I was in Chicago this weekend for their home opener. I’d been to two Opening matches already – LA Sol vs. Washington Freedom, and FC Gold Pride vs. Boston Breakers, both were very cool. Los Angeles hosted the Inaugural Match, which by all accounts was the most awesome event I’ve ever helped organize. FC Gold Pride is my local club, of course, and the Assistant Coach of the Boston Breakers Lisa Cole is a very good friend of mine. Plus, I’d been dying to see Kelly Smith play and I’m officially obsessed with Eriko Arakawa.
But this opening match one was about something different and incredibly special for me personally. I flew in on Friday night and was whisked away to dinner with the Hayes family, all of whom had flown in from England for the Red Stars Home Opener. There were 14 of us- Emma (of course), Myriame (her mom), Sid (pappa Hayes), Becky and Tor (Emma’s two sisters), Mark (bro-in-law), Kirsty (Emma’s best friend from childhood), Kaz and her parents, OB from New York, Aunt Pat (Sid’s sister), and the infamous Ruby-Roo. Emma’s 5-year-old-niece who never forgets a promise to color a picture.
The Hayes family and friends at dinner in Friday night when I arrived.
The dinner itself was an overwhelming amount of food, and our English visitors never stopped talking about how huge the portions are in America. After dinner, Mark and Tor took Ruby back to their hotel, the Carneys split another direction, and the Hayes clan all ventured back to Emma’s apartment in the Gold Coast where they were staying. Walking back to the building where I used to live (Em and I had a 2-bedroom in the same building when I lived in Chicago last year) was extremely nostalgic, but I figured there were already too many people to stay in that one-bedroom so I graciously accepted the offer of one of the Red Stars players to crash in her extra bed for the eve.
Zed Bar and Blue Chicago on Clark Street in Chicago.
The next morning, Becky, Kirsty, Sid and myself went to the Red Stars training session with Emma. The most poignant moment for me was when we were getting out of Emma’s car and Carre Jonsson came right over, introduced herself to everybody, and gave me the biggest smile and handshake. To be fair I couldn’t take my eyes off her the rest of the training session as she has such a dynamic personality. She’s a natural-born leader who’s obsessed with the fine details of her game in a way you’d hope all professional athletes would be. Wow.
It was great to see Asst. Coach Denise Reddy get the players warmed up and ready to go, and when Em took over the session and started coaching I was sitting next to Sid, her dad, the proudest parent ever. Kirsty was fun to banter with because she’d played left back at Arsenal Ladies for some ridiculous amount of time – 15 years maybe? So her insight was clever. And Becky was tuned in to everything Emma did. Funny how these sisters, only one year apart in age and raised like twins, know each other so well.
Training over. Hungry. Off to the Rainforest Café so Ruby can get her Alligator on. Big portions, lots of birthday singing, and animatronic elephants. Couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Then off to do some shopping – It’s no secret that the Hayes family loves to shop – and take in a pedicure and manicure at my old haunt. Later that night – Zed restaurant for some cocktails and Blue Chicago Bar for dancing and singing.
There’s nothing quite like taking a 5-year-old to the Rainforest Cafe.
For me, I think back to last year when Emma was offered the Head Coaching position at Chicago Red Stars. She struggled with the decision to leave her family in England and return to America for another coaching gig. I knew why then, but I now empathize with her in a way I hadn’t before. The fact that the whole of her fam flew out for this Opening Match shows how special that family truly is. It’s so amazing to see how much they support, love and value all the work Emma’s doing at CRS… even if it did take her halfway around the world again. And for me, having been Emma’s friend for so many years, it was a truly special experience to feel like I was part of they Hayes family ;-) this weekend.
So on Saturday night when that player kindly offered her extra sleeping spot to me again, I respectfully declined and snuggled up with Emma’s bud Kirsty on a blow-up mattress in the living room… along with the rest of the family strategically spread out on various pieces of furniture. But nobody seemed to mind the tight quarters – it was honestly like they wouldn’t have had it any other way. And one bathroom worked surprisingly well for eight people, I couldn’t believe it.
We woke up Sunday to biscuits and tea… and you could feel Game-Day in the air. Twitter was a-flurry with pre-game jitters and Emma took a radio interview from her bedroom while Ruby danced about trying to learn the National Anthem. Ruby, Becky and I pulled out the magic markers and poster board to make a Fox Soccer Channel sign with a big Chicago Red Stars badge on it – did anybody see us on TV? Ruby also made a big sign that said “I love my Arntie Emmie”, and she used a “love heart” to save space instead of writing out the word love. That’s now hanging in Emma’s kitchen. So cute.
Denise, OB, and Effy (CRS center back Ifeoma Dieke) helped shuttle us all to the match, where we had exclusive loading-dock parking. Very cool. I led the fam to the stadium club for some pre-game food, and was lucky to meet up with Aaron Burch, League Ops, down in the tunnel. He and I did the rounds at Toyota Park. It was wet and rainy but I didn’t mind one bit cuz I got to see all my old pals – Greg Zaskowski, Pat McNamara, Carrie Sear, Alyse LaHue, Mannie the Intern (well not an intern anymore), Amber Simons, Jim Houghton, David Quinn, Felipe Montoya (thanks for the rain slickers, shhhhhh, it’s our secret), Marcia McDermott…
Another amazing moment: walking into “Mission Control” where Elly was sitting in the Director’s chair, headset and all, organizing all the PA announcements, video board graphics, and instant replays. It was only 5 months ago when we walked into that room and were both blown away by its complications. And now, here she was, running the show. I am so proud and so happy for her – she works so hard!!!
Shortly thereafter I picked up Ruby because she got to walk out the tunnel and onto the pitch with her Auntie Emmie. Talk about a great moment – We stood right between the players as they left the locker room to take the pitch, they literally flanked us on either side. Heather O’Reilly gave Ruby the “oh you’re so cute!” nod, and Ian Sawyers asked if she’d be cheering for both sides. The League Representative in me came out and I said, “Absolutely Ian,” because I’m a supporter of WPS and want ALL of our teams to succeed. But let’s be honest – Ruby was dressed head to toes in Red Stars gear and had been singing “c’mon you Red Stars” since she woke up. Emma and the Red Stars players came out of the locker room next and every one of them smiled at Roo. She even had her photo taken with the Match Day Pennent. She’ll see that photo in 10 years and realize the enormity of the moment. For now she was just a happy kid.
I was just outside the tunnel for the National Anthem, standing with Rachel Epstein and Commish Tonya Antonucci from the League office, which was amazing to be able to share a bit of my past with my present as the National Anthem was being played. The National Anthem has always given me goose bumps and tears since 9/11 when I was living in NJ, and this was no different. And the enormity of the moment really hit me as the fireworks went off as each player was announced. This is it. WPS is here. I hadn’t actually felt this way until now.
TA kicked the opening ball to Tarps and the match began.
I found my way back to the stands where I found Peter Wilt and his wonderful wife Ann for a cheer, was joined by Roller Girls Alice in Chains and Katie Stapely, gave a big hello to Illinois Head Coach Janet Rayfield, found Marcia McDermott taking in the game with the fans in the stands, hooted and hollered with Arnim Whistler, and had a beer with Kirsty, Becky and OB. By the way I’ve never met a 5-year-old girl who knows her football the way Ruby does. “Get the ball back”, “C’mon you Red Stars”, “Faster”, “Get a goal Red Stars” all seemed to be everyday vocab. (Tor did say that since the time she was born she’s been told over and over again, “You’re a Spurs fan,” so I can see where she gets it from).
Despite the pouring rain and 0-0 draw, this was quite possibly the most exciting match I’ve ever been to. It was more than a soccer game to me, and it honestly wasn’t about the outcome. It was about the journey that I’ve been on over the past couple years, and seeing that all come to life. And sharing that with Emma and her family… actually feeling like they were my very own family… is the only way I would have wanted it to be.