In Chicago, the Cubs Rise and the Fire Need Help

chicago fire

The Chicago Cubs, a team nicknamed the “lovable losers,” are winning. The Cubs had the third-best record in the majors during the regular season and last week clinched a berth in Wednesday night’s NL wild card game. This will be just the 16th playoff appearance for a franchise that has existed since the 1870s. 

But as Chicago eagerly awaits Wednesday’s Cubs-Pirates showdown, another local team will be training for its next match in relative obscurity. And they’ll do it near the end of a dismal season. 

The Chicago Fire are in last place in Major League Soccer with two games remaining. As a practical matter, the team has been out of playoff contention for most of the season. 

Just a few years ago, the Cubs were stuck at the bottom of the MLB standings. But fan support never really wavered as the team was slowly rebuilt from the ground up, culminating in this year’s postseason berth. The fans patiently endured losing streaks and sloppy play for several years straight. 

For the Fire, though, it’s been a different story. 

The Fan Revolt

Late on the night of August 22, in a deserted corridor at Toyota Park, a Chicago Fire employee silently rolled up a large black tarp. The Fire’s home game versus the Colorado Rapids, a 1–0 loss, had been over for a good half hour. Outside, the last cars were pulling out of the lot, leaving behind the setting of a dreary match for Fire fans. 

The tarp was a remnant of fan discontent. Around the game’s 80th minute, people in the Fire’s supporters’ section (called Harlem End) unfurled two such tarps, which looked like giant garbage bags, in a so-called “blackout” protest. The humongous tarps were several seats wide and stretched from the upper rows of the lower deck to the rows closest to the field. Starting in Harlem End, the tarps were gradually passed around the stadium, fans holding them over their heads. 

“I didn’t really see what happened,” Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said in a quiet Chicago locker room after the game. 

chicago fire

But even if Nyarko did miss that episode, it was all but impossible to ignore the negativity surrounding the Fire this season. The team has now missed the playoffs in five out of the last six seasons. There have been calls to change the players and even for the owner (Andrew Hauptman) to sell the team to someone else. There were calls to fire the coach (Frank Yallop), until the team did just that on September 20.

The Fire’s relationship with their fans has certainly soured, and all that tension came to a head on August 22. Colorado, the league’s lowest-scoring team heading into the game, struck with a goal in the first minute. 

Even by 2015 Fire standards, this was a miserable start. The stunned crowd of 18,317 rained the ultimate insult on the players they were supposedly rooting for, booing them quite loudly. This sound would be heard plenty more before the game’s conclusion. 

Chicago picked up its game and had several near-misses before halftime. But that did little to energize the crowd. Harlem End, normally a boisterous spot, was largely silent.

Late in the match, as the Fire failed to find an equalizer, the fans in Harlem End unveiled the tarps. Many in the stadium did not know what was going on. At first, it appeared that the tarps might be tifos (giant, choreographed fan displays that are commonly used in Europe to support teams). But it soon became clear that the fans were protesting. Their frustration had finally boiled over. 

The tarps moved in opposite directions, traveling about halfway around the stadium. Then they disappeared. A report indicated that Fire employees had confiscated them. 

About 15 minutes later, the final whistle blew on Chicago’s 13th loss of the season. Fire players left the field amid a shower of boos. 

Out of Step with the League

The Fire may be struggling for wins and support, but the league’s popularity has grown tremendously since its inception in 1996. During the 2014 season, MLS teams averaged an attendance of more than 19,000 fans per game. The Seattle Sounders drew an average of more than 40,000 each match. More than half a million people watched this season’s opening game between New York City FC and Orlando City SC on national TV. 

chicago fire

Yet the Fire have not benefited as much. As of Sunday, the team ranked second to last in average home attendance among MLS clubs. Unlike in many MLS cities, Fire games aren’t broadcast on local English-language radio, and Chicago’s largest newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, no longer sends a reporter to cover the matches.

The lack of attention paid to the Fire might be due in part to the location of Toyota Park. The team’s home stadium is in Bridgeview, a suburb of Chicago that can be more than an hour away in bad traffic. 

When asked before the August 22 game whether the suburban location resulted in the Fire receiving less support, team vice president Logan Pause hesitated for a moment. “I think,” he said, “that we’ve been a part of many years where there’s tons of recognition, when we have a winning record and our team’s in the playoffs. I think right now we’re going through a tough run with our first team, but we know that people can and do come. A lot of the people that live in the suburbs, it’s much more accessible to them at Toyota Park than it would be if they had to drive into the city … This is our home and we’re making the best of it.”

As the clock approached 10:30 on the night of August 22, the town of Bridgeview was shrouded in darkness. In that corridor at Toyota Park, the Fire employee looked up from the tarp. Then, without a sound, he continued to roll it, that residue of dissent over a season that had gone off the rails.

Photos: Alex Menendez/Getty Images (player), Twitter (tarp), Icon Sportswire via AP Images (action)

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