By Ridge Mahoney
Preseason isn't even a week old, and already the Fire is well out in front as the most intriguing team in MLS. There's Mexican coach Carlos de los Cobos, and Mexican international and perhaps former Fire midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and another midfielder, Julio Martinez, who is Salvadoran yet arrives on loan from Mexican club Leon, which has personal and professional ties to Fire and Andell Sports Group managing director Javier Leon, no relation.
Last April, the Fire announced it had formed a partnership with Club America, which is based in Mexico City, which is where Leon was born and is the club he grew up supporting. In addition to playing friendlies and sharing marketing strategies, the partnership gives Chicago the opportunity to bring Club America players to the Fire on loan. No such deals have yet been done, but opening day is still more than a month away.
The press release announcing Martinez's signing contained a curious reference, that it was part of a "package deal." The question is: are other parts of that package destined to cross the border, either from Leon or Club America? And is the strategy to simply reach deeper into Chicago's large Mexican population for attendance and marketing purposes, or perhaps one day attract Mexican investment in the Fire to more fully exploit the huge potential audience that the Blanco signing tapped into?
Both of Chicago's home playoff matches last year sold out Toyota Park and the noisy, colorful environment generated by the fans had a definite Mexican feel. If it could somehow lure Blanco back, and de los Cobos proves he can win games in MLS, the team might be quite attractive to potential Mexican investors, if not outright owners.
Years ago, in the wake of Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara's decision to fund an expansion team in MLS, league officials conducted extensive talks with representatives of Televisa, the Mexican media conglomerate that counts among its holdings Club America. After more than a year of occasional references by Commissioner Don Garber to Guadalajara's archrival possibly also setting up shop in the United States with a team, Las Aquilas faded out of the picture. There was even scuttlebutt of Club America starting up a second MLS team in Chicago.
Leon left Chivas USA as it was trying to re-brand itself as a multicultural team of the people, as opposed to its glamorous co-tenant at Home Depot Center. The jettisoning of head coach Preki, the hiring of Martin Vasquez, and a growing Mexican contingent on the Chivas USA roster seems to signal a shift back to Vergara's original plan of stamping Guadalajara's tradition and identity into MLS.
During the reign of former general manager Peter Wilt, the Fire formed a partnership with another Mexican club, Morelia. That association petered out after Anschutz Entertainment Group fired Wilt and hired John Guppy to take his place. Andell Holdings finalized a deal to buy the Fire in July, 2007; Guppy, who had spent months negotiating the deal to bring Blanco to Chicago, left the following April, with Leon taking over as interim president and GM.
Blanco's club status for the second half of 2010 is up in the air. He's with Mexican 1A (Second Division) club Veracruz, and not yet known is which jersey, if any, he'll be wearing in July. He went on loan to Santos after the 2008 MLS season, but he's not bound to MLS at this point; his contract expired in December and he went to Veracruz as a free agent. He is still listed on the Fire roster posted on the club's Web site.
Not all of the fresh influences on the Fire come from south of the border. Naturalized Dutch attacker Collins John is a native of Liberia, who is just 24 yet seems to have already burned through a few bridges in England if not the entire European continent, has joined the club in Arizona for the first phase of preseason training. He, too, has had some issues regarding temperament and attitude and fitness.
A Blanco-John partnering would be fascinating if it ever came to pass. Yet the Fire, with a growing Mexican influence, is worth watching closely nonetheless.