By Ridge Mahoney
It’s been nearly a decade and a half since the Chicago Fire last played in MLS Cup, and its
struggle for relevance in the league and its city could be poised for a dramatic turnaround.
It has already staked a claim in the Eastern Conference by hovering at or near the top along
with Toronto FC and New York City FC, two teams with much less history but very strong squads. By signing former German international Bastian Schweinsteiger
to supplement an already potent
lineup, the Fire has added some star power to rival the big names that light up its past: Peter Nowak
, Ante Razov
, Brian McBride
, Hristo Stoichkov
, Cuauhtemoc Blanco
and, yes, Eric Wynalda
In its 20th season, Chicago has yet to cast off the stigma of falling back into the pack after winning the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double as an
expansion team in 1998, and losing to Kansas City (2000) and San Jose (2003) in its only other appearances in the final.
Since that loss to the Quakes in Home Depot Center (now StubHub
Center), which had opened earlier that year, the Fire has moved to its own soccer-specific facility, Toyota Park, in suburban Bridgeview. The move, prior to the 2006 season, has been blamed for a drop
in interest as well as attendance, but the numbers do not support this assertion.
Chicago set its average-attendance record (17,788) in its inaugural season, and in only three seasons since has
drawn more than 17,000 per game at any of the three venues it has used: Soldier Field (1998-2001, 2003-2005), Cardinal Stadium in suburban Naperville (2002, 2003), and Toyota Park (since 2006).
Its best average attendance (16,407 in 2012) in the last decade dovetails with its last appearance in the MLS Cup playoffs. A meager crowd of 10,923 came out to see the Fire lose to eventual
MLS Cup finalist, Houston, in the Knockout Round, 2-1.
So far this season, its average crowd of 16,410 is nearly identical to the 2012 figure, attained by a team with much less luster
than the current version, which features MLS leading scorer Nemanja Nikolic
(16 goals), exciting winger David Accam
(12 goals), and workhorse veteran Dax McCarty
as well as
Schweinsteiger. Attendance has increased only slightly from last year’s mark of 15,602.
The fans, soured by several subpar seasons, are starting to get behind this exciting,
talented team. Cracking as competitive a sports market as Chicago was never going to be a snap but most of that early momentum eroded a long time ago. After two decades, the Fire can only inspire its
following by winning, and not just games or Open Cups (of which it has four), but by consistently challenging for the MLS Cup title.
The city of the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and
White Sox is not likely to fully embrace an MLS team. The soccer audience, however comprised, has been enraptured only fitfully and never over a significant period of time.
MLS teams in
other markets -- D.C. United, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Orlando, Toronto, Montreal, Atlanta -- tapped into a solid fan base quickly, and other teams -- Sporting
Kansas City, L.A. Galaxy, San Jose -- grew their band of supporters over time.
In the nation’s third-largest market, Chicago is 18th of the 22 MLS teams in attendance, and though
the city is a tough sell and smaller-market teams often have the advantage of fewer pro competitors, the Fire ranks among the league’s most disappointing under-achievers. Even as shrewd and
popular an executive as Peter Wilt
, general manager from 1997 to 2005 and a member of the “Ring of Fire,” could not generate consistently large crowds.
before the Fire moved into its own facility and for a decade the team lacked a GM as succession of club presidents came and went. Former league executive Nelson Rodriguez
took the job in
After two dismal seasons during which the Fire won 15 of 68 games and twice finished last in the Eastern Conference, it has a squad of talented, accomplished players who
are worth paying money to see.
Average attendances in the mid-teens is sufficient for most MLS teams to keep financial losses manageable. Yet in the eyes of many fans its only in the last
few years that team owner Andrew Hauptmann
really got serious about putting together a team that could challenge for the league title. He has no hope of consistently drawing sellout crowds
(capacity 20,000) otherwise.
By adding a second team in New York, returning to the South, setting up shop in Eastern Canada and finding a foothold in Philadelphia, MLS has greatly
diversified its Eastern Conference portfolio since 2010. Miami as the next piece continues that process.
Chicago can't squander any more time. The big-market team is on the clock.