Soccer in America is still constructing its infrastructure, and we need engineers. People to build the institutions that will support the weight. One of those engineers is here, with us. If you’ve watched a game in a bar in Chicago you probably already know him.
Tall, beer in hand, iconic rockabilly hat - that’s the ubiquitous German Cowboy. His name is Mike Knueppel, and he’s been in Chicago since 2005. You’ll find him often at the far side of the bar in Cleo’s on Chicago, sometimes in the back room, rarely on the patio, but you can always pick him out by his trademark collection of kits, dozens and dozens of them, all with COWBOY 57 on the back.
We were driving to Toyota Park on Wednesday night talking about all those jerseys. I once saw him change from a German kit to an American one at halftime of their friendly in June. How can one support ALL the teams? What happened to loyalty?
“I wear the shirt of who’s playing,” he said. “But mostly if they have a German player.”
This was hard to take. Aren’t we supposed to live and die for a club? That means hating other clubs, wishing harm on strangers in other colors, “You ain’t got no history,” all of that.
But he was saying something different. You watch because, first of all, you want to watch the game. The game is primary. Then, you have your local allegiance. His is German and Hamburger SV (He founded Hamburger SV Supporters Chicago with a few others.) He cares most of all about the German national team and he’s willing to wear shirts of teams he “can live nicely without,” as he says, like Bayern Munich, because of some of their players.
“I even bought a Bayern Munich shirt recently,” he told me. “I mean I really shocked their supporters, they know I don’t like that team, but as a fellow German I support them internationally.”
I said, “This is troubling. You support players as they come and go? They’re moving around constantly. It’s like rooting for mercenaries.”
“I don’t support only the players. That’s why I have COWBOY (or VAQUERO for Real Madrid) on my shirts with my birth year. At least I know that won’t change. But first you support your local club.”
That’s fine too, but the logic breaks down again because what about the organizations with detestable front offices or ownership groups? (I’m thinking about even some of our Chicago teams’ history.) You can’t just support a team willy-nilly.
“It’s true,” he said. “But you have to support your location.”
And Americans supporting European teams in places they may have never even seen in person?
These to me are the tough questions of support and fandom. What exactly are we doing supporting these teams, all over the world? Thankfully, seated in Toyota Park to watch our shared, indisputable, actual home team, we could lay the question aside for 90 minutes or so.
Fun game, too, right? Nice how the rain broke and the night warmed up. Dilly Duka more than deserved the standing ovation he got as he came off in the 87th. The Cowboy and I enjoyed watching him absolutely terrorize Quakes right back Steven Beitashour.
The night was beautiful. Leaving the stadium, I was mumbling about how we fans deserve these nights. Those cold, grinding results early in the season were tough. You could feel the fans’ relief at the result. No disappointment this time. Wednesday night was even better because of the challenge and drama; San Jose wouldn’t die, but the Fire earned the three points with three beautifully worked goals. “They won, that’s all that matters,” the Cowboy said. “Fans love the win.”
There’s a long story for how the Cowboy got to Chicago, a story including four weeks at the Presidential towers in 1987, karaoke, his wife Sharon, the city of Seattle, software programming - it’s a story that he might tell you if you see him at Cleo’s. He’s not afraid to share.
And in some ways, it’s fitting that he’s around. The Cowboy embodies the 21st century globalized soccer paradigm. He can watch his Bundesliga, follow die Mannschaft, and participate in the growth of soccer in America, all from a comfortable neighborhood bar in Chicago. His work developing Cleo’s website and social presence has made it one of the primary soccer locations in Chicago and turned heads nationally. Maybe most importantly, his unofficial freelance soccer ambassadorship has brought people from all over the world together.
You’ll see him meeting with local supporter clubs (some of which he founded himself) like those of Dortmund and Hamburg, as well as Section 8, the Fire, ESPN, and just last week, in the beer garden, you would’ve seen him watching Uruguay and Italy in the Confederations Cup with Hamburg’s senator of the interior and highest ranking police officer.
Ever since he convinced Cleo’s to let him fix up their site and control their Facebook page, and with the blessing and help of Stephen behind the bar, the Cowboy has been our handyman, fixing up games and posting schedules so we can watch American and European soccer at our ease. “I wanted a bar where I know them and they know me and I get there they put the drink on the bar,” he said. “Where I can watch all the games and they’ll open early.”
In other words, it’s not really about the fanaticism of watching games. Going back to our conversation about supporting clubs, it became clear to me that the whole “it’s what’s on the front of the jersey, not the back of the jersey” thing is cheesy and doesn’t apply - just having a jersey is what matters. In this way, the Cowboy is critical in experience-making. He’s not an owner of the bar, or even an employee - he’s one of us. His work setting up games and events at Cleo’s, with just watching the game as the goal, means that there’s less pressure to know esoteric European stadium statistics, or to spew hatred for teams thousands of miles away.
Maybe that’s the answer about why we support who and how. Maybe we just support the game. Watch the game for the game’s sake. Love the game. Talk to people. Drink beer. Amen.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
Part of Fire forward Mike Magee's incredible run of form since joining the Men in Red back on May 25 will be featured in Friday's episode of "MLS Insider" LIVE at 6:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network.
Check out the trailer below:
Chicago Fire players Gonzalo Segares and Brendan King joined Sparky, members of the Front Office, representatives from Section 8 Chicago and PepsiCo in Sunday's 43rd annual #ChicagoPrideParade.
As you can see, Sega and Brendan had a great time... Check out the photo gallery below!
— Brendan King (@BrendanKing1717) July 1, 2013
— Gonzalo Segares (@supersega13) July 1, 2013
The Chicago Fire will hold LGBT Pride Night on Saturday, September 28 against the Montreal Impact. For more information and tickets, please visit www.chicago-fire.com/pride.
Much like the shirt exchange post-match, the scarf exchange between supporters of opposing clubs is held as a sacred tradition.
Seeing as almost all of the live soccer I take in these days comes from a press box view, the scarf exchange is one thing I haven’t had the opportunity to carry out of late.
Take a trip back a few weeks ago when I set off for Philadelphia to cover the Fire’s match against the Union. Sitting near (but not in) the desired exit row on my Southwest Airlines flight, I was diligently working on an article for the next day when I looked up to see one of the flight attendants wearing an apron decked out in Timbers Army patches.
I meandered through how Alaska Airlines might feel about this whole situation before asking the Southwest attendant how much of a Timbers fan he was.
Jason or “A-B” as he’s know in the Southwest world was quick to tell me he was a member of Timbers Army and went to as many matches as his work schedule would allow.
I then went ahead and told him what I did for a living working with the Chicago Fire at which point he got out his phone (on airplane mode of course) and showed me a number of photos from the two side’s previous encounter last May in Portland.
Speaking of the Section 8 Chicago/Timbers Army friendly alliance, he even took some photos with Fire supporters, many of which are friends of mine.
He then had to go back to his duties, serving drinks to the many passengers behind me.
Remembering that I always travel with a Fire scarf, I dug through my carry-on bag and pulled out the very famous Tetris scarf produced last season by Section 8 and as he passed through the cabin again, I stopped nd gave it to him, to his great surprise.
He walked to the back of the plane and soon enough, returned with his own Timbers Army scarf, complete with many of the same patches that adorned his apron. I was completely surprised by this gesture as you could see that this scarf had been worn through many a match and held great importance.
I asked him if he was really alright with parting with such an important piece of his Timbers memories and he didn't even think twice.
And thus, soccer diplomacy occurred once again. Those Timbers Army folk (of which there will be 175 at Toyota Park Saturday night), aren't so bad.
UPDATE! The Chicago City Council voted unanimously to pass the the below resolution Tuesday morning.
The Chicago Fire today took part in hearings regarding a historic resolution regarding LGBT athletes to be introduced for passage by the Chicago City Council on Wednesday.
The Fire were represented at Tuesday’s hearings by Senior Director of Communications Dan Lobring who brought to light the club’s support for Robbie Rogers, participation with Equality Illinois in the 2012 Chicago LGBT Pride Parade and Section 8 Chicago’s “Our Diversity, Our Strength” tifo displayed prior to a game against the Houston Dynamo on April 15, 2012.
Sponsored in tandem by Alderman Joe Moore, the City Council’s Human Rights Committee and The Last Closet, should Wednesday’s resolution pass, Chicago would become the second city after San Francisco to declare its backing for LGBT athletes.
The end goal of the resolution is to ultimately get commissioners of all major North American sports leagues to state publicly their support for LGBT athletes, invite them to come out and pledge to make them safe and accepted.
For more information on Wednesday's resolution, please click here.
I took two MLS virgins to the game on Saturday night at Toyota Park. Takeaways the night of: Modelo and Tyskie were a plus, Section 8 is loud, my stadium blanket is missing a button or two.
But when I asked them about the game last night, the takeaways were different. “It’s like they were snakebit,” one of them said.
Snakebit is probably too kind. Cubs-related words start to come to mind when you miss the chances the Fire missed in the second half before Jeff Larentowicz finally scored in the 83rd.
Andy Greunenbaum was on fire, ok, and obviously if the finishes were a wee bit more clinical the Fire could’ve made it a laugher, but in the moment, in the stadium, freezing, it felt like the goal would never come.
Section 8 and the rest of the fans were torn between encouraging the team and letting out some boos (and grunts and groans and other moans) of frustration. In my section, a kind of supporter dichotomy emerged throughout the second half as one fan stood to admonish Chris Rolfe after a second half miss, while a soccer team sized group of young girls cheered Rolfe on, assuring him he’d get the next one.
But Gonzalo Segares had a shot from 10 feet right at the keeper in the 49th minute and Larentowicz badly sliced the follow up, Austin Berry was robbed in the 75th, Patrick Nyarko was blocked in the 51st and 54th, and Rolfe in the 56th and 75th. The crowd was exasperated and freezing and desperate to figure out what to make of the game.
Every good passage seemed to be punished or mercilessly ignored by Greunenbaum, who was scarily springy. Every time Nyarko’s hustle was rewarded with space behind the Crew or the decisive pass (which seemed like every time he was near the ball), nothing. Every time Rolfe turned his man, he booted the finish. That was what was most frustrating - it was like the game was ignoring how well the Fire were playing. It all felt sort of cruel.
And so it makes soccer-perfect sense that the goal didn’t come from a measured through ball or some quick passing, nor did it come from the high pressure that harassed Columbus all game. It came on a basically ugly long throw and an industrial finish from Larentowicz.
The game ran out of ways to keep the Fire from scoring, and the team reacted - erm, celebrated - with as much an exhale, like, “Finally,” as hysterical exuberance. Look at the gif above. After his goal, Larentowicz barely smiles!
But the game doesn’t care. In the end my friends had witnessed a fairly good introduction to Toyota Park. The game was exciting, the Fire won the day, and maybe most important, the cheering dilemma in my section was definitively decided in favor of the encouraging girls.
Between the Lines is a weekly column from Chicago-Fire.com contributor Ben Schuman-Stoler. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
Some of the best tweets in the lead-up to, during and after Saturday's 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew...
Need one last look at Sunday's 3-1 win over Red Bull?
Our web guru Nick Sintich put Sunday's highlights to the music of the uber-popular song "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons.
Well done, YouTube music licensing is a great thing!
Last month we asked you to help us pick who our Quaker Bobblehead giveaway should be for our July 7 game against Sporting KC.
After two weeks of voting, it was clear that one player campaigned much harder than the rest of his teammates for the right to be immortalized on a Quaker Bobblehead.
The first 5,000 supporters into Toyota Park that day will receive one. Get your tickets here!