cup gold medalists Christen Press, Lori Chalupny, and Julie Johnston, playing to sellout crowds at Benedictine University/Village of Lisle Sports Complex, their home since 2011.
On December 11, General Manager Alyse LaHue announced the Red Stars are returning to Toyota Park in Bridgeview for the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season.
Toyota Park was home to the Red Stars during the 2009 and 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) campaigns.
Fans of my column will remember Toyota Park as 'The House That Wilt Built.' As in Peter Wilt, whose name is synonymous with professional soccer and Toyota Park. He told me that he supports the move back to Bridgeview:
"Fantastic. Better amenities, better playing surface closer to the city and more well known. Toyota Park adds credibility for the the Red Stars. Great step forward for the team. Can't wait to see the Red Stars back home in Bridgeview."
Peter Wilt, Indy Eleven Soccer President and former CEO of the Chicago Red Stars and Chicago Fire
Lahue discussed the Chicago Red Stars' return to the 10-year-old soccer-specific venue with a natural grass pitch.
1) What brought about these conversations to return to Toyota Park? You were drawing well at Benedictine University, which was about 3,000-4,000 capacity.
Benedictine University is a great, intimate sized venue that suited our needs in the first years of the league as we regained our footing playing professionally. Fans had unrivaled access to players there, which is something you won’t see in any other venue in our league, let alone any other pro sports experience. But as part of a professional league we have grown in each year and always had on our horizon a move to an actual soccer-specific pitch. Toyota Park is obviously the best in Chicagoland, so they were our primary target.
2) What brought you back, ultimately? What made this deal right?
(Bridgeview) Mayor Steven Landek (who also serves as an Illinois State Senator,) Toyota Park General Manager Deb Augle, and the rest of the Toyota Park staff really made us feel welcome at the end of the 2015 season when we played our last two home matches there. They were really conducive in helping us make sure it was the right fit this time around to be able to make the leap. And obviously it has to be cost-effective, which they’ve taken great strides to make work for us. With the ongoing turf discussion happening in the women’s game right now, it really was the perfect time and it’s the right choice for our club and our league.
3) There are 20,000 seats to fill at Toyota Park. How are you planning to fill them?
As in 2009 and 2010 when we played at Toyota Park, we won’t be utilizing the entire stadium. We plan to use just half, which will accommodate around 7,000 fans. Obviously that is a major leap from our 4k average this past season, but part of the reason for moving was to hopefully expose our club to new fans, more traditional fans that want that pro experience, and even folks from the city who will have an easier time getting to Bridgeview. Game in and game out fans have an opportunity to see our USWNT World Cup champions at the most cost-effective rate a pro experience can provide in a world class venue, along with free parking, and there’s always players that stay postgame to sign autographs. So for the experience vs the cost, there just isn’t a comparison.
4) You've had some pretty heavy retirements over the past season....goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, Shannon Boxx, and particularly, Captain Lori Chalupny, who just made it official this week. Who will be stepping up in 2016, and where will you be looking for leadership?
I think that’s a wait-and-see question! We’ve had some losses to retirement and made some big changes this off-season, but we have a core of players that have still been with us for many years like Michelle Lomnicki and Alyssa Mautz. We’ll see our ’next generation' of players start to step up into leadership roles, like third-year pro, and Naperville-native, Vanessa DiBernardo.
5) What kind of amenities/ticket deals do the Chicago Red Stars have in store for 2016? And when is Opening Day?
We’ve done our best to keep season ticket pricing similar to our previous stadium pricing for those returning Season Ticket holders as well as early buyers and those buyers that purchase prior to early January. We worked hard to keep parking free for our regular season matches at Toyota Park in 2016, even though we recognize it’s a tremendous revenue driver and certainly would have benefited the club. We wanted to make sure the transition from Benedictine University to Toyota Park didn’t come with dramatic sticker-shock for our loyal fans but at the same time they’ll recognize it as a fully professional experience see the transformation it has on our club.
The league schedule has not been announced but we can anticipate the league to open in April, as in past seasons.
6) Will you be doing any joint games with the Chicago Fire, as well as any cross-promotion? Is there a 'man vs. woman' game in the future?
I don’t think the coaches would risk the players to put on a match like that although i’m sure fans would find it entertaining! We have done doubleheaders with the Fire the previous two seasons so it would make sense to explore something like that again, but it really depends on both of our schedules, which are done independently and at different times. We are happy to have been able to finally announce our move, which was a major step, now we’ll be heading into our secondary phase which is fan experience and planning as such.
7) What is the allure of Toyota Park? What makes it a perfect place for the Chicago Red Stars?
It’s the best grass pitch in Chicagoland, hands down. It’s a soccer-specific stadium. There is nothing else like it in our city. We wouldn’t mind having a more intimate venue for our crowd-size, something in the 8k-10k range, but it simply doesn’t exist in Chicago yet.
8) This will be the Red Stars' 8th season in 2016. What makes it so successful as a franchise?
The bottom line is we have an owner (Arnim Whisler) who has remained committed and dedicated to making sure this club has stayed alive in Chicago. He’s also been integral in the growth of women’s pro soccer in America in general, so much credit has to start there. Second, we have to thank those fans that have been with us through thick and thin, through pro league, semi-pro, back to pro and beyond.
It’s been an incredible journey for this Club.