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Fire Fri Jul 24 2015

Chicago Fire: On The Trap of Nostalgia

Chicago FireOver the past month I spent several weeks doing my legal duty to the county of Cook, serving as a member of a grand jury, and it got me thinking about the power of nostalgia. Moreover—not to put too fine a point on it—I have been considering just how worthless a thing fond remembrance truly is.

This feeling occurred to me while sitting at home one evening, roughly halfway through the five weeks of my empanelment. Rather innocuously and without provocation, a curious little thought surfaced amid the turbid waters of my mind. When my time on the jury came to a close I'd have to go back to my regular life, at which time all of the facets of the jury experience that I had initially seen as limitations I'd soon grow to miss. For instance, the individually wrapped donuts we were provided daily. They felt like an outsider's closest approximation of the pastry if they'd been armed with only the most rudimentary description: that it was round, and that you were supposed to hate yourself for having eaten it. But all the same, I found myself taking a curious liking to them, along with the other assorted food service oddities that we were presented with daily.

Oddly though, there may yet be a time when I find myself looking back and feeling a pang of longing. Yes, even bad things have the power to become good over time. Especially when one is bereft of them. Observe the legion of people who fell to pieces in 2012 when Hostess stopped production of Twinkies. There is even an entire genre of films predicated on gilded reminiscences of living in East Germany under communism, when basically everything was crappy. Country music often trades on this specious idea as well, that life was better in the past and that is partly because things were tougher.

This particularly complicated set of feelings moved me to reflect on the current circumstances surrounding the Chicago Fire like a stale miasma of acrimony. Beginning in 2010 the team has seen a run of diminishing returns, making the playoffs only once in the past five years, and the much vaunted 2015 side is looking to keep that trend going. There have been fingers pointed in all directions, as people are wont to do when feelings of affection curdle. Precious little honest dialogue has occurred regarding this poor run of form and what it means for the team and the larger organization, but hopefully we can do so now.

You see, that same sweetly poisonous draught of nostalgia is something that is being drunk with abandon at the moment, and in many ways it is understandable. There was a time when the Chicago Fire Soccer Club were seen as a mainstay in the discussion of top teams in Major League Soccer, as well as being the self-styled kings of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the nation's oldest regional soccer tournament. But the trophy drought has held for nearly a decade now, with the 2006 U.S. Open Cup being last piece of silverware won by the team. And then there came the sale of the team in 2007, when it was purchased from the Anschutz Entertainment Group by Andell Holdings. Seemingly innocuous enough, the team passed from one Los Angeles company to another without much fanfare. This was at the time when the team fielded their first Designated Player in Cuauhtémoc Blanco and it seemed that, despite nearly five years since their last appearance in the MLS Cup final, the team had all the appearances of building a solid foundation for success.

There are many in the Chicago Fire fan community at large who point to that 2007 sale as the inciting incident for the team's unraveling. The cries have gotten louder as the team's progress stagnated. Then came the calls for owner Andrew Hauptman to sell the team, the hashtag activism of #HauptmanOut growing strong enough to even appear on banners at Toyota Park. This brand of vitriol is not new to sports, it is something of a time-honored tradition by this point, where an owner is deemed absentee and is felt to be running the team into the ground. Though the chorus of voices grows, and it feels good speaking truth to power, few recognize how myopic and unproductive it is in the grand scheme.

These feelings are born out of a nostalgia, out of the desire to return to the way things were in the good old day; if it weren't, then all of this would amount to little more than frustration for the sake of frustration. And while the team unarguably experienced a greater amount of success in first two-thirds of its existence than the latter third, one need only remember that old adage about correlation not implying causation.

It is too often forgotten that the successes of the Fire from inception in 1997 until winning its last major trophy in 2006 came at the hands of two coaches—Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan, both of whose coaching prowess is still potent.

Think of it like this, then. Any sports team is made up of multiple moving pieces, with each operating on several discrete levels of interest. The outcome of a single game can be decided on such a multitude of factors that it is often impossible to pin down, whether it be squad fitness, individual positional awareness, mental fatigue, poor field maintenance, roster depth, et cetera. In order to say for certain, one need to scrutinize all aspects of the team, rather than scapegoating any one person out of a desire to reclaim past glories.

There are real issues on the field, it cannot be swept aside. The team as a whole have scored a total of 20 goals in 19 games, allowing 28 across that same stretch. A combination of this goal drought coupled with a troubled backline makes for a decidedly rough season. Currently sitting last place Eastern Conference, with the worst record in the entire league at the moment, makes one want to pack it in, give up and move on. But that goes both ways. If it is dispiriting to fans of the team, then it must go doubly so for the team itself as they are not simply letting themselves down but everyone who has staked their hopes on them as well. It is important that players receive support from a place of what fans would wish to see that accomplish more than the sum total of their record up until now.

Believe it or not, the Chicago Fire taking the field these days is in fact the team that fans have been asking for in the past. The Designated Players on the roster are young, hungry, difference makers who are all still in their first year in MLS. By the time this article is published the Fire will be within spitting distance of potentially signing Didier Drogba, easily their biggest player since Hristo Stoichkov. It isn't a matter of simply signing big names though, as second-to-last-place New York City FC can attest. Despite having David Villa and Mix Diskerud on the team, and a proven coach like Jason Kreis, they are struggling mightily. It also helps to remember that sports teams are nebulous organisms, going through several necessary permutations as they seek to evolve beyond their current state. The Fire are not exempt from these pains, but with each stumble, there are encouraging signs that lessons are being learned, But such things take time and effort and are never easy. Like a broken arm in a cast, the skin underneath may chafe and itch and get really smelly, but it's not a reason for cursing the doctor who put you in it. Who knows, in time, you might even find yourself missing the experience of it.

~*~

The Men In Red cruised to a 3-1 win over the Kaka and the purple lions of Orlando City FC in the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this past week, with goals coming from Patrick Nyarko and a pair from Kennedy Igboananike. Chicago heads next to Philadelphia on Aug. 12 to take on the Union in the Open Cup Semifinals. If they win, they would face the winner of the Sporting Kansas City-Real Salt Lake game in the finals.

The Fire play host to the 5th place New England Revolution this Saturday night at Toyota Park. Tickets are available here, as well as the ever-excellent Pub-To-Pitch bus which is available here.

 
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Roger / July 24, 2015 2:30 PM

What was the point of your "essay"? What is that you are saying? That we need to shut up, chill, or speak more. Were they more random thought than anything? New York is a first year team.

Joel / July 24, 2015 2:40 PM

No mention of The Editorial? There's more to HauptmanOut than a lack of trophies.

Tom / July 24, 2015 2:55 PM

That is a very strange article.

I have no idea who Benjamin Cannon is (even after I looked up is bio on the website), but he seems attuned to the machinations of the Fire, in that he is not writing just a "fluff" piece.

I disagree with the underlying premise (even though I am one of the more "nostalgic" Fire fans).

We are not simply longing for the days of 1998-2003 or 2006, although the fall that the Fire have taken in the past 8 years is made even more dramatic by how good the Fire were in those first years.

Our "nostalgia" is compounded and exacerbated by the growth and expansion of the league. We see upstarts usurping our place (that does sound nostalgic). We see teams showing real ambition, signing genuinely great players, while we have not done so since Ljungberg (and that was a half season, sloppy second, desperation grab, so Seattle could sign bigger and younger marquee players).

On and off of the field, we are losing out.

We have become an afterthought, or a neverthought on the Chicago sports landscape.

We have become pitied by the commentators during games.

We have not been truly competitive since 2009.

We are treated as "customers" as opposed to fans or participants. There is no real ambition to make the team substantially better.

Overall, I really think our frustrations are less nostalgia for the ways things were than a demand that the Front Office improve the Fire as to the way things ARE.

Beyond that, I concur that earlier posts that this person start first and foremost with our complete lack of success and, second, with "The Editorial".

Jake / July 24, 2015 5:17 PM

Ben, I have agreed with so many of your past articles, but I can't completely buy into this one. Because I agree with you that there are parts we are building off, and real progress being achieved in the heart and fight so many players have shown in such a dispiriting season. But the nostalgia & #HauptmanOut are not the same thing.

When I am wearing my Fire scarves around town I routinely get people whose last memory of the Fire is Blanco, or the 2006 US Open Cup. Not because they have supressed scarred memories from years past, but because the club hasn't been relevant in the sports landscape.

I see hints of that tide changing, but there has been more frustration with the ownership from a standpoint of knowing what you have and not squandering it. The Editorial is clearly the most stinging example (and not including it hurt the point you were trying to make) and everytime that something happens to weigh against the perception the editorial wraught, it is written off as being a great job done by an employee. This is because a lack of communication from the very top of the organization is in direct contrast to one of the cornerstones of the first decade of the franchise, and that, more than results, are what fans are nostalgic for because you can forgive a run of bad form when you believe that there is a sincere direction and philosophy.

You don't have to be Peter Wilt, but you need everyone around you to know who you are and why you do what you do. And that is something the inventor of Schlabst has always been very good at.

Jake / July 24, 2015 5:18 PM

Ben, I have agreed with so many of your past articles, but I can't completely buy into this one. Because I agree with you that there are parts we are building off, and real progress being achieved in the heart and fight so many players have shown in such a dispiriting season. But the nostalgia & #HauptmanOut are not the same thing.

When I am wearing my Fire scarves around town I routinely get people whose last memory of the Fire is Blanco, or the 2006 US Open Cup. Not because they have supressed scarred memories from years past, but because the club hasn't been relevant in the sports landscape.

I see hints of that tide changing, but there has been more frustration with the ownership from a standpoint of knowing what you have and not squandering it. The Editorial is clearly the most stinging example (and not including it hurt the point you were trying to make) and everytime that something happens to weigh against the perception the editorial wraught, it is written off as being a great job done by an employee. This is because a lack of communication from the very top of the organization is in direct contrast to one of the cornerstones of the first decade of the franchise, and that, more than results, are what fans are nostalgic for because you can forgive a run of bad form when you believe that there is a sincere direction and philosophy.

You don't have to be Peter Wilt, but you need everyone around you to know who you are and why you do what you do. And that is something the inventor of Schlabst has always been very good at.

Ben / July 24, 2015 9:28 PM

I am glad that we're able to have a space for this dialogue, since that is precisely what I mean for it to be, rather than just a place for me to tar over the past. I often fear that I must be part robot whenever "The Editorial" is brought up, because I was not affected by it in the same way that everyone else was. I do not seek to defend it in any way, I just wish to say that it hasn't changed the way that I think of the team. Perhaps that comes from my seeing it as I stated above, as a growing and changing entity.

It is important to remember that sports are not analogous to farming; the product on the field does not directly determine how we go about our lives, with periods of drought and decay meaning life or death. If you love a team you usually love it through times of boom and bust in equal measure. That is how fans earn their bona fides.

Look at the Pittsburgh Pirates to see a team that went from an historic mess (Suffering 20 years of futility that ended only in 2013), to a team that is a genuine contender. The process of how this came to pass is a great read (Check it out here), and I don't mean to suggest that it can be solved just through the power of positivity, but I just feel like a lot of the work being done by the team is getting swept aside in favor of grinding axes.

I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this matter, since we're all fans of the team and clearly want to see them succeed.

Ben / July 24, 2015 11:38 PM

Why are you still comparing "HauptmanOut" to a drought for farmers? It has nothing to do with trophies and that's already been explained multiple times. Are you simply ignoring the people responding here?

"HauptmanOut" has nothing to do with the play on the field. Are you simply ignoring that for clicks? That would make you a hack.

Jake / July 25, 2015 12:34 AM

Ben (not Cannon), the reasons that many, like Ben, view #HauptmanOut as analogous to farming is because so much of the phrasing around it has been about "we suck, Andy is absentee, we need a new owner". That is clearly not how everyone feels, but there needs to be a campaign that explains the diversity of frustration with the actions of ownership, along with an acknowledgement of what we've liked and why we want to see more along those lines.

It has to move from a rallying cry to an explanation of why even if we win a trophy, it will still be relevant. It needs to be clear that #HauptmanOut isn't about trophies, but about the way the shifting structure of the club has disenfranchised some of the most passionate fans.

Right now it still seems to be unclear to many, even within the community, how #HauptmanOut is anything other than an expression of ongoing competitive futility. And I don't think that the wording of the petition has clarified this enough to make Ben (Cannon that is) or anyone else unjustified in their impressions about the movement.

Ben / July 26, 2015 9:44 PM

Well Jake, you are correct. But Twitter only allows 140 characters so a tweet is not the best way to get a full explanation, much less a hash tag.

#HauptmanOut is nothing more than a metaphor for change. Hauptman must change how business is run, be it solid changes in structure and budget or a sale. The how is irrelevant. Out with the old way of doing business and in with the new is the message.

If Ben (the author) had done some research he would have see that the HauptmanOut hash tag started in May of 2012. That was the middle of the season we reached 57 points; the most we've had since I think 2000. We also and made the playoffs for the first time in a while and were in the middle of three winning seasons.

Equating HauptmanOut with wins and losses or trophies is simply lazy blogging, I'm sorry.

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