By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 13, 2016) US Soccer Players – When Peter Wilt gets involved in the launch of a soccer club in the Midwest, it’s best to take notice. The man who most famously built and ran the Chicago Fire during their early years in MLS is moving on from his position at the top of the Indy Eleven organization. That’s another club he built. His next stop is a rather momentous challenge.
Per an announcement by Indy Eleven, Wit will be joining a group whose goal is to bring a North American Soccer League franchise to the city of Chicago. Further, the group hopes to build a 20,000-seat venue for their proposed team within the city limits. These are ambitious goals that say much about Wilt’s commitment to soccer in his hometown of Chicago, the NASL’s desire to stake a claim to major American markets, and the relative failures of the Chicago Fire.
If the Fire were a hit in Chicago, there’d at least be some hesitation over whether a second team in a lower division could work in the same city. The Chicago metropolitan area is massive, home to more than 9 million people, but this is still the selling of soccer in America. The notion that it’s a good idea to swim upstream not just against the prevailing cultural current but another team with a bigger budget in a higher profile, well-established league is a strange one to say the least. There must be the vision of a massive gap between the Fire and the city’s soccer adherents on the part of Wilt and his partners if they’re willing to make the effort.
Without Wilt, there’d be plenty of reason to be skeptical of the NASL’s desire to stake a claim in Chicago. With him, there’s plenty of reason to think the first part of the plan to put a team in Soldier Field and draw crowds of 10,000 or more might actually come off. That alone would be a victory of sorts. The NASL would have a strong team in the country’s third largest market and a major media hub, not to mention cutting into Major League Soccer’s long-established turf. If NASL has designs of taking MLS head-on for the right to be a first division competition, there’s no better way to prove such a thing is possible than to succeed in the same city as an MLS franchise.
What about the Fire? While much of the problems facing the club currently are self-inflicted, it’s important to point out that they’re a victim of some unfortunate timing. That includes two seasons in the suburbs either side of sharing an NFL stadium. Jumping at the chance to build in Bridgeview made complete sense at the time, making the hindsight with which we view the decision somewhat pointless.
The club has a fine stadium that is unfortunately isolated from most of Chicago and its soccer fans. Even a winning team at that location might have trouble making a mark on the region because of the geographical realities. Marketing against the problem of being on the fringe can’t be easy, even if it’s clear the Fire have to do better where they are.
Whether it’s their intention or not, the success or failure of the NASL effort in Chicago by Wilt’s group will serve as a referendum for the NASL’s future plans. Within the same 24-hour news cycle that included Wilt’s departure for the Chicago project, the league announced that the Atlanta Silverbacks will not play in 2016. That news likely means that the Silverbacks, at least as an NASL entry, will never play again. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s NASL franchise is also dead, though the league will have new teams in Miami, Puerto Rico, and Oklahoma City this season. All that change doesn’t convey a sense of stability, even if the NASL does come out ahead by a team going into the new campaign. The league is simultaneously making noise about restraint of trade and a desire to compete directly with MLS for the top division crown in the United States and Canada.
As the NASL targets a new team in Chicago, led by one of American soccer’s foremost builder of new soccer franchises, the bigger questions facing the sport’s growth in this part of the world pop up again. Is competition the crucible from which the sport will emerge stronger? Or does multiple teams in multiple leagues in the same cities risk the type of “soccer wars” mentality that has too often undercut soccer in the United States? Again, this is not a place where the sport has ever thrived for more than a few decades at a time before things go wrong. With that history in mind, it feels risky to have multiple competitions going up directly against one another for the (somewhat) limited amount of soccer fans and entertainment dollars.
Then again, Chicago is a big place. MLS and the NASL are coexisting fairly well in New York. Maybe starting up a new team in Chicago, especially if it can grow into the sort of success that MLS once chased in the city but may not be able to achieve now. In a soccer future that includes some sort of cooperation between the currently antagonistic leagues, two teams in Chicago wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.
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