Soccer has a popularity problem in Chicago, but maybe not in the way you're thinking.
The sport that Americans long eschewed now has such a following here that an entire city block wasn't big enough for a public viewing party on Sunday.
Fans arrived early on Balbo Avenue, thousands of them, wearing more red, white and blue than you'd find at a small-town 4th of July parade.
The estimated 20,000 fans who made it inside chanted “I believe that we will win” as a giant TV screen showed Team USA and Portugal battling to a 2-2 tie.
But some other fans opted for different chants when police blocked the entrance, apparently because of overcrowding, before the match began. “Let us in” was among their tamer chorus lines. A handful opted for profanity, while others climbed trees to steal a view or hopped the chain-link fences event organizers had erected along Balbo between Lake Shore and Columbus drives.
Colin Plunkett, who said he'd been anticipating his country's matchup with the Portuguese for days, arrived more than three hours before kickoff and relaxed in his lawn chair while wearing a U.S. jersey.
“This is great,” said Plunkett, a stock analyst who lives in Lincoln Park. “This is everything I've been looking forward to all week.”
But Scott Vesely, who drove in from Chicago Ridge to take in the game, had a different take.
“This is the biggest joke,” said Vesely, who said he was barred entry despite arriving about half an hour before kickoff. “It's absurd.”
Vesely got inside during halftime, when he said he entered in a crowd of people but wasn't sure whether guards meant to let them inside.
After a big turnout for America's first match last week, organizers shifted Sunday's location to a field in Grant Park. But a series of soaking rains prompted a late recalibration, with officials saying the move to the downtown roadway would “allow fans a dry and convenient location.”
Balbo was plenty dry, but it wasn't especially roomy. As fans hopped the fences, security guards scrambled to apprehend them. Some were led to the edge of the park in handcuffs, but after the match police said they had no reports of arrests.
Many said the big crowd — where one could spot U.S. flags on skull caps, beach balls, pajama pants and a robe — was a testament to soccer's increased popularity in Chicago.
Some of the spectators were soccer diehards, offering scouting reports on the Portuguese team and speculating on how the Amazon climate could affect the game.
But many were like Aaron Stumpf and Kelsey Creech. Though Creech had come draped in an American flag and the pair had set up a beach towel in the middle of the downtown road, both confessed that their enthusiasm for soccer came only every four years.
“This is the only time I really care — when country pride is on the line,” Stumpf said.
The more passionate members of the crowd were eager to take in the occasional devotees — some of whom might be back when the U.S. plays Germany at 11 a.m. Thursday. A viewing party is planned at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park.
“I've followed soccer my whole life,” said Matt Flemming, an event planner from Addison. “Just to see fans fired up, even if it's every four years, is so great.”
Tribune reporter Rosemary Regina Sobol contributed.