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Soccer Mon Aug 23 2010

Flaming Journal - Chicago Fire

fire crest.jpg
Learning to love something new isn't easy. There's so much risk in putting yourself out there, really opening up to the possibilities of a new relationship--you leave yourself vulnerable to false hopes, inflated expectations, hurt, and disappointment. It's with these anxieties in mind that I make my first wary steps towards supporting the Chicago Fire.

I have been a lifelong soccer fan, regular visitors to the Tailgate section of GB will surely have seen my World Cup coverage. I fell in love with the sport through the familiar American avenues of AYSO and European travel. The first professional game I attended was the 2007 Clasico in Barcelona, at the Nou Camp. The viral intensity of the fans, the exhibition of top quality football, Iker Casillas's sexual gestures towards the crowd-- the paella pot of tasty soccer flavors grew within me a love for all things football. I regularly follow the major leagues in Europe, I actively support Barcelona (on the way to being a paid club member), and over the years soccer has gradually become the only sport of any weight or consequence in my life.

On the flip side, I could really care less about the MLS. Whereas European competition is woven with rich history--regional and intercontinental rivalries, current heroes and former legends, it's own colorful collection of stories both glorious and tragic. Football in almost all other parts of the world is an extension of people's culture and politics. The rivalries are outgrowths of long standing feuds, territorial disputes, and cultural clashes. Soccer outside of the United States is the weekly practice of human drama, played out on the most watched and lively stages in the world.

Basically, my thinking for the past 8 years has been, "If I'm going to watch a sport being played, I'm going to watch it at its highest level of competition," which--to me--definitively meant not the MLS. I live in Chicago now though, and it is a city not only with a rich sporting tradition in general, but also possessed of its very own professional soccer team. This geographical fortune has forced me to reevaluate my aversion to Major League Soccer, and begin that most American of practices--supporting my local sports team.
Making the jump mid-season might seem disingenuous to a full commitment of team support, but to be fair, the World Cup held the greater of my attentions for what amounted to the first half of the MLS year. The purpose of this weekly spot from here on out is to discover the experience of becoming an American soccer fan--and more specifically, an MLS soccer fan. It was easy for the nation to get on board with Landon Donovan's wide eyed glory in the Algeria match, but when the flags came down, and Spain pranced away home with their trophy, American's were put back inside our own borders, transferring sporting affectation from nation to region.
mls cup trophy.jpg
Having missed our region's early exploits, let the recap begin. To take 'early' literally, the Chicago Fire are facing a four year drought of silverware, last winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2006. In terms of Championships, the Fire haven't won the MLS Cup since 1998 under 'Ol Hangdog Faced Bob Bradley, which is like 60 baseball years--a number with which Cubs fans can find sympathetic connection with. The fire did win the Supporter's Shield in 2003, the trophy given to the league leader in points, but the Shield is less coveted than the cup, as this is America, and we like our champions to be feted by playoff contest rather than queer European numbers and stuff (eyes on you BCS).

In short, this is a good time to become a Fire fan. Joining under these circumstances means you can lecture bandwagon fans with earned superiority when the team becomes an unstoppable dynasty in two years time (I have no basis for this two year prediction, but if I'm going to become a true fan, I'm going to have to start this sort of irrational blustery, and quick).

This season finds the Fire in average to mediocre form, sitting uncomfortably in 10th place--currently outside playoff qualification. The defense is leaky; while Chicago has scored the fifth most goals in the league at 26, they have the fifth worst defensive record at 26th goals allowed, making a disappointing symmetry and a goal differential of 0. In more crazy symmetry news the Fire hold a Dante inspired record of six wins, six draws, and six losses (!!!). Chicago is also fairly under-represented in terms of league leaders; Marco Pappa is the team's only player currently in the top 20 for scoring, and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra sits 11th in keeper stats by recording only 3 clean sheets.
freddie ljung chicago fire.jpg
It's not all thunderclouds and spilled ice cream though, the Fire have 3 games in hand having only played 18 games out of a possible 21. These are going to be crucial late-season when fights for playoff spots heat up. Marco Pappa is scoring (7 goals) and Patrick Nyarko is creating (7 assists). Nyarko did all that assisting having missed 6 games due to a concussion, so his return regular first team play is a definite positive. Chicago picked up Freddie Ljungberg from Seattle in July, and though he may be no spring chicken, he is capable of these things. Before this Saturday's loss to Houston, the fire were on a 4 game win streak, and it was only due to some senior citizen heroics by Brian Ching that fouled up a 3 goal performance by the Fire.

As a new fan, I'm feeling positive. I see great promise here, and to be honest the flaws that are evident give the season more flavor, more character. Fighting up from behind is a lot more interesting than defending from the top, and it suits a Chicago team to play the role of the former rather than the latter. Chicago's next match is away against Seattle this Saturday at 9:30. It will be interesting to see how Freddie handles a return to his former field, so there's already some minor drama involved.

I'll be documenting my ascent into fandom weekly, with frequent updates for post-worthy news. Look forward to next time when I learn to use the collective 'we', insinuating myself grammatically into the Fire community.

Somos fuegos amigos.

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Tom / August 23, 2010 5:53 PM

Nice writing here and best of luck on your journey. Most folks see the lack of history in MLS as a negative but as a transplant to Chicago in the late 90s, it was an overwhelming positive. I had no love for the local teams -- my lifelong allegiances in NFL, MLB and NBA having alread been imprinted in childhood -- but the Fire gave me a chance to be a part of something new. That's what keeps me following the Fire, coming back to Toyota Park a few times a year and watching My50 (!) for midweek telecasts. Sure, I like watching European clubs (Go On Fulham!) on TV, but it's so much more fun to support a team that you can actually be a part of: watch parties, away trips, beer buses to Bridgeview -- all stuff that a US-based Barca fan can't be a part of.

As for the club's prospects, the consensus is that we'll sneak into the playoffs and then wreak havoc. Our team is talented on paper but really needs Ljungberg to assert himself and Castillo to make a positive contribution.

Again, welcome to the fray. To complete your induction, tide a Section 8 beer bus to a match, hit their tailgate and attend a match from the top part of the supporters' section.

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