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Red Stars right at “home” at Toyota Park

The Red Stars' My Kind of Town logo adorns their new locker room at Toyota Park (photo by Anna Kane)

The Red Stars’ My Kind of Town logo adorns their new locker room at Toyota Park (photo by Anna Kane)

Considering the semi-transient nature of the Chicago Red Stars over the past few years, it’s not surprising that the word the players and even the team’s owner keep coming back to is “home.”

Through the first three years of the National Women’s Soccer League, the Red Stars played their home games at Benedictine University, a Division III college in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, while practicing throughout the week in nearby Oak Brook.

Last year, the Red Stars moved their home matches to Toyota Park in Bridgeview, a 20,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium that also houses the city’s Major League Soccer franchise, the Chicago Fire. However, even then, the squad continued to train off-site.

This spring, the Red Stars moved into Toyota Park on a full-time basis, finally establishing a permanent home base complete with their own locker room, meeting room and access to the stadium’s first-class training facilities.

“We always had an eye towards getting into a higher-quality, soccer-specific stadium,” Red Stars’ owner Arnim Whisler explained to The Equalizer. “Grass was a very important priority as well. The training facility had to come later because we couldn’t get it all done in one deal and get the economics right that first year, so we added that this year.”

“We had a nice set up last year, but now it’s our own. It feels like home,” he added. “It’s exciting for the players to be fully a part of Toyota Park. We sort of felt like visiting tenants last year.”

Gone are the days of traveling to one site for practices and another for games. It’s now the same commute for the Red Stars crew—no matter the day, no matter the purpose.

“This environment is obviously so much better,” noted midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo. “It’s more professional. We have locker rooms, showers, the fields are nice, and this is where we play our games, so it feels more like home. Especially on game day, it’s not going to a different facility that we don’t see every day. It’s great.”

Goalkeeper Michele Dalton also noted the improvement in training facilities and credited the staff at Toyota Park for keeping the fields in top-notch condition.

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“The people who work here are great. The groundskeeper takes care of the grass really well, and it’s a great opportunity to be here as opposed to training on turf every day,” said Dalton. “It keeps our bodies, especially us old folks, walking a little easier at the end of the day. It’s been a great place, a great transition for us.”

Dalton also explained how the new facilities help provide a positive, team-focused setting.

“It’s nice to actually have locker room space in one central place where we can all go and be here before and after practice,” she said. “I think it facilitates a good environment for us socially as a team. It’s just nice to have everything in one spot—our training, our games—it feels a lot more like home.”

Two years ago, when the team’s contract with Benedictine was winding down, Whisler and then-general manager Alyse LaHue started looking at options. Whisler saw the pros and cons of both staying and leaving, but concluded the team needed an upgraded facility.

“When we started getting sellouts at Benedictine we knew that we could stay there and, frankly, make more money and create scarcity—which is really important,” said Whisler. “But for the players and their sense of professionalism, for the quality of the training facilities, for the fan experience and, ultimately—and this is something folks don’t think about as much—for the return for the sponsors, [we decided to move].”

Whisler and LaHue visited “every venue” in the city searching for the right fit. They came close to a deal with Northwestern University, but knew they wouldn’t have as much access to the facilities as they wanted because first priority would go to the school’s athletes, not the Red Stars.

Eventually, crunching the numbers, Whisler and the team settled on moving to Bridgeview. Even though the new stadium would cost more, there would be additional benefits from new sponsor revenue, a facility capable of attracting world-class internationals, additional opportunities for national television broadcasts and the potential to further grow the team’s brand in a more urban environment.

“We loved Benedictine and the folks over there were as helpful as there will ever be, but Toyota Park was the right answer for us,” said the owner.

“[Benedictine] was good, but it’s hard to compare that to what we have here,” added DiBernardo. “The field, the environment that’s here is just totally different.”

Alyssa Mautz, who has seen her fair share of women’s soccer environments, playing in the WPS, abroad in Australia and Russia, and for six years with the Red Stars through their year in the WPSL-E and all five seasons in the NWSL, sees the move to Toyota Park as a welcome evolution in the growth of the league.

“I feel like now the clubs are getting where they need to be,” she noted.

The players and Whisler know that the attendance numbers so far this season at Toyota Park have been low, but the team is targeting improved fan support in the coming weeks. They also know that making their home in an MLS stadium puts them at the top of the NWSL (alongside Orlando, Houston and Portland) when it comes to the quality of their facilities.

“Personally, I’m a little biased, but it’s my favorite field to play on in the league,” said midfielder Danielle Colaprico.

“It’s an amazing facility and it’s awesome to be here.”

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