Chicago Fire Anniversary: 23 years of an amazing community

Chicago Fire. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago Fire. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Fire celebrate a milestone of 23 years that’s all about an amazing community

This week the Chicago Fire Football Club celebrates their 23rd Anniversary. On October 8th, 1997 at Navy Pier, the founder, and original GM Peter Wilt announced the name of the club. It was a name that was based in the history of Chicago, an event that spurred on a great rebirth and revival that would turn it into the city that it is today. Now, 23 years later, Chicago Fire FC is still seeking its own rebirth and revival.

When going through the general history of Major League Soccer, much of the early history of the league is looked at through a fairly narrow lens: DC United’s early dominance, the rise of Landon Donovan in San Jose, and the subsequent creation of the LA Galaxy juggernaut that would eventually bring in David Beckham to begin the DP Era of the league that we know now. However, the general league perspective of the early 2000s and the Chicago Fire perspective are two very different things.

As early MLS struggled to find its footing in both player development and international signings, it was the Chicago Fire who stood out with a team that could deliver on both fronts. The most perfect example of this came in 2000. Only two seasons into the team’s existence, Wilt and then-coach Bob Bradley were able to put together a team that included not only a Ballon D’Or winner in Hristo Stoichkov and possibly the best Polish player of that era in Piotr Nowak.

The Chicago Fire continue to create great moments for their community

The team included enough great young domestic talent that by the time DaMarcus Beasley retired, there was a collective total of 405 USMNT caps among all of these players’ careers (and a total of 48 goals scored for the USMNT). Despite not winning the MLS Cup that year, it had to be considered among one of the greatest squads ever assembled in MLS.

But since that time, MLS changed. And so did the Chicago Fire. While MLS trended upwards after 2007 with the beginning of the league’s rapid expansion, the Fire wouldn’t see the same sort of trajectory. After MLS changed the rules of the league to bring Beckham to LA, Chicago would instantly take advantage of the rule themselves, taking legendary Mexican player Cuauhtemoc Blanco as the second Designated Player in history.

This move would continue to hold the team over as one of the top clubs in America until his exit in 2010. While US Open Cup champions just the year before in 2006, the Fire would not lift any real silverware during the Blanco era, nor have they won anything since.

The decline of the Chicago Fire since 2009 is a fairly complicated and ultimately sad story. Many fans gave up on the club as the team first struggled to make the playoffs, then struggled to avoid last place. Some fans found a place of dark humor within the struggle and created a new MLS trophy for the team to win: The Wooden Spoon, awarded to the last place team in the league.

The Fire would be the first team to earn the Wooden Spoon twice, as well as the first to earn it back-to-back. And despite a solid showing in 2017 got them their first home playoff game since 2012, things would only fall apart again. the year after. So why would any fan stay with this team?

The culture around the Chicago Fire is honestly one that could very well get a deep dive similar to that of “Sunderland Til I Die” or the recent Seattle Mariners docu-series from Jon Bois and SB Nation. Each of these chapters in Fire history that I mentioned have their own specific inciting factors that brought in so many of these loyal fans.

In the early years, it was Peter Wilt himself, the GM who was nicknamed the club’s “First Fan,” who found ways to bring fans closer to the club. I could go on and on just about him and the way he approached the club’s relationship to its fans, but there’s just so much. He created a truly unique environment around the early years of the Chicago Fire that could probably never happen in the world of sports anymore.

He would be at every tailgate with the supporters, he’d be in the stands with the supporters singing along, and he would consistently create events that would bring supporters closer to the club. It became a family, not just for the supporters, but for members of staff as well. There are some fans who are to this day friends with former players because of the relationships developed through this environment.

Despite Wilt’s controversial dismissal in 2005, the structure he put in place for the Chicago Fire was continued through the Blanco years, where a massive influx of new fans found a community that already felt like it had been around forever. At this time, Toyota Park, now SeatGeek Stadium, was almost constantly filled and the club was growing.

Section 8, the designated Supporters’ End, spanned out for eight sections with multiple “capo stands” in the stairwells for leading chants. Then in 2010, the wheels started coming off the bus for the club. The team lost its major star and started losing. By 2013, things started to look dire. But something amazing happened to the fan base. It didn’t die. It evolved.

With the Chicago Fire’s decline over the years, many of the older fans began getting disenchanted with the club. Most of them stopped going to games, some even just stopped watching the club completely. But a small core remained, a core that didn’t weaken with the club’s own weakening play on the pitch.

A core that was built upon throughout the “good years” that somehow found a way to not only continue, but rebuild through a disappointing time in club history. And while completely illogical, I think that I understand how it happened. It wasn’t about a winning team drawing in those interested in the game, it was about a community growing closer through hardship.

I was born in 1999. My parents were original season ticket holders back in 1998 and so I grew up around the club and its supporter’s culture. Due to the environment created in those early days, I was able to meet my heroes very often from a very young age. But for the longest time, the Chicago Fire was simply just a fun weekly-ish event we’d go to as a family.

I loved soccer and they were my favorite team, but I didn’t really care about the team’s play on the field because they were always good back then. I didn’t truly start putting real effort into following the club until the team got worse. Around 2013, I started to take more of an interest in how the club could be fixed to the point that I began writing articles on the team when I was just 16. The Fire was no longer a comfort blanket, but a call to action.

Until last season, whenever the Fire’s Anniversary would come around, I would always focus on the talk about those good old days. While I was too young to remember a lot of it, I would always be around people who had incredible stories about the games at Cardinal Stadium in Naperville while Soldier Field was being rebuilt.

I would feed into that culture of reminiscing about those early days of the club. But last season, the Chicago Fire played their final regular-season game at SeatGeek Stadium. I stuck around after the game, to simply be in the stadium for a little while longer since it was the end of the season, and I noticed others getting emotional about leaving SeatGeek. Then it hit me: This is the story of the Chicago Fire that no one tells.

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In the same way, as I spoke about the Chicago Fire’s almost hidden history in the early days of MLS, the same could be said about the supporter culture surrounding the Fire in the past decade.

Many of the most vocal Fire supporters view it through a lens of floundering attendance, painful on-field performances, and a combative relationship with the front office.

However, that ignores the simple miracle of survival. No matter how bad things got, somehow the club was able to find new people who were willing to give up their time, energy, and love for a team that they only knew to be garbage.

It’s a testament to the supporter culture that was developed around the club from the very beginning that it was able to not only withstand annihilation but adapt to the new normal and grow again.

However, there is one conversation that needs to be had about the Chicago Fire on their 23rd anniversary: The rebranding that was announced in November of 2019 and executed for the 2020 season. At a time for reminiscing about the club’s past and history, it’s jarring to see this new imagery that has still not fully become familiar to most of the fan base.

The arguments about the badge have raged on for almost a year now and whether or not the majority of the fan base approves of the badge, it’s hard to deny that it feels like there’s this disconnect between the first 22 years and this past one. Things could’ve been different though.

Just months prior to the rebranding, the Chicago Fire felt a shock of energy for the first time in a very long time. On September 13th, 2019, news broke that Chicago-native Joe Mansueto had bought the final 51% of the club from Andrew Hauptman. Long-time supporters of the club who had protested against Hauptman’s ownership for years rejoiced at the new local ownership.

Their excitement trickled its way out to fans who had lost faith, now interested to see what this new direction could mean for this team they had once cared so strongly for. With a move to Soldier Field, 2020 was really gearing up to be an amazing culmination of new and old fans finally coming back together for a potentially good team. Unfortunately, a global pandemic halted those plans; but there’s still hope for a return.

So on this holy day for Chicago Fire supporters, I think that’s the takeaway. Hope. While the team on the pitch may be going through the same struggles as always, the very fact that the club still exists is an achievement. Even if the badge is different, the fact that it is still “Chicago Fire” should be celebrated.

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Although they are taken for granted, new supporters should be cherished for finding love in a club that they didn’t experience success with. At 23 years of existence, there will now be a growing number of young supporters, similar to myself, who grew up only knowing Chicago soccer. Accept them, welcome them, hope for better times to come.