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Fire Mon Aug 18 2014

Chicago Fire: On The Essence of Support

GB fire icon.pngIn my travels and experiences outside our shared shores I have stumbled upon a curiously cross-cultural drink that is, well, anything but cultured. To put it more acutely, it is something uniquely high and low class all in one go; the kind of proposition at which you might laugh or wrinkle your nose. At least until quaffed, when it washes over you in a giddy rush. This potable chimera goes by a host of names across a swath of countries: most famously it is called kalimotxo in Spain; bambus in Croatia and the Balkans; jote in Chile; and something quite ribald (which I dare not write here) in German. It is a drink so simple, made of equal parts of two liquids so common, that it is a shock it doesn't have more traction here stateside. I'm talking about the combination of red wine and Coca-Cola.

Call it what you will, but this blend, which I am loath to dub a cocktail, combines pleasures of both youth and adulthood into something sublime. Yet the entire time you're intimately aware of the components, they never transcend their original state, but then, they aren't supposed to. This is not a beverage particularly interested in subtlety. It is a party drink, to be enjoyed among friends and shared; to spread good feelings to those around.

In many ways in the culture of soccer, supporters' groups fill the role of this cola and red wine drink. They are there to be the lively mix of passion and effervescence which sets the mood for the party that is the game. Just what makes a supporter's group, and why are they such a valuable asset to the team and the casual fan? These are fans for whom soccer is not merely a game, and being a fan is not a passive experience. Those individuals who have found each other and over time have ground out their niche, starting first as with foothold and ending up with a home. They are oft times the most vocal, the most devoted.

Supporting a professional sports team is, by nature, a very curious act indeed. It can be something both as serious as life itself, or as light and ephemeral as as dollop of whipped cream atop a latte, or practically anywhere in between. It is to the viewer's discretion to identify their personal level of involvement in the end, though there are social factors which can impact the decision as well. Our switched-on culture surely dictates a great deal as well. with a multitude of ways to follow a particular team or league Take, for example, Twitter: the social network predicated on the idea of choosing precisely whom to follow, creating an ad hoc news aggregator tailored around an individual's own predilections. It serves as an echo chamber of sorts, reinforcing myopic views tailored to the specifications of the end user.

To speak plainly reading my personal twitter feed: to look upon it, one would be convinced that soccer was the most popular sport in America, with tongues wagging at the very slightest of roster moves. That mainstream sports coverage focuses on soccer as often as does a camel water goes to show that mine is but a constructed reality.

This, and supporters' culture in MLS, closely follows the sociological theory of social constructivism, which states that by being a part of a group one is constantly learning and educating about being a part of that group. Every one of us was once new to watching soccer, it was by being around others that we came to understand the way to behave while viewing, whether that be the rules of the game, the chants, the names of the players, the history of the team, and so on. The important factor was that it was not done alone; that experience helped galvanize the feelings present in that moment into something richer.

The Fire have a number of affiliated supporters' groups who show up for every home game. There are groups big and small, compromising fans from all walks of life whose styles of support are just as varied. Supporters in Major League Soccer are fans in passionate love with their team through thick and thin, and whose raison d'être is not simply to provide a fan experience that is unlike any seen in the United States' other major leagues, but also to provide an element of theater to the game. They stand for the entire 90-plus minute duration, there are instruments played and song sung, flags waved, large banners (tifo, colloquially) unfurled. The whole thing rises to the level of spectacle that is something like a Māori haka for the whole of the match.

This injects an infectious energy to the proceedings, and it is telling that at the end of every match the players are sure to make an appearance at the Harlem End of Toyota Park where Section 8, and the majority of supports groups with them, reside. At moments like this there is a respect on display that is not one-sided, where player and fan applaud victory or commiserate defeat in tandem. Perhaps it is here that we see the seeds of passion germinate, for how can one not root for a team that roots for you in return?

Yet, of late the team has found itself plumbing the depths of the Eastern Conference, racking up several shaky draws but finding wins elusive. This is due in no small part to the lack of an out-and-out striker, with goals coming from set plays mostly. There is a paucity of powerful possession, with few players being able to press forward and score in the run of play. Coupled with the current transfer window fumbles, wherein the team failed to snag a top-level Designated Player like Jermaine Jones.

All of this can be frustrating, but it brings up bigger questions surrounding the nature of support itself. If one loves and cheers for a team, does it become the business of the fan to act as a system of checks and balances, to hold the ownership accountable? Is it not somehow antithetical to invest so much emotion and interest into a team which doesn't see such levels of support from the top down? Growing up watching a sport, such concerns couldn't have been farther from the mind, the team either played well on the day or it didn't. From whence came the shift?

Sports fandom represents an interesting subset of our culture, as it is largely predicated on the continuous acquisition and retention of knowledge, albeit of a trivial manner. With MLS being such a young league there is a considerably smaller backlog of information to ingest, thus making present and future moves at the club and league level a commodity to be consumed with alacrity. This, and the message board-cum-legitimate news outlet that is Twitter, serve to make fans hyper aware if they choose to be. The rest could be chalked up to social constructivism, as seen earlier. One actor begets 10, begets 100, and so on. Simply put, each person has the ability to affect the culture of team support without directly connecting with other individuals.

This is by no means universal, as shared truths can be viewed from different angles, being a truth shared differently by the viewer. For instance, the idea that soccer is the best sport in the world, versus the idea that soccer is nothing compared to the NFL. These are both truths to the groups who hold them. So too that the Fire are a great team in the midst of a slow restructuring, versus that the Fire are a bad team because their owner doesn't care about them. Both are truths, as agreed upon by those who hold them to be such.

The charge as supporters of our local professional soccer team becomes then, to be that aforementioned mix of low and high class, to come and cheer on a team and organization that will in turn do everything to support right back. It is not to say that such questions and disappointments are to be driven out. Think of it like this: everyone likes a shot of malort once in a while, to remind you of how good everything else is in comparison, precious few want to drink only it. In the meantime, let the cola and red wine flow, for this should be fun.


Team notes: The Men in Red fell into 9th place this weekend, effectively getting pulled back into the lobster bucket by the bottom-dwelling Montreal Impact. It was looking to be a 0-0 draw when, in the 84th minute Eric Miller showcased some deft footwork to dance through the Fire backline before playing the ball back to an open Marco Di Vaio whose classy finish beat a diving Sean Johnson. It was the type of goal from which spirits are not likely to return, and indeed they did not for the Fire. Montreal improved to 17 points with the win, which is good enough to qualify them for Unmitigated Disaster Team 2014, an award I made up just now.

The Fire stay North of the border this week, travelling to Toronto where they will face off against the likes of Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe. The game will be at 6:00 pm, on My50. Toronto FC currently sit in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference, though with only 32 points across 22 games. As a point of reference, that would put them in 6th in the Western Conference. It is not pretty over there. Pity be upon the team from the East who has to shift West next season when the conferences realign.

For two games in a row the Fire could feature a player making his club debut at home against his former team. Saturday's game in Montreal saw the first minutes for midfielder Sanna Nyassi, who came on as a sub in the 68th minute against his previous club. Next Saturday's game in Toronto may see newly obtained forward Robert Earnshaw, likely looking to prove his worth versus the club who dealt him.

Oh, and Jermaine Jones is still not a closed door just yet. We remain cautiously optimistic.

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