We were looking into the setting sun, shading our eyes with a hand so we could see better what was happening on the field. The field was plastic, geometrically painted to delight the eye, though we’d rather have looked at grass. But as if to compensate nature for the insult to it, across the field where there’d be the far stands in any more imposing venue there was only a line of trees.
MapQuest had led us here along Interstates 190, 290, 88, and 355 and through a couple of traffic backups—a trip from Chicago’s north side worthy of Los Angeles. After driving an hour we deserved to find ourselves in someplace strange and far away, and this was that: the bucolic campus of Benedictine University in the village of Lisle in DuPage County. Yet what an odd place it was to watch athletes with world-class skills, women who a few weeks earlier had been feted with a ticker-tape parade in lower Manhattan.
A dozen women on the field for either the Chicago Red Stars or FC Kansas City had played in the recent Women’s World Cup in Canada, most of them for the triumphant American team. The American victory had made them heroes, and here were the fans they were heroes to: a large part of this crowd of 3,500 was made up of girls (and some boys) in the soccer uniforms of the youth programs they play in. Will they grow up to form the adult fan base of tomorrow’s National Women’s Soccer League, or do the Red Stars symbolize a juvenile passion they’ll put aside? At any rate, nothing was callow or bubble-gum-like about the game itself.
The Red Stars, second in the league two-thirds of the way through the NWSL season, played last year’s champions, FC Kansas City. Chicago led twice, but Kansas City scored on a long header with about five minutes to play and the match ended in a 2-2 tie. My wife and I weren’t there to cheer for either team. The match brought to Chicago—well, to Lisle—Kansas City defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who’d played every minute of every game for the Americans during the World Cup and who’d been named the NWSL’s defender of the year last year. Becky is kin, and though she’d never known the great-grandmother my brothers and sisters and cousins and I remember so well as our great-aunt Rose, and though up until a couple of months ago she had no idea any of us existed—well, she knew now. We’d been e-mailing her, e-mailing each other, maintaining what amounted to a family listserv called “Go Becky,” and after the title was won putting together a scrapbook. The scrapbook and a family tree are now a package in the mail to Becky, according to my sister Dixie, who included a “brief intro” to every cousin that should have us all a little nervous.
But no one had actually met her. Which is why my wife, Betsy, and I got in the car and drove to Lisle. Being there felt like what I imagine it was like being at an NFL game in Canton, Ohio, in 1922, when that league was three years old, rustic, and surviving on love and prayer. We met Becky after the game alongside the rope that kept the crowd back as the players trekked from the playing field across campus to wherever it was they took their showers. She signed some posters and a jersey, and I gave her a picture of Auntie Rose’s family taken when she and her sister—my grandmother—were little girls in 1894. I thought that Becky was one of the finest people I’ve ever met. “We think we’re all pretty special too,” I said, “but we’ve never had anyone in the family before who won a World Cup.”
The little girls in their soccer uniforms could not have been more excited to see their heroes up close. These were genuine heroes, and by comparison, the roster of the Chicago Fire is composed of stiffs. Yet the Chicago papers actually cover the Fire, if not well. The next morning, the score of the Red Stars match we’d driven to was one line of agate type in each paper. There was no story at all. Some of the little girls, one or two, will grow up to be soccer players. If encouraged, one or two more might grow up to read newspapers.