What is “normal”?
This past week, the Chicago Fire announced that fans will be allowed into the stadium starting with the Home Opener on April 17th. This is one of those signs that we’ve been seeing that things are slowly trying to go back to “normal” after over a year of anxiety and isolation. But for Fire fans, even this small glimpse of hope is undercut with a realization that the home opener won’t be a return to normal like the rest of the league. Since fans have last been to a game, the team has moved stadiums, rebranded, and made wholesale changes to the roster. Any level of comfort acquired from a return to Fire games seems to be counteracted by these changes finally hitting a year later than initially expected.
The phrase “Return to Normalcy” was coined by Warren G. Harding in the 1920 election to express a desire for America to return to life as normal before World War I and their own global pandemic. But for the Fire, returning to normalcy should obviously mean something different and soccer related. The Fire had been one of the top teams in MLS from its first season back in 1998 all the way to a certain point where something changed and the path diverged from the expected “normal” that the team would be successful to the inscrutable and confusing state that it’s in now. So how can the club return to that “normal”? Well, to figure that out, we need to decide when that divergence happened. I have three possible points.
The most recent point we can go back to is the 2017 season. The 2017 season was an anomaly compared to the rest of the Fire’s recent history. After such an amazing season filled with highlights from new Designated Players Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger, it ended with something more embarrassing than a whimper: a 4-0 loss at home in the Fire’s first playoff game since 2012. After all that buildup in 2017, 2018 saw an immediate drop back down into the depths from which the club believed it had risen from. The turning point in the season seemed to be the July 22 match where the Fire lost to an NYCFC team that was playing with 10 men from the 12th minute onwards. But, as I already said, 2017 was an anomaly. Which means that the Fire came off the rails much earlier.
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Our next stop on this train back in time is November 15, 2009. This was the date that the Fire lost the Eastern Conference final to… a Western Conference team? Early MLS is weird. After playing a whole 120 minutes at home, the game remained scoreless and was sent penalties. There, we can see another set of club legends step and try to stop the march of history: Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Brian McBride, and CJ Brown all converted on their penalties. But in the end, Nick Rimando and Real Salt Lake were given the win. Following this season, coach Andy Herron was fired for not producing results. Blanco would be let go, along with long-time players like Gonzalo Segares, Chris Rolfe, Justin Mapp, and Jon Busch. But there are many who believe that this team was simply one that coasted off of the well-built structure that was already there for years. So we need to go further.
September 27th, 2006. The last time the Chicago Fire even touched silverware. This is the last time the Fire were on top of the soccer world, winning the US Open Cup 3-1 at a brand new Toyota Park (now SeatGeek Stadium). To put it a bit too romantically, this was the end of the age of heroes in Chicago. In just 9 seasons, the Fire had won 6 trophies and was established as one of the top teams in MLS. The next year, long-time goalkeeper Zach Thornton was traded to Colorado. The coach, Dave Sarachan, was fired early in the season and by the end of 2007, the team was sold to Andell Holdings. To many, that sale was the beginning of the end of the club’s time at the top. Soon after, even with the final AEG signing of Cuauhtémoc Blanco, most of the Fire’s original players would be gone, either retired or removed.
Now, I just brought up three separate moments in time that the Chicago Fire last felt “normal”. So what do all of those situations have in common? Well, each point had some key player that everyone rallied around. 2017 had Basti, 2009 had Blanco, and 2006 still had captain Chris Armas. In writing this article and researching these moments, I’d hoped to glean something new that I hadn’t noticed before. But it seems to all go back to leadership and building an identity. The identities that had been built up in each of those seasons was strong. 2017’s failure was when coach Veljko Paunovic began tinkering with the strategy. 2009’s failure was when multiple players and a head coach were jettisoned after a loss on penalties. And 2006’s failure, as tired as it sounds, was when the club was handed over to new management.
Every turning point in the club’s history, every time there’s been a sharp turn downward, it can be tracked back to some sort of change in identity. So for a team that is still reeling from another massive change in identity, maybe Chicago Fire fans shouldn’t expect much out of the coming couple of seasons. But there’s still time, the team now can still learn from the mistakes of the past and finally get back to the heights the club reached in the past. What can the Fire do now?
To be honest, not much. Chicago Fire head coach Raphael Wicky has stated that he does not plan on any more signings, though he will make decisions as situations pop up. And despite the lack of turnover from last season, the team as it is right now doesn’t really have many of the key components that made teams of the past work. In fact, it is much more similar to the teams of the past that didn’t work. There’s a severe lack of a strong vocal leader and veteran players with MLS experience. But maybe with this approach, Wicky and GM Georg Heitz might be avoiding the panic buying of the previous failures, instead focusing on developing their own future veterans.
In the end, “normal” is an illusion for the Chicago Fire and going back to the past is impossible, even if they’re going back to their original home stadium. The original logo is now lost to the shelves of “vintage team gear” and the old ways of team-building in MLS have changed drastically. It may be time to stop thinking about the Fire in terms of “returning to normal” and start thinking of the Fire as a constantly changing team with a focus on changing for the better this time.