Chicago Fire in the 2010s: A Decade of Failure

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 09: A general view of SeatGeek Stadium is seen during a MLS match between the Chicago Fire and Orlando City on March 09, 2019 at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 09: A general view of SeatGeek Stadium is seen during a MLS match between the Chicago Fire and Orlando City on March 09, 2019 at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The 2010s were a decade of failure for the Chicago Fire. Why was that? And what is being done to prevent the 2020s going the same direction?

Success in sports isn’t always measured in trophies. Sometimes, there are other factors, other metrics you can look at. How many overall wins, playoff appearances, even attendance figures and general fan demeanor can be different parts of the puzzle to determine club success. For the Chicago Fire, no matter what angle you take, this past decade has been a complete and utter failure.

After their last playoff win in 2009, the Fire have seen a sharp decline from one of the most formidable teams in the country to the laughing stock of MLS. With the 2010s coming to an end, this is a good moment to take a look at the past decade and try to see what it tells us about the next one. So, let’s see what caused this massive decline, where the team is currently, and the outlook for the future of the Chicago Fire.


On November 14th, 2009, some time after 9:00 PM local time, Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake saved Brandon Prideaux’s penalty. The Chicago Fire lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third season in a row. But that was okay, they’d be back.

They wouldn’t be back.

Following that season, the team was essentially dismantled. Coach Dennis Hamlett was fired, legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco was allowed to walk, fan favorite goalkeeper Jon Busch was waived, and the promising Chris Rolfe was sold to Denmark. The team was remade by new coach Carlos De Los Cobos, but his big-ticket signings made very little noise. One name exemplifies this era: Nery Castillo. Many players were shuttled into Chicago with large fanfare, but none lasted very long. Soon enough, in 2011, only six players from the entire ’09 squad were left. The Fire would stumble into the decade, but didn’t seem too far off from success.

HARRISON, NJ – JUNE 28: Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic talks with Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (31) during the Major League Soccer game between the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls on June 28, 2019 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
HARRISON, NJ – JUNE 28: Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic talks with Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (31) during the Major League Soccer game between the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls on June 28, 2019 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

After barely missing out on the playoffs, new coach Frank Klopas was able to lead the team into the wildcard game in 2012. Despite being at home, the Fire lost to the Houston Dynamo. The 2013 season then saw the Chicago Fire bring in Mike Magee, who would end up winning MVP that season but still miss the playoffs after a 5-2 loss in New Jersey to end the season. Klopas was sacked and in came Frank Yallop.

The decade hadn’t even reached the halfway mark and the Fire had hired three different coaches. After four seasons of looking like they were just a bit unlucky, things finally came to a head in 2014. The Yallop-led Chicago Fire would shatter the MLS record for the most ties in a season with 18. In 2015, the Fire would earn their first ‘Wooden Spoon’, finishing in last place out of all 20 teams in the league. In 2016, after hiring new coach Veljko Paunovic, they’d go back to back with the Wooden Spoon and finish 20th out of 20 again.

2017 provided a much-needed mirage. After signing German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger in March, the Fire sat on top of the league at the beginning of July. Things felt different. Then the team would only pick up four points out of their next eight games. After what seemed to be a miraculous season, the floor fell out from under them. They still made the playoffs and had a home game. They would lose that game 4-0 to the New York Red Bulls.

The Fire would fall right back to earth in 2018, finishing 20th out of 23 and then 17th of 24 in 2019. The momentum provided by Schweinsteiger’s arrival quickly fell away after his first season. What seemed like a recovery from that early stumble soon proved to just be a dead cat bounce that meant nothing. After buying the Chicago Fire back in 2007, Andrew Hauptman sold the club to local billionaire Joe Mansueto near the end of the 2019 season, his era define by one word: decline.


Here the Chicago Fire stand. With a new owner, a new logo, a new GM, and a new head coach. With how thin the roster is, 2020 will see many new players, including three open DP slots for whoever comes in. And it will occur at a new home. After all of the past decade was set in Toyota Park/SeatGeek Stadium, this decade will start back in Soldier Field.

Much has been said about the new owner. He seems to have an interest in bringing the club back to prominence. He has got funds backing him and he is willing to dish them out, as seen by the amount he spent to get out of the Bridgeview lease. He seems to have said all the right things going into November. He loved the name, he wanted to reconnect with the roots of the club, and he even bought the 2020 Season Tickets for the original season ticket holders. But there was one thing that had been looming over the club all year that just wouldn’t leave anyone alone.

On November 21st, 2019, the bombshell dropped. While not fully rebranding as previous reports suggested, the Chicago Fire changed their main colors and their logo and added an “FC” to the end of the name. I’ve spoken at length about the logo and the discussion around it is stale at this point, but it still holds meaning in this retrospective of the past decade. That decade of failure deteriorated the reputation of the club. It attached the label of ‘losers’ to the previous logo. To the club, changing the logo was their chance to show that the team had moved to a fresh start, erasing the failure that was the 2010s. To the fans, by changing the logo, it felt like this new one was a new representation of the 2010s, filled with all the ridicule and anger that grew and festered within the fan base over that time frame.

But the blank slate was somewhat accomplished. After firing Paunovic and appointing Sporting Director Georg Heitz and Head Coach Raphael Wicky, the 2020 season appears wide open. Even the 2019-2020 offseason still seems wide open, with only two signings being announced since the season ended in October: Alvaro Medran and homegrown Nicolas Slonina. All three DP slots are open and most of the biggest names on the team are no longer there. Dax McCarty was traded to Nashville, Bastian Schweinsteiger retired, and all three previous DPs, Nico Gaitan, Nemanja Nikolic, and Aleksander Katai, were allowed to walk at the end of their contracts.

So far, the offseason has been filled with rumors flying around about new signings, yet none have come to fruition. With Heitz and Wicky finally on board, there is hope that things will change very quickly. Both have a previous working relationship from working together at FC Basel in Switzerland. There, Heitz proved to have been a great identifier of talent. The question for them remains whether they can work around the MLS restrictions on roster building. But if they are able to, perhaps that eye for talent can turn the Chicago Fire roster into a capable one.


The real question that everyone has right now is what will become of the Chicago Fire going into the next decade. Just like in 2017, there seems to have been a short moment in September of this past year where things felt different. A new owner, the promise of Soldier Field next year, the dream of new management. But in just three short months, that optimism has soured. Most of it comes from the resentment over the new logo. And the change of logo has alienated supporters a little.

This brings up the next big challenge: integrating new fans. While moving to Soldier Field in itself won’t really mean anything if the team is no good, there is still a strong chance that there will be a large number of new fans showing up to games for the first time. The last five years in the Chicago Fire supporters’ base have been marred with antagonism. In-fighting between different factions of supporters and multiple clashes with the front office have been at the forefront of what was once a vibrant supporters’ culture.

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After speaking with many of the leaders, I can see a definite split between the two factions. On one side, there are people who just want to support their local team; on the other, there are those who are worried about the tradition of the club dying out due to the previous decade’s failures. The problem is that there seems to be no drive to find a synthesis between the sides.

That doesn’t even take into account the general uncertainty of the roster at the moment. In the last decade, we saw the end of the leadership of players like CJ Brown and Logan Pause who only ever played for the Fire. There were players that rose up who appeared like they would take the place as similar types of leaders. Guys like Mike Magee, Jeff Larentowicz, Harry Shipp, Matt Polster, Dax McCarty. All of them were eventually traded away.

Now, it’s uncertain who will wear the armband going into 2020 and it’s even harder to imagine that the same person will wear it in 2021. The amount of turnover that was seen in the last decade was astonishing but at times understandable. If a team isn’t winning, you need to change things. But there also appeared to be a lack of loyalty to locals, players like Shipp, like Joey Calistri and Drew Conner, guys who are cheap and provide solid depth while also connecting the club itself to the community around it. We saw one of the best generations within the Fire academy go almost completely to waste with some players even refusing to play for the club. It seems like the academy has hit its own reset button, but will they also question the club’s loyalty to its own homegrowns?

In the end, the future remains what it always has been: a mystery. For the Chicago Fire, the short-term future is obviously concerning. With Nelson Rodriguez appearing to still be involved in decision making for the club and the club now shackled with arguably the worst logo in American sports, massive moves are required for 2020 to be a successful season. For the distant future however, things might work out. If Heitz can show off his eye for talent and brings in young players who will go on to be stars elsewhere in the world, the Fire name might mean something again.

If the Chicago Fire want to truly erase the failure of the 2010s, they must achieve atonement in the 2020s. And not just to fans, but to former players that have been tossed aside and blackballed by the club. People who have been hurt by the actions of the club. Fans that were banned for no reason, coaches that were denied their coaching licenses, young players that were robbed of their chance to develop. Much of the reason why the Fire fanbase appears so toxic is due to an anger and resentment that they feel left out of everything. The entire league is expanding. Other teams are truly building something. MLS is bigger and bolder than ever before. While the Chicago Fire fans feel separated, distant, outside of their club.

dark. Next. USWNT: Team of the Decade

2020 is not just the start of a new year, it is not just the start of a new decade, it is very much the start of a new era for the Chicago Fire. And that is a great responsibility indeed. Can they get it right?