By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (July 30, 2014) US Soccer Players – Once upon a time under a previous ownership, previous general manger, previous coach, and previous stadium, the Chicago Fire was arguably the best club in MLS. They were the first expansion darlings, winning the MLS Cup and US Open Cup double in their debut season
Those early Chicago Fire teams also, and perhaps inadvertently, showed how to play against the limits of MLS. The single-entity system’s fear of free agency didn’t stop Chicago from showing up other MLS teams.
Chicago recruited talented players at an alarming rate through mechanisms designed not to help them. At best, the 1998 expansion class would get journeymen players, no true prodigies, and maybe a couple of good draft picks. Instead, the Chicago Fire became the best at taking castoffs from other MLS clubs and showing that those players were really stars.
Playing at yet another repurposed NFL stadium, the Fire couldn’t control ticket scarcity, dates, and revenue in ways that only soccer-specificity could fix. It got worse before it got better. Renovations at Soldier Field and a lack of cooperation from one of the city’s baseball teams forced the Fire into two seasons in the far suburbs of Chicago. MLS was having trouble selling tickets in general. Playing in a small college stadium in a place most city fans had never heard of didn’t help the Fire.
They still won. This is vintage Chicago Fire soccer after all. Even the full season in Naperville was a playoff year. What they weren’t doing was collecting MLS Cups. Once the stadium situation corrected with a move back to new Soldier Field and eventually to their own stadium in Bridgeview, something had changed with the Fire.
Chicago might have added a few US Open Cups to the trophy case, but they weren’t winning league titles. The last time the Chicago Fire made the MLS Cup final was in 2003, a transition year between Naperville and new Soldier Field. They won the Supporters’ Shield and the US Open Cup. It was their 6th season in MLS.
Since 2003, the Fire missed the playoffs entirely four times. They had a run of three out of four Conference finals from 2005-09, finishing second in the East in 08 and 09. Since 2010, they’ve never been better than 4th in the East.
Winning early creates its own problems, and Chicago is still working through decisions made years ago. They’re doing it in full view of a fan base with a long memory.
Right now, they’re a team in the wrong half of the Eastern Conference trying for a revival under a new coach and a new system. So far, the results are mixed. Frank Yallop has had issues rebuilding once great teams before. His time in charge of the LA Galaxy didn’t go well. Yallop has considerably more influence on the on-field product in Chicago than he did in LA, but what happened late in his run with the San Jose Earthquakes still looms. The Earthquakes went from a 1st-place team with the MLS leading scorer in 2012 to a 6th-place team with Yallop dismissed midway through the 2013 season.
There’s a way to look at the situation in Chicago as one that just takes time. Unfortunately, time and the Chicago Fire turns season after season into missed opportunities. The Fire was the losing team in the knockout round in 2012, their first playoff appearance since 2009. They missed the playoffs last season.
Maybe, there’s an argument that picking out 2014 in the first year of a new coach/director of soccer isn’t exactly fair. The old days of the Chicago Fire are just that. 2009 was a long time ago in MLS terms. So why hold the Fire to a standard other once strong MLS teams now also struggle to match?
In part, it’s because the moves the Fire made to get to soccer-specificity, individual ownership, and bringing in quality players was supposed to build on their early success rather than cap it. This is a team that built itself on integrating established international caliber players with young talent. Its early success builds on players that should be in an MLS Hall of Fame. There’s a strong case that the modern version of a successful MLS club builds on the model created in Chicago.
Right now, every season that passes without success is another block of time to stick between what Chicago got right and what they’re getting wrong. It’s an excuse for collective amnesia about how good a soccer club Chicago was. At some point, and it might have already passed, it’s going to be too late to reconnect to that heritage.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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