Chicago Fire running full speed with LGBTQ community, launches Play Proud League

Fri. May 26, 2023 11:00 AM by Ross Forman

2022 pride night celebration

photo credit // chicago fire fc

Chicago Fire announces annual Pride Night, new Play Proud League for LGBTQ community

The Chicago Fire FC continues to be one of the most supportive, progressive professional teams from all pro sports leagues, a strong year-round supporter of the LGBTQ community and not just in June for Pride Month.

This June, though, the Fire is running full speed with the LGBTQ community on multiple, major partnerships.

First, the team presents its annual Pride Night on Saturday, June 10, at Soldier Field when the Fire play host to Columbus Crew SC in Major League Soccer (MLS) action, kicking off at 7:30 p.m. Throughout the evening, the team will have special events, a Progress Pride Flag giveaway, and activities to recognize the contributions of the LGBTQ+ community to soccer and beyond.

The Fire hype their Pride Night match as a lively night of unity, inclusivity and celebrating what makes us all unique.

Second, the Fire today announced the launch of the Play Proud League as a new addition to the Chicago Fire Rec Soccer (CFRS) programming. The league is being launched in conjunction with Common Goal’s Play Proud initiative, a grassroots-driven program that works with all stakeholders across the soccer industry to make society and stadiums a safer space for the LGBTQ community, their families, and friends. The Play Proud League starts play on Wednesday, June 28, at the Fire Pitch, an indoor/outdoor community soccer facility located at 3626 N. Talman Avenue.

The Fire Pitch welcomes more than 300,000 visitors annually, providing programming and field rental opportunities for youth and adult players of all skill levels.

The new Play Proud League is an inclusive, safe space – physically and psychologically – for LGBTQ people, friends, and allies to compete and build community, the team said in announcing the new league that will run year-round, not just in June.

The Play Proud League is a place where everyone can be their authentic selves and enjoy the beautiful game of soccer, the team said. 

“The Chicago Fire is highly aware of homophobia, particularly in the sporting sphere,” said Evan Whitfield, the Fire’s Vice-President of Supporter, Alumni Relations and Engagement. “The (Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association) does a good job creating leagues for the LGBTQ+ community. The Chicago Fire also wanted to do its part and because we have such great facilities and we are the professional men’s (soccer) team in the market, we felt a responsibility to create a safe and inclusive space for our LGBTQ+ fans, staff, employees and recreational players. The Play Proud League is a manifest of that.

“We want the LGBTQ+ community, including its allies, to know that the Chicago Fire has intentionally created a space for players of all levels to come and enjoy (playing) the game.”

Third, the Fire will once again participate in Chicago’s annual Gay Pride Parade, set for Sunday, June 25. The team’s merchandise truck will drive route, passing out free swag and more. 

The Pride Parade is “a nice opportunity for our employees and staff to be involved,” Whitfield said.

The team’s mascot, Sparky, will also participate in the parade.

When asked if any Fire players will participate in the parade, Whitfield did not confirm nor deny, but said their schedules are overflowing during the season with training sessions, games and more. There is “nothing confirmed (now) for any players (to attend the parade),” he said.

The Chicago Fire FC remains the city’s most dedicated supporter of the LGBTQ community among all pro sports teams, both men and women.

The Fire, for instance, is the lone Chicago pro sports team that has waved the Progress Pride Flag on its website navigation, and done so for more than a year which, Whitfield noted, “speaks to legacy (of) the club and what we stand for.”

Inclusivity is, without question, a core value of this club. “We’re a club for all of Chicago,” Whitfield said.

“In all sports, certainly (soccer), homophobia remains prevalent. On the men’s side of professional soccer, openly gay players are not (common); there are only a handful of (out) players (around the world). The men’s game is not very welcoming from a visual aspect.

“So, it’s important to us at the Chicago Fire that everyone knows, understands and appreciates that we are being intentional in welcoming everyone to Soldier Field and watch our team play.

“We want to be on the vanguard of doing that in men’s soccer in Major League Soccer.”

The Fire’s support for the LGBTQ community runs from the pitch to the cubicles of front-office staff and beyond. “You can be your true authentic self at the (team) office, talk about your partner, have a photo (of your partner at your desk),” Whitfield said.

The Fire has held Pride Night for consecutive years, with the players wearing special warmup jerseys before the match. The Fire and other organizations in the summer of 2020 made a public pledge to fight discrimination in all its forms and be more intentional in its inclusivity efforts, Whitfield said. “That public pledge is on our website, and kind of kicked off an internal movement to be intentional in making the club a more inclusive and diverse place.

“The Pride Night is but one of many different things that we do to foster safe and inclusive spaces throughout the club – and that’s physical and psychological inclusive spaces.”

The 2023 Pride Night match will feature the Chicago Gay Mens Chorus singing the National Anthem, LGBTQ performers at halftime, Progress Pride flag giveaways, and more. A percentage of all merchandise sales during Pride Night will be donated to Common Goal’s Play Proud initiative.

Fire games this season have featured rainbow love in simple, yet loud moments. In a game this month against St. Louis, fans unveiled a flag pregame in support of trans rights in an organic, spontaneous supporter-led action. Whitfield said, “The fact that they felt comfortable showing that support was well appreciated.” During a home match against Atlanta, Whitfield watched two men holding hands as they were walking on the concourse level of the stadium. “That was, is unique in a sporting arena: people just being themselves. But that’s indicative of the atmosphere we’re trying to foster.”

The Fire became founding partners of Common Goal’s Anti-Racist project in 2021, to address the structural and systematic problems that make football inaccessible and unwelcoming to marginalized communities. Expanding their relationship with Common Goal in 2022, the Fire joined the Play Proud initiative, which trains front office staff, supporters’ groups, coaches, and community organizations on how to lead with integrity – enabling honest, trust-based conversations about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic incidents and offering a credible and transformative model to address discrimination in the stands, on the pitch, and in the boardroom.

Representatives from the Fire participated in a Play Proud 10-day intensive residency training program, joining teams from Major League Soccer (MLS), National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), United Soccer League (USL), United Soccer League Championship (USL Championship), Liga MX and the Canadian Premier League (CPL) in completing 100-plus hours to discuss inclusion at all levels of soccer, dismantling systematic barriers, and providing anti-bias education.

“As the professional soccer team in Chicago, we strive to be a leader in creating more access to the sport, which is why Chicago Fire Rec Soccer is launching the Play Proud League with support from our partners at Common Goal,” said Chicago Fire FC Executive Director, Community Soccer, Lee Hannant. “A core belief of the Fire is that all are welcome in soccer and our Club is open to everyone. As an organization, we want to ensure that our matches, facilities, and programs create a safe space for our supporters, the LGBTQ+ community, and allies.”

The inaugural Play Proud League season will run through August 16, with games on Wednesdays and eight games per team guaranteed, plus playoffs.

Teams will receive a Play Proud League pride jersey, as well as complimentary tickets to the Chicago Fire’s June 10 Pride Night. In addition to playing opportunities, as part of the Play Proud League, Chicago Fire Rec Soccer will offer coaching and referee certification to ensure the league has a year-round impact at all levels of the game for the LGBTQ community and allies. The Play Proud League joins the Fire’s various year-round efforts in support of the LGBTQ community, including locally through Chicago Fire Foundation partner organizations, as well as through the Fire’s adult and youth community programming.

In celebration of Pride Month, MLS and Adidas have partnered to release the fourth edition of the pre-match Pride Top. MLS athletes will wear the bold, bright kits before Pride Games which take place from May through August. The tops are available for purchase, and, for the first time ever, include women’s and youth styles and sizing. (To purchase, go to

Before the 2022 Pride Night match, Chicago and Philadelphia players united on the field for a photo amid the Play Proud banner.

“I can’t say enough about the league for publicly and prominently displaying their support for the LGBTQ+ community by creating merch, etc. It’s indicative of the assistance, policies and procedures that we try to create and implement,” Whitfield said.

The Fire is selling Pride hats, t-shirts and jerseys.

Whitfield, 45, was named the club’s Vice President of Equity, Alumni Relations, and Engagement – a newly created role for the organization – in January 2022. He played seven years in MLS, including his first six years as a member of the Fire. The defender had 103 appearances (78 starts), helping the Fire win two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup titles (2000, 2003) and capture the Supporters’ Shield (2003). Whitfield was a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team and represented the U.S. in the 2000 Summer Olympics.

He certainly enjoys the pride of supporting the LGBT community. “It’s a good feeling that lasts longer than, say, when you’re playing and everything is about the present,” he said. “When you score a goal, the only thing you’re thinking about then is how much time is left in the game. This (work in support of the LGBTQ+ community) … there is permanency.”

Tickets for the Fire’s Pride Night match on Saturday, June 10, against the Columbus Crew SC are available for purchase here.