Now the season is underway it’s time to take a bit of a closer look at the clubs in Major League Soccer. Our first stop is the Second City of the United States. Chicago.
Officially formed on the 126th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire in October 1997, Chicago Fire Soccer Club are the original expansion club of MLS. An opening season Double of the MLS Cup and US Open Cup had fans celebrating success immediately, but it wasn’t to last for the Men In Red. Subsequent US Open Cup wins in 2000, 2003 and 2006 and topping the overall standings in the 2003 regular season to win the Supporters’ Shield helped create a long-standing legacy which has, in recent seasons, become increasingly difficult to live up to.
The club’s early success, under the guidance of future US national team coach Bob Bradley, saw players like Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov and Mexican keeper Jorge Campos strut their stuff at Soldier Field as the Fire established themselves as one of the teams to beat in the early years of MLS.
A 2002 move to suburban Napierville and the resignation of Bob Bradley saw no immediate change in the Fire’s fortunes. 2003 could have been the most succesful year in Chicago’s history, but after sealing the Supporter’s Shield and Open Cup they were defeated 4-2 in the MLS Cup final. 2004 was a year to forget as the club failed to make the post-season play-offs for the first time in seven attempts.
Long time president Peter Wilt was dismissed in 2005 as the club began preparations for their move to the brand new Bridgeview Stadium (later renamed Toyota Park) in the suburb of Bridgeview. After years of playing to a partially full Soldier Field or bouncing around from stadium to stadium, the Fire finally had a home of their own and would move in in time for the 2006 season.
A US Open Cup win in the first season in Bridgeview showed promise of further success, but a decade later and the Fire faithful are still waiting. Over the last ten years there has been some highlights though, like the 2011 US Open Cup run, but there have also been lots of negatives. Lots and lots of negatives. 2014 saw the MLS record for drawn games in a single season, before Chicago made it all their own with an astonishing EIGHTEENTH draw. 2015 was even worse with the side finishing bottom of the standings and looking like a club on life support.
Then something happened in late 2015 that gave some hope to fans of the Fire. A complete overhaul of the front office saw Nelson Rodriguez take over as Director of Operations and former Serbia Under-20 manager Veljko Paunovic appointed head coach. Despite a fairly mediocre start to the season – two draws and a loss – Fire fans are quietly optimistic their club are headed in the right direction. A massive overhaul of the playing and coaching staff, including the massively unpopular move to trade Harry Shipp, is creating just a little buzz amongst the supporters and, with even the most optimistic not expecting a massive shift in results this year, there is a hope that “Pauno” can finally give them something to smile about this year.
Despite not winning any silverware for a decade, the fans of Chicago Fire, and those of other sports teams in Chicago, are fiercely supportive of their club. Like all other clubs in North America there are a number of official and unofficial supporters’ groups catering to most demographics. Section 8 and Sector Latino are the most prominent of those, with Section 8 encompassing many of the smaller groups, and both have their own are within the stadium. 2016 has also seen the formation of the Banter Buddies group. Deciding that “everyone is a member unless you opt out” and to “take nothing too seriously, except supporting the Fire” the Banter Buddies have quickly grown from a joke on a Chicago Fire Facebook discussion group to being an officially recognised supporters group of the club. A love of Mexican icon Cuauhtémoc Blanco is also a winner with the Banter Buddies.
One of the Banter Buddies, Steven Passmore, had his attention grabbed when his local MLS side signed their first designated player in Blanco: “I started going to soccer games when the Fire signed Blanco; who was the second major signing behind Beckham at the time. I read about him in the newspaper so I decided to go to a game when I was 15 with my dad and little brother. Blanco was so good I kept coming back. No one else played like him in the league at that time. He was one of the greatest number tens of all time, in my opinion, and the best Mexican player ever behind Hugo Sanchez of Real Madrid.”
Another, Luis Sanchez, lists ex-Barcelona star Hristo Stoichkov and United States legend Brian McBride as his favourite former players for the Fire.
Fans in America often hold views similar to that of many of those in Britain; especially fans of provincial clubs. Johnathan Kaszynski could easily have been trying to talk someone into watching St. Mirren over Santos when, asked why he supported Chicago Fire, he said: “They’re my local team, simple as that. I can never understand the Americans who will watch European leagues on television but don’t want to watch a game in their own city, and there are a lot of soccer fans like that in Chicago.”
International football also plays a big part in creating new fans for the Fire. Nearly everyone I spoke to cited national teams (USA & Mexico mostly) as being something which influenced their love of football and of their club. Chris Mendoza grew up watching Mexican soccer with his father and really grew into a fan of the game during the 2002 World Cup. It was a few years later before he discovered his hometown side, and in 2007 Mexican star Blanco rolled up in Bridgeview. When asked about his favourite moment supporting Chicago Fire: “When I went to see Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s presentation to the club’s fans (over 5,000 showed up). I went with my dad and cousins. It was a big deal to me because I came to my own in soccer in 2002 during the World Cup, and he was the reason. I thought that he was a fantastic player, and he also lead me to become a Club America (MX) fan, who I also still support today. The man was just a genius on the ball.”
Fans can see some of the problems with MLS’ enforced parity between clubs. Ken Fanale, a 40-year soccer fan, said: “It is difficult too in the US (to be the best) because the league allocates players and there is a strict cap. Teams are not free to really bring in who they want and players can’t easily choose where they want to go.”
There might be a new hero on the horizon though for long suffering Fire fans. Newly-appointed captain Matt Polster has something of a cult following amongst fans. The defender/midfielder is still only 22 but has recently been called up to Jurgen Klinsmann’s US national squad and has impressed in his appearances for the Fire so far. Chris Mendoza told me about a moment after the recent draw with bitter rivals Columbus Crew: “After the game against the Crew, Paunovic, our coach, grabbed Matt Polster and walked around waving at the supporters while also giving him indications of on the field action. I love that Polster is coming into his own, and that he’s our side’s captain. I almost feel like it’s his birthright and I’m glad we will be part of this new era with him.”
In spite all the lows of the last few years, fans in Chicago remain devoted to their team. There may be some more gallows humour than in years gone by, but there is always a silver lining although with a second professional side looking to begin play in Chicago within the next few years, the Fire will need to start showing continued signs of improvement if they want to stop fans defecting to their new proposed neighbours. (There will be more about the curious phenomenon of fans’ changing teams soon). For now though they have Chicagoland all to themselves.
Next time we’ll be heading to the Rose City, the home of reigning MLS Cup champions Portland Timbers, and a lumberjack named Joey.