Gut punched again! Maybe not as bad as the Philly gut punch game from May, definitely not as painful as the Open Cup gut punch, but Houston’s smash and grab draw is the kind of result that could shake a team. That said, we’ve been here before this season. The Fire have proven they can rebound from disappointing results and it’s too early for the playoff panic, there are too many games left to play. Games like Sunday’s hurt, but now, a few days after, it doesn’t seem like any sort of total season KO.
What it is: another example of this team’s schizophrenia and oft-infuriating inconsistency. I mean, how delicious was that first half?
Dilly Duka was terrorizing, Alex has taken his move to the outside with relish, Arevalo Rios and Jeff Larentowicz are working well together, Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee keep popping up in annoying positions to track, and the Fire broke down a solid Houston defense, creating chance after chance after chance.
But because this game rarely if ever makes sense the way it should, the Fire let their guard down for a crucial period and relinquished a few points at home. It’s not the result of a dominant team, but then, that’s not what this Fire team is. It’s a team still trying to lock down its identity and self-expectations and the good news is that there’s still some time to do it.
One thing the team has to get used to is Frank Klopas’ efficiency approach. “They had possession,” he said after the game, “but we are the ones that created the better chances.” This is a common adage for Klopas this year. He’s proven time and again that he’s comfortable ceding to possession to the other team, letting them play with it and knock it around sideways as much as they want - as long as, when the Fire have the ball, they make use of it to be dangerous.
Before you scoff, remember that it’s the same approach that Jose Mourinho used at Chelsea and Inter Milan to beat Barcelona. It means counter attacks, quick passing, explosive breaks, all of which we saw against Houston. But it also means taking the (potentially few) chances you’re given as well as long periods of focus and discipline to keep your cool and keep your shape as the other team knocks it around.
With the other team passing around, especially on a hot, sun burnt afternoon like Sunday’s, it can be easy to loosen up and sit back at times.
That causes two problems…
First, as the defense falls backward, it creates more space in front of them for the other team to move forward. While it was all good for Houston to pass around the Fire’s half 30-40 yards from goal, as the Fire’s defense moved too far back later in the game, Houston pushed closer and closer, and started finding space around the edge of the area (where the goal eventually came from). But as Gonzalo Segares said in his comments after the game, it’s not always just the defense’s fault for falling backwards, especially when they’re under attack for so many minutes.
The second challenge with sitting back is that the attackers have to hold the ball up front to let the lines move up, and they have to take the open counter attacking chances that come when the other team presses to equalize. Juan Luis Anangono was unusually ineffectual when he came on Sunday, but maybe the Fire were just unlucky. If Magee’s second half shot off the post had gone in, it’s hard to see Houston getting their draw.
The Fire have proven to be a tough team to beat when they score first this year, and much of that is down to Klopas’ efficiency approach as well as the focus and discipline of the defense. In that sense, Sunday’s gut punch was an outlier. But if there’s one thing for sure about the Fire this year, it’s that their previous games are not necessarily indicators of their future ones, and no matter how many times they successfully see out the tight ones, it’s the gut punch games that we remember.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
Select shots from the Fire's 1-1 draw with Houston.
CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire
Select shots from the Fire's Practice in the Community event.
Select shots from the Fire's 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City.
CREDIT: Brian Kersey
I have a confession to make. I’m a new Chicago Fire fan, having been hired to oversee communications for the club just six months ago. But according to some folks, I was also a “s***** hire.” The only professional experience (“zero soccer experience”) I have is “promoting a video game” and I do “not belong leading the Communications department.”
Additionally, I also “need to shave.” To be fair, that one is true, but my wife thinks I look weird totally clean shaven. To be fairer, all of the other statements might also be true, but I would like the opportunity to prove how s*****I am first. To be fairest of all, maybe I already have proven it six months into the job.
But I’m more interested in learning what made me a s***** hire on day one? What brought about the warm reception from a vocal few as I was introduced as a new member of the “Fire family?” My best guess is that because I work for an owner who is supposedly “cheap,” “doesn’t care,” and only sees the team as a “toy.” Or maybe it’s because I’m joining a front office staff that just “doesn’t get it” or only makes “bad decisions.”
Fortunately, those are the only things that I’ve read about online, or have had forwarded my way, or that I have seen on the supporter message boards (I would hate to read the non-supporter boards). That was until the experience at the U.S. Open Cup semifinal when the Fire laid a giant egg against D.C. United. I don’t pretend to know all the history, but from what I’ve heard, the stories told to me, watching the videos, hearing from staff and our owner, I knew how important this game was. I knew why the Club decided to promote the heck out of it (Facebook ads, on broadcast, social media, letter from ownership, ads at the Messi & Friends game, ads at the U.S. Soccer Viewing Party, free parking, make-up games, discounted food, etc.), and while the crowd and atmosphere led by a robust showing of Section 8 were great, unfortunately the result was gut wrenchingly disappointing.
Yes, ownership and family were at the game. And yes, fans have a right to boo and show how disappointed they are, especially when the Club they love doesn’t perform up to expectations. Look, I’m an unabashed Detroit Lions fan, I know the mentality of a fan going an entire season without winning or watching a team go longer than a decade without a playoff appearance. It’s the thrill of victory and agony of defeat that makes sports great. And from what I’ve seen and heard from Fire supporters, I know it runs even deeper in soccer than anywhere else in sports.
But are personal attacks, threats, accusations, etc., that happened at that Open Cup game OK? Are shouting obscenities to staff, our owner and his family, or other supporters attending games with their families the norm? There’s a fine line between love and hate and being critical vs. being destructive. Certain incidents in particular related to that game have given me and others at the Club pause.
It has been shared with me that the Club’s charter (co-written by our owner and Section 8 leadership) makes it clear that all who enter Toyota Park are to be “respectful of all other supporters, participants, match officials, entertainers, athletes, stadium personnel, staff members and stadium property.” Are to “behave in a responsible manner and not interfere in other supporters’ enjoyment of the match.” And are “to refrain from using foul, sexist, racial, or offensive language including any type of obscene gesture.”
In the aftermath of that game, we/I have heard from many longstanding supporters who were afraid, fearful, disgusted with certain attendees behavior. Our role as a club is to draw a line and protect the sanctity and honor of the organization and all its supporters.
While I may be new to the team, I know the Club isn’t delusional. Owner Andrew Hauptman has set high standards that he hasn’t shied away from. And while these standards might not always be met, you can tell that he has instilled into this group a focus on performance, community, collaboration and connectivity. In many ways, the club is more successful than ever by these standards, including the footprint of its foundation, social reach, growth in corporate partnerships, expansion of the season ticket base, deep investments and exponential scale in youth and recreational soccer, broadcasting and so on.
But beyond that, there’s the other side that you don’t always get to see. Chances are that if you’ve met our owner or even just had a conversation with him, you know he tells it like it is, for good or for bad. There’s also a real sense of caring at the Fire, be it regarding the business of the club, or on a more personal level. One “Fire family” isn’t a cliché. The inclusive and authentic nature of our culture starts from the top down. Hopefully you see pieces of it in action by just attending a game and being welcomed at Toyota Park, or from our partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository (including upcoming Food Drive at our September 1 game), our annual Practice in the Community event coming up this Saturday, our commitment to inclusiveness by participating at the Pride Parade or the upcoming Pride Initiative on September 28, staff members lobbying City Council on behalf of LGBT athletes, honoring important community leaders on Hispanic Heritage night, partnering with Chicago Public Schools, and so on.
Even going back to the field, earlier in the season, ownership was the first to tell you that the team on the field was frankly just not good enough (even though the jury is out on this year). And in sports, because of that, there will always be those who want ownership to sell. Want to make calls for front office firings? Find me someone who doesn’t think they could be doing their job better. Telling me I suck at my job? That all comes with the territory I guess. But don’t also be surprised that if someone personally goes after anyone in the Club or its supporters in a way that defies the inclusive culture being built at the Fire, that the Club will respond sincerely and want to know why they would still want to be a part of it?
Our integrity within this Club actually matters to us. For me personally and others on the staff, this is our livelihood. Failure isn’t an option. Why would we choose to work together on building this Club with anyone who takes a stand that prevents progress, espouses negativity and is just downright not truthful, inhibiting us from doing our jobs to the best of our ability? Or worse, make attending a game for a supporter a fearful experience?
I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about soccer, the Fire or MLS. But what attracted me to the job is working in sports, connecting with passionate fans, being part of an organization that stands up for values like integrity, hard work, and humility and a 24/7 desire to bleed for this incredible Club. I heard every one of those elements in my conversations with our owner, AK, and others I met before making the decision to join. I knew that I was becoming part of a bigger movement, tasked with growing the game and the Club, leaving a positive impact on the community and Chicago as a whole. And with all its inherent challenges, that’s what we are going to do. For me personally, I would love your help to get there. In fact, I know how much I need it.
I have another confession – the majority of folks I’ve met since I’ve joined, the staff, supporters, bloggers, media, Club Seat Holders, Section 8 members, etc., have all been more than welcoming. I’ve felt that they want both the Club and me to succeed. While there will always be those who might choose a different route, I’m glad to know that there will be thousands of others that will have my back.
Over the weekend, Chicago Fire Season Ticket Holders began receiving #FIREUP renewal packets in the mail regarding 2014 Season Tickets. Chicago-Fire.com did a Q&A with Vice President of Ticket Sales, Service and Operations Mike Ernst to explain the philosophy behind some of the changes to the club's Season Ticket packages next season.
Chicago-Fire.com: Why is there a reduction from a 20 tickets to 18 tickets in the Season Ticket Holder packages?
Mike Ernst: Having discussed the potential move in the past, there are a couple of reasons we decided to make the switch this year.
First, we have seen over the course of the past several years that the Bonus Games were not always popular with our Season Ticket Holders. When we had a match against a big-name team like Manchester United, people were extremely happy, but if the game(s) were against a perceived lesser opponent, people were not as interested and were less likely to attend.
I think this stems from the fact that the games are exhibitions in nature and often times the regular starters did not play due to the competition calendar.
As a Club, we have tried to do our best to balance making sure the First Team is rested and has a competitive advantage in games that count (MLS Regular Season & U.S. Open Cup) while also putting on exhibitions that attract new, prospective fans.
C-F.com: Does the exclusion of Bonus Matches from this year’s season ticket packages mean the Fire won’t be hosting international friendlies next year?
ME: Far from it, exhibitions against international opponents will continue to be a focus for our Club going forward and we will give Season Ticket Holders the chance to purchase their tickets for any of these games before the general public. In addition, Season Ticket Holders will be able to purchase these tickets at a significant savings off the face value.
These matches give us the opportunity to raise the profile of our Club with the opponent’s fan base and the broader general public. The goal of hosting these matches is to attract local fans of another Club to a Fire game with the aim of converting them to supporting their local Club.
It is critical for the continued growth of our Club to recruit new fans and then convert them to Season Ticket Holders over time.
C-F.com: Why has the Club shifted course on U.S. Open Cup games with the offering of the U.S. Open Cup Series Ticket? What does that mean?
ME: The U.S. Open Cup Series ticket will be the 18th game in the season ticket package. That ticket (and parking if applicable) will be good for up to three games if the Fire host the 3rd Round, 4th Round and Quarterfinal at home.
This change is the next step in ownership’s commitment to contend for the U.S. Open Cup on an annual basis. In the past, we have and have not included U.S. Open Cup games in our season ticket package. We feel it is important to take this step, so that we give the guys on the field the best possible competitive advantage.
In the event that we do not host a U.S. Open Cup game at home, the Series ticket will be good for exchange to another MLS regular season home match.
C-F.com – What benefits are changing for Season Ticket Holders in 2014?
ME: The Club is committed to providing Fire fans with the best season ticket benefits in Chicago. In 2014, we will continue to offer free parking/$6 parking where applicable, the same exchange program to help you avoid wasting tickets, and a 20% off savings on merchandise at the TOYOTA PARK team store and online. In addition, it is important to note that we are not raising the price of tickets on a per-game basis.
Our goal is to continue to grow the season ticket base, so that we put the Club in a situation to sellout every match at TOYOTA PARK and thereby provide the team on the pitch with a home-field advantage. While that will not happen overnight, we believe that providing all Fire fans with an affordable and flexible season ticket option is critical to achieving our goal.
C-F.com – When can Season Ticket Holders expect to receive tickets for 2014?
We are expecting the 2014 season to begin sometime in early to mid-March, so we are aiming to have Season Tickets out by mid-February. It is important to us to make sure that this process goes as smoothly as possible.
In addition, we are still looking at options on how Season Tickets will be formatted for next year. There will be more information on that in the coming months.