National Women's Soccer League
Chicago Local 134 Brings the Noise to NWSL Games
August 19, 2015
IT’S TWO HOURS BEFORE KICKOFF and the temperature is a sultry 88 degrees, but a hardcore collection of Chicago Red Stars’ fans are already in full pre-game mode.
Since Carli Lloyd's hat trick lifted the U.S. women's national team to its third world title, the National Women's Soccer League has experienced a major boost in attention and attendance. Tonight, Chicago is hosting FC Kansas City in front of a sellout crowd—its second capacity crowd in a row.
The tailgating assemblage is known as Chicago Local 134 and it is the official supporters' group of the Red Stars. At full strength, it numbers only a few dozen, but the members are at the center of a movement attempting to turn this most recent “World Cup bump” into a full-fledged revolution.
Women’s professional soccer in America has endured plenty of challenges over the years, starting with the creation, and subsequent dissolution, of the WUSA following the 1999 World Cup. The second attempt at a pro league, the WPS, also ended in failure. Both leagues survived for three seasons.
But this time things feel different. The positive energy at Benedictine University (the Red Stars’ home) is palpable and attendance at games this spring, even before the Americans won the World Cup, was solid. Some NWSL teams, like the Boston Breakers, have already begun ticket sales for the 2016 season. Also noteworthy, both the Canadian and U.S. soccer federations are subsidizing player salaries and providing logistical support to the league.
“People who watched the World Cup saw that women's soccer is just as good, if not better in some aspects, as men's soccer,” says Chicago Local 134 member Mallory Weber. “It’s very telling that in Year Three of this league, when the previous two leagues were folding, we are talking about when the next expansion team will join.”
This incarnation of Chicago Local 134 is the offspring of a supporters' group that cheered for the Red Stars during its years in the WPS. In those days, the group sat in section 134 of Toyota Park.
When the NWSL began play in 2012 and the Red Stars joined the league, two diehards, Maggie Dziubek and Annie Matchinga, found each other among the scattered fans at Benedictine and came up with the idea of resurrecting the group. They held a meeting and the group began operations ahead of the 2013 NWSL season.
During home games, Chicago Local 134 sits behind the goal on the south side of the stadium. Members spend all 90 minutes chanting, singing, drumming, and energizing the home crowd.
They also try to rattle the Red Stars’ opponents—and are proud when they do so.
Earlier this spring the group elicited a reaction from U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo—the netminder called the group “raucous” in a blog post—and also claim to have shaken up German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer in a 2-2 match against Portland in April.
“We got in Angerer’s head,” says Chicago Local 134 member Stephanie VanTieghem, who also acts as the group’s drummer at home games.
Occasionally the results are less effective. Against Kansas City, one of two matches that American Soccer Now spent with the group, Dziubek attempted to rile up FCKC defender Amy LePeilbet. LePeilbet was once on Chicago’s books, but never played for the team, missing the 2013 season with an ACL injury before being traded away.
During a stoppage of play near the south end, Dziubek utilized the pause in action to loudly ask LePeilbet if Chicago wasn’t good enough for her to stick around. Moments later, with FCKC trailing 1-0, LePeilbet found the equalizer.
VanTieghem later joked, “Yeah, that one’s on Maggie.”
Still, the group takes its devotion to the team seriously, and has two clear rules regarding opponent-directed chants: no “F Bombs” and no personal insults.
Against Kansas City—a game which features seven U.S. internationals, all starting—the Red Stars take the lead twice only to give it back both times. And even though FCKC scores its final goal in the 87th minute to steal a point, the atmosphere at Benedictine after the game is still upbeat.
Christen Press—who scored a stunning left-footed effort earlier in the match—looks tired afterward, but is all smiles as she rounds the field signing dozens of autographs for happy fans before heading upstairs for the post-game press conference.
Since the World Cup, Chicago Local 134 has been growing and in fact gained two new members just tonight. Moments before kickoff, a man and woman approached Dziubek to pay their membership fee. One of those fans, Mike Ryan, told ASN, “I’ve been following the Red Stars all season…and I finally wanted to make the connection” with the local supporters' group.
Dziubek is quick to claim that Chicago Local 134 has no formal organization, but she acts as the group’s capo, primary organizer, website manager, and liaison with the Red Stars front office. And while each member in the group’s core has a role, everyone seems to agree that Dziubek is its driving force.
As VanTieghem puts it, “Maggie is our fearless leader.”
As the group has evolved, Dziubek has reached out to other local supporters' groups for advice and help, including Section 8 (the supporter’s group for the Chicago Fire) and the Chicago chapter of the American Outlaws. The Outlaws have provided help in a number of ways, including the development of some of Chicago Local’s songs and chants.
“We talk to AO Chicago a lot for our chants,” says Chicago Local 134 member Anna Amato.
AO Chicago’s chapter ambassador, Michael Dovellos, is sitting field-side with Chicago Local 134. He considers it part of AO’s calling to help grow the game in any way possible.
“Our mission is to branch out, be involved, and show support in all aspects of soccer in Chicago, whether that be through charity, through outreach with kids, or supporting the [Chicago] Fire, or the Red Stars,” Dovellos says. He is a Red Stars season ticket holder and considers himself an “unofficial” member of Chicago Local 134. “We’ve formed a relationship, a friendship, with [Chicago Local 134]. We all support the game of soccer.”
For the match against FCKC, Chicago Local unveiled a tifo listing three goals for the season—“Win the Draft, Take on the World, NWSL Champs.” The first two are already checked off.
Many Red Stars’ supporters take particular pride in the team’s draft prowess and the Red Stars’ ability over the years to trade players for draft picks that have turned into some of the squad’s most important contributors. The “Take on the World” goal is a reference to the U.S.’s recent World Cup victory.
For this game, the group also added a tambourine to its music ensemble, something Dziubek is inordinately excited about.
Despite the recent surge of excitement about the NWSL, both the league and Chicago Local 134 face significant challenges ahead.
One hurdle is how the NWSL, and each team, manages the fact that many of their star players leave for two months in World Cup and Olympic years. This year, the Red Stars lost eight players to the World Cup—four playing for the U.S., three for Canada, and one for New Zealand.
This setup forces NWSL coaches and managers to essentially plan for two seasons, having to build a team through the preseason, abruptly lose its core only a few games in, retool, and then do it all over again when the national team players return. And while the diehard fans support the entire club, not just the national team stars, there is no doubt that those international stars are a major draw to the casual fan.
There is also a heated debate in the women’s soccer community about where the future of the league lies. The first two leagues marketed their teams primarily toward young girls, youth teams, and suburban families. This time around, many are arguing that the NWSL should be trying to bring in young adults—many of whom live in cities, not the suburbs.
This challenge is reflected in the geography of the Red Stars and its hardcore supporters. Benedictine University is in Lisle, a small suburb 30 miles southwest of the city. Meanwhile, many members of Chicago Local are young urban dwellers—like a great deal of America’s growing soccer fan base. Many of those Chicago-based supporters also don’t own cars, making travel to home games in Lisle a challenge. Some carpool, and others take the train.
Occasionally, the club organizes fan buses from the city’s north side out to Lisle, as it has done this season for the Red Stars’ home opener, the World Cup send-off game, and the World Cup welcome home game.
A WEEK AFTER PLAYING KANSAS CITY, the Red Stars travel to Portland to face the Thorns. For away games, Chicago Local 134 meets at A.J. Hudson's, a soccer pub on the city's north side, a half-mile west of Wrigley Field.
The pub’s walls are adorned with Everton, Chelsea, and Celtic scarves and Chicago Local 134 cheers on its team alongside much of the Red Stars’ front office staff. On this night that includes the Red Stars’ operations director, academy manager, senior sales executive, equipment manager, sales and merchandise manager, graphic designer, and two interns.
The members of Chicago Local 134 speak highly of the front office and vice-versa—a stark contrast to the recent bickering between fans and management at the cross-town Chicago Fire. Dziubek says the supporters have developed “great friendships” with the Red Stars’ staff and that “everyone has the same goal.”
Membership in Chicago Local is only $20 and offers a number of attractive benefits, including deeply discounted field-level season tickets. But sitting with Chicago Local also comes with a “responsibility to provide atmosphere”, according to Jay Adelberg, the team’s senior sales executive. “You don’t get to just sit and enjoy the game.”
Red Stars general manager Alyse LaHue and communications coordinator Sibyl Munoz echo that sentiment.
“Local 134 has been crucial to our gameday experience,” LaHue says. Supporters’ groups “set the stage for the atmosphere inside a stadium.”
“The way that Local 134 has stepped up and gotten our sold out crowds involved, teaching them our chants and songs so that our crowd is more vocal, has been fantastic to see,” Munoz adds. “A rowdy and vocal crowd makes the gameday atmosphere that much better for the players and for the fellow fans.”
The Red Stars have spent much of this season at or near the top of the table, a testament to the work of head coach Rory Dames and the Red Stars’ front office, which has put together a roster full of hidden gems. Even without its international stars, the team thrived during the World Cup—largely on the back of its savvy draft picks.
After two seasons in which the team narrowly missed the playoffs, including last season when it was tied on points with the Washington Spirit but lost out on criteria, fans are cautiously optimistic.
“I’m happy, but cautiously happy,” VanTieghem says.
“We’ve been up all season,” member Molly Ferris adds. “Now the pressure is on.”
During the match—which is shown on nine of the 11 televisions—Chicago went up early on a goal by Alyssa Mautz, prompting Chicago Local 134 member Jon Forsythe to work his way around the bar handing out high-fives. But the Portland Thorns fought back, first on a freak miscommunication between Red Stars’ goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc and Abby Erceg, and then the home side takes the lead on a shot by midfielder Allie Long, which she tucks neatly into the side netting.
With the 2-1 loss, the Red Stars have now won just once in its last five games and the atmosphere at Hudson’s grows noticeably dour.
Besides watching games, Chicago Local looks to grow the game in smaller, less noticeable ways. Many of its members were in Canada this summer supporting the U.S. women’s national team in the World Cup and, for the game against Kansas City, several members of FCKC’s supporter’s group, the Blue Crew, joined Chicago Local for its tailgate. Ferris even hosted four FCKC fans at her home that weekend.
The group also makes charity bets with other supporter’s group around the league. The loser then makes a contribution to the other group’s favorite charity.
For Chicago Local 134, that charity is Gonzo Soccer, which runs camps, provides academic assistance, and runs leadership training for young girls in the United States, Mexico, and Colombia. The charity was founded by former Mexican international and ESPN commentator Monica Gonzalez and LaHue.
As the summer begins to turn into fall, the members of Chicago Local 134 remain upbeat about the future of the league and optimistic that the U.S. has finally turned a corner in supporting women’s professional soccer.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Dziubek says. “We’re doing better than we have ever done before. I’m really optimistic.”
“I think [the future of the NWSL] is great,” Dovellos adds. “It’s fantastic right now the way things are going. People are enjoying the games, people are paying attention.”
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.