Chicago Fire: A tale of two stadiums

As the Chicago Fire exit Toyota Park, SeatGeek Stadium and Bridgeview, the supporters look for different ways to cope and reminisce.

The Chicago Fire stadium saga has gone on for a while. But on October 8th it finally came to a close. On the same day as the club’s 22nd anniversary and the 148th anniversary of the fire that the club was named after, an official announcement was made: the Chicago Fire would be playing at Soldier Field for the foreseeable future. But this is not where the story starts or even ends.

The story starts back in 2004, when upon returning to a newly renovated Soldier Field after a couple of seasons at Cardinal Stadium in Naperville, then Chicago Fire General Manager Peter Wilt began to put work into getting a soccer-specific stadium built in the Chicago-land area. Unfortunately, land in Chicago is extremely expensive, and while there were a couple of locations that were possible, they weren’t financially viable. Instead, the decision was made to build the new soccer-specific stadium in Bridgeview, a suburb not too far away from the City of Chicago. The infrastructure wasn’t quite in place to make it a center for soccer, but the plans in place promised a better future. That future never really came.

Nevertheless, the stadium was built. In 2006, it opened to a 3-3 draw against New England, after which the Chicago Fire proceeded to win their next three home games. At this time, Toyota Park was still being paraded around as the latest accomplishment in MLS history. It hosted the MLS All-Star Game that season. For a while, it seemed to be one of the premier stadiums in the league. It was a sign that MLS teams could get their own place to play without having to deal with NFL teams or even MLB teams. Then, Seattle entered the league in 2009 and began selling out in an NFL stadium. It was something unprecedented, considering how hard certain other MLS clubs fought to break out of their own NFL stadiums. Instead, Seattle began to embrace the downtown stadium atmosphere. And because of their success, the rest of MLS began to follow suit.

Toyota Park would see its first and last Chicago Fire trophy in its first season in 2006. After sustaining a solid average attendance around 17,000 for a Cuauhtémoc Blanco-led team, the attendance began to fall massively over the next few years. As the team failed on the pitch, Toyota Park began to empty. As frustrations with the team on the pitch grew, so did frustrations with the pitch itself. The grass seemed to be deteriorating and comments about the travel time and lack of public transportation to and from the city rose. All the apparently agreed developments around the location seemed to die out. Where was the promised water park next to the stadium? Other clubs began to build more and more high-tech training facilities while the Chicago Fire were left with two fenced off soccer pitches out in the parking lot, one grass and one turf.

With the team itself floundering and accusations of attendance number inflation, fans began to dream of getting a better stadium in the city. Potential locations began getting passed around on Twitter. Rumors of development companies interested in creating their own soccer teams sprouted up. It seemed that as an escape from the disappointing displays from the Chicago Fire on the pitch during this time, fans believed that there was a promised land within the downtown area where the team could succeed and win. All they needed to do was get out of Toyota Park.

Finally, one day, they did. With new then minority owner Joe Mansueto backing it, the Chicago Fire broke out of a lease with Bridgeview that was previously described as ‘ironclad’. They paid around $65.5M to not have to play there anymore. That is a stupid amount of money, but it was paid for what was a dream for many supporters. So, the team began gearing up for one final game at Toyota Park, inviting former players to come and say goodbye, as well as some old supporters making the trip out to Bridgeview one last time.

This is where my previous iteration of this story stopped. It appeared as though we would all be saying goodbye to the Bridgeview with happiness. We finally got what we wanted, didn’t we?

That’s not what I saw at that cold, drizzly game on September 29th. Instead of joy, I saw tears. After the game, I stuck around. So did almost half of Section 8. None of us wanted to leave. As it was put to me by one of the old-timers: This was like the last Thanksgiving at your childhood home. It may be completely annoying to get there, it may be out in the middle of nowhere with heavy traffic in the way; but when you’re there, you’re with family. And you go every single time. Some of that family may decide to stop coming over the years, but this is the last time. Everyone is back.

Endings mean different things to different people and thereby elicit different reactions. One of the best ways to understand endings is to look at the beginnings.

For those who came to Toyota Park after seeing the Chicago Fire play in Soldier Field and Cardinal Stadium, Bridgeview was just another stop on the way. But at the same time, it was home for such a long time. It is where the hardest years of the supporters’ soccer-loving lives happened. Toyota Park tested the fortitude of many Fire fans and those who have gone through it have come out the other end with a stronger love for the club than before. This place has meaning to those supporters.

Then there are those who came to the Chicago Fire for the first time at Toyota Park. For them, they don’t know of the Fire in any other place. Change is scary, even if it’s good change. To have found a way to love the club in this space and now have to struggle to find a way to love them in their new location, it’s not fun.

Every single supporter has their own story and their own relationship to the Chicago Fire. For most, it is one of following the club out to Bridgeview, and even to places like Montreal or Columbus. Through long bus rides and a big gravel parking lot, Toyota Park was home. And it will always feel like home.

Shortly after the last game of the season, my dad received an email from the Chicago Fire stating that since he was one of the 68 original season ticket holders who have stuck around this long, he had been invited to an event at Soldier Field on October 8th. When he offered to let me go in his stead, I obviously took it. After walking two miles from Union Station to the giant spaceship on the lake, I was greeted with a small celebration of the team’s return to Soldier Field. With the soccer lines and goals still on the field after the USWNT game only a couple of days before, new owner Joe Mansueto took to the podium to give his goal for the club: To sell out Soldier Field for the first game of the 2020 season.

This event felt much more like I expected that last game to feel. It was a preparation for success. There was a palpable excitement from every single person in attendance, which was mostly supporters from Section 8. It made you forget about what had happened and it made you dream about what was to come. Fans on Twitter were enthralled by the accompanying video and the announcement that those 68 original season ticket holders would be getting their 2020 tickets for free. A new air had truly blown into the Chicago soccer world.

I began thinking about how different it truly was from the final game in Bridgeview. It seemed as though the Chicago Fire would be leaving Toyota Park as a failure but entering Soldier Field as a success. And it was a success that they were able to find their way into this Chicago monument, but somehow something lingered on as they left Toyota Park for the last time.

Later that day, there was a small party at the Chicago Fire’s downtown Pub97 to celebrate the club’s 22nd anniversary. After having a consistent party hosted by the club and a large one hosted by the supporters for the 20th anniversary, there was none for the 21st. This year, it was planned just days before and held only a small contingency of supporters. Even the cake was a struggle to get, with multiple bakeries too busy to provide one before getting just a small one, barely bigger than a sheet of paper.

Many of the supporters who made it to this party were of the pre-Toyota Park variety. One of the biggest concerns that has been brought up is how to pass on the history of the club to the next generation. A whole generation of Chicago Fire fans has been brought up with the club being a losing team. Many have never seen the club win a single trophy, let alone compete for one. With a move to Soldier Field, there are many memories of past wins that come back to these old folk; but the goal now is to pass those memories on to this next generation.

One of the core tenants of the Chicago Fire. It’s this tradition that the Chicago Fire will be drawing from in their marketing for the return to Soldier Field. They will need to rely on the slowly dwindling number of long-time supporters to help continue that narrative, engage with the city, and bring together a better club. Where this will go? It is hard to say. But this entire offseason, on and off the field, will be incredibly scary, exciting, enthralling and teeth-chatteringly nervous, all at once.  For supporters new and old, it begins now, whatever it is.

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