My first experience with the Chicago Fire left much to be desired, and with my girlfriend attending her first-ever soccer match, I was hopeful for the both of us that the Fire would impress

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect much from the Chicago Fire.

I didn’t expect a win. I didn’t expect a large crowd. I definitely didn’t expect both.

I felt this way because my only prior visit to Toyota Park came last season as my Fort Lauderdale Strikers paid a visit to Bridgeview in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal matchup. To say that match had a “light attendance” would be making light of the situation…

For the record, the Fire announced an attendance of 3,666 that game.

After that experience, I lumped the Fire into my “MLS 1.0” category of teams left playing (or failing to play) catch up to the newer, more positively-discussed, more “successful” MLS clubs. You know which clubs I’m speaking of. The ones that struggle for relevance in their market, play in old stadiums, fail to attract positive media attention, and, in turn, draw lower crowds on average.

The Fire match was going to be a special one for me regardless of the atmosphere or result as my girlfriend Lauren was in town for a visit. It would be her first experience at a professional soccer game and I was rooting hard for the Fire to leave her with a positive impression of our sport. As far as I was concerned, the weight of the game itself was on their shoulders.

As we pulled into the quickly-filling parking lot more than 90 minutes from kickoff, I had an odd suspicion the crowd was going to be a good one. The good folks I met at the Section 8 tailgate — Dan and Ryan — agreed, going as far as saying a sellout wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.

A sellout? At Toyota Park? That seemed crazy. But hosting the MLS champs, fielding Bastian Schweinsteiger and playing on national television, I guess that could be possible… The number of cars in the parking lot certainly pointed that way.

Following a scrumptious pregame fix of tailgate tacos and cold beer, we entered the stadium and climbed the stairs up to our seats to watch the first half of action from way up top.

The match hadn’t even kicked off and Lauren was impressed. Between the full stadium, fireworks and tifo, I’ll admit I was impressed too.

The first half finished 1-1 after Clint Dempsey’s equalizer canceled out the Fire’s fortuitous penalty kick opener.

We joined Section 8 for the second half, where we were treated to three goals — and three wild celebrations — including two inside of three minutes.

And over the PA we heard news that made a great night even better: a sell out crowd of 20,153 in attendance.

So Chicago, thank you. Thank you for proving me wrong. Thank you for changing my mind. And, selfishly, thank you for giving Lauren a beautiful introduction to the beautiful game.