Between the Lines
Call it Fire 2.0 version 2.a. After the Bakary Soumare/Mike Magee stage of the season (the super hot June, Fire 2.0, back in the playoff race) the closing of the transfer window earlier this month saw two more players - Juan Luis Anangono and Arevalo Rios - come in and now we’re seeing another shift in the team.
New players came just in time too, because injury and fatigue start to necessitate rotation around this time in August. Last week against Montreal, Frank Klopas switched up his tactics to accommodate his newfound depth. The finishing and creativity of Magee and Patrick Nyarko were replaced by the industry and hold up play of Alex and Anangono, in a sort of fusion 4-5-1/4-4-2. That set up worked in part because Jeff Larentowicz and Logan Pause established a base of control and support in the midfield the whole team could build off, and also because of the way the outside midfielders got forward, Dilly Duka and Joel Lindpere scored both goals.
On Saturday night in New England, Klopas went back to his trusted 4-4-2 and plugged in new Uruguayan signing Rios alongside Larentowicz in Alex’s former spot in the center of midfield. In his first MLS game, on turf to boot, Rios showed what we’re getting by breaking up play all over the place and springing a few counter attacks. You can see what Klopas is thinking: Always pushing the team to counter swiftly after winning the ball, Klopas must be licking his lips at the idea of Rios looming around and sending Duka, Magee, Angonono, Amarikwa, and Nyarko off into space behind opposing defenses. This ball didn’t turn into anything, but look at how quickly the Fire can forward with Rios:
But Saturday night the Fire lacked a little bit of rhythm and cohesion and it was clear that Rios and Larentowicz - having trained together, what, three days at most - have some work to do to provide the base of control and support that Larentowicz and Pause provided last week, or the balance of control and distribution that Larentowicz and Alex had during the Fire’s turn-around in June/July.
It’s tempting to think that unlocking the code of the center midfield (Laurentowitz/Pause vs. Laurentowitz/Alex vs. Laurentowitz/Rios vs. something else) will unlock the rest of the Fire season. That’s probably psychological game playing, because as off-rhythm as it may have looked on Saturday, if Magee’s shot off the post in the first half is an inch or two right, or if Duka reads Magee’s pass in the second half, the center midfield issues may well have been buried under more stories of Magee’s magical season.
Credit to New England, too, who played deep and didn’t let Anangono get behind them as much as he’d have liked. But the Fire need a plan for teams that play deep. How will they break them down? On Saturday, the Fire couldn’t adjust offensively, and after taking out Duka and Lindpere, they never had the width or chances they created against Montreal.
All year we’ve loved to break up the season into pieces. There was Fire 1.0, Magee’s Fire 2.0, and now the current iteration. I think we’ve been conceptualizing the season in pieces because we want to see the Fire’s poorer displays as merely symptoms of an old version of the Fire, not a sign of what’s to come. The bugs have been fixed, we want to think, and when we see a run of bad form followed by some good games, we say “thank God, ok, we’re past that”.
We know the Fire have the quality to get into the playoffs but then a game like New England comes and they drop points against a playoff challenger. The psychological game we play to convince ourselves that the best is yet to come gets tougher. And all year, for every step the Fire take forward, they take another one back, only to get up and quickly go forward again.
But the season won’t be decided by one game. The Fire have to regroup and figure out how to accommodate all the new players, get the rest of the team healthy, and push into the playoff race. Fans and commentators have argued all season about which is the real 2013, is it the one that beat Montreal last week or the one that lost to New England on Saturday?
I think the bipolar character of this team might be exactly where its strength comes from, and I saw enough on Saturday to suggest that, yes, the best is still to come. So let’s stick with “Fire 2.0v2a.” Next week it’ll probably be something completely different.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
In the 87th minute on Saturday night at Toyota Park, the Fire were holding on to a 2-1 lead against Montreal, who were seven points and two playoff positions ahead in the table. Daniel Paladini, who had come on for Alex 25 minutes earlier, set up to take a corner, but there were just two Fire players forward against six or so in blue. Jeff Larentowicz and Quincy Amarikwa were moving around, doing their best to make space, but this was all about the chance to have the ball deep in Montreal’s half and relieve some pressure.
Paladini saw Amarikwa a half yard away from his marker at the penalty spot and floated a ball in towards him. Judging from how the ball arrived to Amarikwa at about the height of Montreal center back Hassoun Camara, and considering Camara’s listed at 6-2 and Amarikwa at 5-9, the Fire forward’s insanely acrobatic bicycle attempt got his feet up to a half-foot above his own head.
Even though Amarikwa whiffed, it was one of those athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic moments that can define a soccer game because generally, the team that comes out the most athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic is going to win the games. (Also, Amarikwa made up for the whiff by converting an equally impressive bike in the reserve match on Sunday morning.) It said more, too, that it was a substitute that was making this sort of tone-setting play.
Amarikwa has impressed Fire fans in his cameos this season because of his work rate, willingness to take defenders on, and his creative spontaneity on the ball (even if that means sometimes he holds onto it for a bit too long). Those were exactly the traits the Fire needed to get maximum points at home on Saturday, a critical result that leaves the team now just two points out of a playoff spot. Even though he didn’t have the impact on the game, Amarikwa's work was symbolic of that of the whole team.
In the third game in eight days, with Mike Magee and Chris Rolfe day-to-day, Patrick Nyarko out, Dilly Duka picking up a new knock every game, new DP Juan Luis Anangono acclimating to MLS, Logan Pause coming back from injury, and the pressure for points greater than it’s been all season following Wednesday’s Open Cup exit, the Fire came out on Saturday with a new look to them.
As two deeper lying midfielders, Pause and Larentowicz haven’t found their rhythm together this season, but this time Frank Klopas put them out with Alex (who took the spot when Pause got injured) pushed forward with Anangono. The wide players were the same (Joel Lindpere and Duka), but the seemingly minor adjustment of adding Pause and pushing Alex farther forward actually provided the Fire the first fresh tactical look seen since the spring.
And it was a solid system, too, because it morphed from a 4-5-1 with Alex dropping deeper during periods of Montreal possession, into the usual Fire 4-4-2 when the Fire won the ball, with Alex pushing on into space with Anangono. They worked well together on certain fast breaks; Anangono showed that he’s not afraid to make lung-busting runs to clear out space for others. But as much as the system provided some necessary defensive support without sacrificing the slingshot counterattacking Klopas loves, the game was always going to be decided by the players stepping up into the spaces left by Nyarko, Magee, and Rolfe.
Klopas couldn't have asked for a better response from Lindpere and Duka, the two creative wide players who have fought for their playing time all season, and who scored the two goals. They took their chances (and a bit of luck), but they also held the ball, moved the team forward, tracked back, and generally kept the pace of the game far above the revolting one we saw on Wednesday night.
Saturday night showed the Fire’s depth and flexibility in personnel, tactics, and mindset, and it was Amarikwa’s bike that showed the Fire’s potential for style and spontaneity. If this team is going to complete this massive comeback into playoff contention, it’s as much the creativity as it is the grit that’s going to take them there and it’ll have to come not just from the superstars and leaders, but from everyone on the team.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
At Toyota Park in May, Philly sat back, let the Fire run circles around them like some mean, old dog, then got a seemingly innocuous free kick and suddenly Jack McInerney, in on goal, kicked the team straight in the gut. That game felt like a one-act play, where the characters on stage build to an obvious conclusion, some grotesque act that you know is coming but still shocks and hurts when you see it live.
This Saturday, the Fire went to Philly to continue their climb back into the playoff picture and battled in a Three Act work of considerable drama. Each was punctuated by a goal. Here’s the liner notes, starring Philly and Chicago, two mysterious characters.
Act One, The Set-Up (0-45’)
Kick off. Philly comes out first, Chicago wakes up slowly, stretches arms to the sky, makes coffee, realizes it’s in the middle of a game, and immediately pops into action. Philly, who tried to come out with high and tight pressure, find themselves being passed around in sequences of quick one-twos and flicks, like those that lead to a beautiful first goal, with not even 10 minutes gone.
Philly broadcasters (the chorus), clamor for more “intensity” from the home team. The Fire look comfortable but ominously cannot extend their lead. They start to slow down a bit and Philly enjoy a few minutes of confidence-boosting possession at the end of the half, including a couple of dangerous free kicks. The plot thickens.
Act Two, The Montage (45’-54’)
This short intervening act provides the backbone of the drama. A little character development. Fresh off their orange slices, Philly and Chicago come out ready to party again.
Like Act One, Philly threaten first (Conor Casey flashes a shot just wide of goal two minutes in), but Chicago recovers and takes the upper hand. How predictable is this? Chicago finds space everywhere and kick off a few minutes of possession in the opponent’s half like we haven’t seen all season.
Cue montage and “Danger Zone.” A few not particularly interesting forays forward foreshadow something for Philly, but Chicago cruises.
What can go wrong?
Act Three, The Climax (54-90)
The Montage ends. The motorcycle crashes. Le Toux gets in on Chicago’s right and Sean Johnson makes a kick save. Chicago attacks and Rolfe finds enough space to squeeze a shot off - but Zac MacMath tips it over the bar. Go time. Philly go forward and get their goal with 30 minutes left - so much time for both to fight out the end.
Suddenly Philly is everywhere. Sean Johnson makes an impossible save off a corner. Another is cleared off the line. Chicago is wavering badly, Philly is matching Chicago’s dominance from Act Two.
There is no music. Chicago fights with their inner identity battle between the disappointments early in the year and their confidence to close games. (Mike Magee said after the game, “I think there was a point in the 65th minute where we had been getting pummeled the whole half and we all kind of looked at each other and said this game is there for us to win.”)
Two subs come on in the 67th, as Klopas tries to overturn Philly’s momentum.
And then it happens, the climax. Chicago confronts Philly. They continue pressing. The spirit of fight and persistence embodied in Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko combine with harrowing pressure. Nyarko fights the ball loose from a Philly midfielder and plays in Magee. Magee finishes calmly.
Your girlfriend is crying, but there’s still twenty minutes time! The drama carries over but the game is rarely in doubt. A penalty shout scares the audience, so nobody leaves their seats. Then the violin music. A stoppage time kiss at the sunset. Chicago steals the points.
The Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field meant that even though the Fire were in Houston on Saturday, Chicago would not be deprived of live soccer this weekend. Thank goodness. From a Fire point of view, it’s pretty special that Sean Johnson and alum DaMarcus Beasley overlapped on this USMNT squad.
The game itself wasn’t as exciting as you could have hoped from the two best Gold Cup teams. Panama’s tight defense kept the U.S. side from running at them the way they ran at Honduras and El Salvador and they never looked like they would put up the crooked numbers that defined their tournament.
There were even a few times when the game looked like a cagey MLS match, with a challenger in town to try to steal the day, staying taut, and not making mistakes. But the USMNT wore down Panama, took their best (and really only clear cut) chance, held on against a barrage of balls floated into the box in the final minutes and were crowned deserved champions.
How nice would it be to see the Fire handle games like that? On Saturday, we saw the Fire come back from behind yet again. We saw them nearly nick all three points and then nearly lose them all. We saw flashes of dangerous counterattacks and Paolo Tornaghi making some big saves. Most of all, we saw despite obvious improvements over the last trip to Houston, the team is still missing one little bit of finality in both halves.
Back in April, the 2013 Fire v1.0 went to Houston with the goal of slowing the game down, playing calmly and controlling the match. The greenhouse (orange-house?) that is BBVA Compass Stadium dictated that, and we saw players run themselves dead on that afternoon, which also included a vintage Brad Davis garbage goal, Wells Thompson, and a last minute Jeff Larentowicz hit off the crossbar (HIGHLIGHTS from April 14).
On Saturday, the 2013 Fire v2.0 went to Houston with a different mindset. They went to play, to take some initiative. You could see it at the beginning of the game and at the beginning of the second half when Lindpere and Nyarko were pushed way up the field on the outside.
HIGHLIGHTS: Fire earn tough 1-1 draw in Houston
Alas, the result wasn’t much different. Houston, one of the hardest teams to beat away in the history of MLS, controlled the game. The Fire looked absolutely spent at the end of the game, much of which they spent chasing the orange midfielders around and trying to clear their persistent crosses into the box.
But the difference this time around was the way in which the Fire actually looked dangerous at times, stealing into Houston’s half on counter attacks and nearly grabbing the lead on a late Chris Rolfe chance.
In April, we looked at the difficulty of balancing the mindset to calm the game down without sacrificing the risk-taking attitude needed to be offensive, to attack. Now, with Bakary Soumare and Mike Magee (and the Alex/Larentowicz partnership), it seems like 2013 Fire v2.0 are poised to find that balance.
As another new striker and the All-Star break arrive, maybe the Fire will find that teeny bit of difference. If so, next time we play Houston at Toyota Park in September, they’ll be the ones wilting, exhausted after falling to 2013 Fire v3.0
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
I’ve always thought it odd that sports falls into the category of entertainment business. Sure people pay to watch it, same as all entertainment, and there are “actors”, agents, venues and all that. But when you’re emotionally attached, soccer feels like more than merely entertainment. “Entertainment” feels a little shallow, I think of county fair tents, while sports can feel like everything in the world.
Take the idea of “Sport”: Roman, high, physically extreme, competition; and the idea of “Entertainment”: Amusement, fun, pleasure.
But it’s not fair to separate the two quite so fast. I did a Twitter search for “R Kelly tears” after his highly lauded Pitchfork set on Sunday night and remembered that in music, too, people live for what happens on stage. You get caught up with performers and players, you put your expectations on them, you live through them, and when they stand up and return everything in performance, the exaltation is real and thorough and spiritual.
The word performance is interesting. We say players “perform” well (or not) the same way we do about musicians and actors. I suppose the main difference between performing and just, well, doing something, is that performances require an audience. And it’s the audience that makes the show, right? Nobody believes in your work unless you do it in front of a crowd, and the Pope in the woods isn’t selling tickets.
Something about those moments in a performance, when players and audience are one, when expectations are met and then exceeded, time speeds up and slows down, the moment stretches out into something like a feeling, and everything is right again. Whether it’s a band onstage or a team on a field, those encores, those goals, they make us bigger.
Performances are entertainment, and injecting competition into performances only makes them more so. A friend once told me that she had no problem going to youth swim meets; she found them entertaining because she just liked to watch races.
So among all the clamor this weekend about fancy players in town for Pitchfork and the Fire readying to bring in a new Designated Player, the team hosted a D.C. side Saturday night that is absolutely reeling. And the Fire handled business. The most “entertaining” factor in it all, though, was seeing Chris Rolfe grab a couple goals.
I mean, your sister loves Chris Rolfe, we all love Chris Rolfe (you saw his cute reaction to Section 8’s song for him after his first goal, right?), and he was in desperate need for some goals because, let’s face it, you can’t make a career playing up top and not scoring in this league. And it’s not like he wasn’t trying, he leads the team in shots, we see his work rate game after game, but now it looks like Rolfe is finally starting to get in that rhythm where the goal looks all big and goalies are just annoying impediments. His finishes have that quick, confident feel about them again.
It was cathartic to see the elation after his first goal, right in front of Section 8. Rolfe’s been at it for a while, he’s been on more than a few tours, and we all want him to succeed and meet the expectations we put on him. It’s the life of a performer, I guess, to have to deal with not only the usual pressure one puts on oneself, or that a coach puts on, but to face the crowd’s expectations too. Like R. Kelly did on Sunday, and like all great performers, Rolfe stepped up in the moment and made it something bigger, something that we could all share in, and that’s entertainment at its best.
And here the Fire go into the second half of the season, now suddenly in a losing streak, with as many questions swirling around everybody as there were in March. Last week I wrote about how the Fire have an opportunity to define their season, but it’s games like Sunday’s in Vancouver that show how this Fire team this year, for good or for bad, just refuses to be defined.
There are a million ways to look at games like Sunday’s. I mean, the Fire lost. They didn’t score when they had the chances, they gave up three goals, and they didn’t get any points. Those are the facts that count, sure, but games are never completely comprehensible in a quantitative way, and, especially as we all try to figure out the true identity of this team, the mysteries are confounding.
Was Sunday’s game as bad as the score line looked? Or did the Fire not get all they deserved? Was the lineup wrong? Or was the lineup fine but certain plays didn’t go the Fire’s way, that’s life, etc.? Let’s look a bit closer…
View 1: The Fire died in the second half, gave up three goals in 20 minutes, and couldn’t muster a comeback.
View 2: The Fire stood up against a plastic pitch and hostile atmosphere, dominated the first half and were unlucky not to score, then broke down against Vancouver’s momentum after Camillo’s first goal (which was brilliant and would’ve come off against anyone.)
View 1: The Fire’s defense is too exposed and the additions of Soumare and Francis, as well as moving Anibaba out wide, couldn’t keep Vancouver at bay.
View 2: The Fire’s defense has cut down the blatant mistakes we saw earlier this season, Segares was suspended, first choice goalie Sean Johnson is with the USMNT, defenses take time to gel, it’s hardly the end of the world, none of Vancouver’s goals were due to terrible defending or mistakes.
View 1: Sunday’s result makes sense because the Fire haven’t been strong away from Toyota Park.
View 2: One of the Fire’s best results this year was a scrappy away draw at RSL in May.
View 1: Klopas’ second half subs aren’t making a difference the way they used to.
View 2: The gist of the substitutions - refreshing center midfielders and providing more options up front (see Lindpere, Quincy, and Maicon) - are exactly the same as they were when they changed games in the unbeaten run. Also, without Paladini and Pause in Vancouver, he had fewer options.
View 1: Magee’s hot run is over.
View 2: Magee created multiple chances in the first half, just missed the back post twice in the second, had a shot blocked later, and was generally all over the place and annoying for Vancouver.
And so on...
So - was the Fire’s unbeaten run a fluke? Were the losses against KC and Vancouver proof that the Fire can’t convert against the best in MLS? Did the additions of Magee and Soumare, the resurgence of Duka-Rolfe-Nyarko trio, and the presence of Larentowicz all flame out?
OR: Did tough-fought results against Portland and RSL prove that the Fire can fight against anyone in the league? Maybe back-to-back losses against KC (the best team in the East) and at Vancouver (one of the hardest places to play in MLS) aren’t totally surprising, even for top teams? Maybe the Fire lost to a brilliant goal and a tough atmosphere/pitch, were unlucky not to score a handful themselves, and should just wash themselves of this game and move on?
In other words, there are no answers. I don’t think the Fire were dominated in Vancouver. But they lost. If the Fire had converted one of their first half chances, maybe Vancouver loses some confidence, and the Fire come away with some points. If not for Camillo’s second goal, the ball didn’t manage to squeeze past three Fire players, and the Fire equalize, who knows?
The “if” game is tough. One could say that the best way to address is that is to decisively remove all “if”s, convert the chances, not give up goals and be champions -- end of story. Fair, but maybe the best approach this year is to embrace what this team is. Maybe this year’s Fire is defined by a transient identity, a team finding itself through wins, losses, and draws. Maybe that’s what’s best about them?
A mistake is just a mistake, an error, a blip - the definition implies that it’s somehow against what’s expected, it’s notable specifically because it’s not in rhythm with everything else going on. Repeated mistakes, predictable mistakes, they’re no longer mistakes. They’re problems.
After yet another game marked by early concessions (and, at last, without the gritty comebacks that defined the Fire’s breathtaking unbeaten streak) The Fire find themselves approaching halfway through the season with an opportunity to define their year.
Are all these frustrating early goals, the slow starts, the brief moments of futility - are they mistakes, errors, blips? Are they exceptions to the true Fire? Or will they define the Fire as a problem, and we’ll look back sometime in the fall at a team that cost itself a playoff spot?
Pour some out for the exhilarating and dramatic nine-game unbeaten run. After Wednesday’s game against San Jose, everything looked hunky dory. The Fire let in some goals, but they controlled the game, scored wonderfully, and showed just how much of a new team we were seeing compared to the disappointments of the spring. Now, the Fire will have to show whether Magic Mike Magee’s impact is just makeup, MLS cover-all.
The best part of soccer seasons is that, eventually, your strengths and weaknesses are laid bare. There are deserved and deserved results, sure, but there’s no such thing as a lucky season because there are enough games to balance out unlucky bounces, bad call, injuries, and so on. The points at the end of the season tell a complete story.
So, yes, Sunday was hot and humid. KC is stacked, with maybe the best back line in MLS. The Fire played on short rest. It was, in other words, the worst scenario to let in early goals.
But it also exposed the Fire’s tendency to let in these goals that just feel wrong. The only word I can think of to describe the kinds of goals we’ve seen against the Fire is icky. They’re icky. They’re kind of gross. They feel wrong. They’re not well worked, they don’t really break the Fire down or come from great passing or individual brilliance. I’m thinking about Lindpere’s own goal and Gordon’s ridiculous crossbar assist to himself on Wednesday; Feilhaber’s volley off the post and Zusi’s wind-assisted Shross on Sunday. Going back, there are the Austin Berry gifts to Deshorn Brown of Colorado and Dominic Oduro of Columbus. You have to go all the way back to June 8th against Portland to see a really nice goal scored against the Fire in MLS.
That’s a good sign, I think. I think it means that, once the Fire stop letting in these icky goals, Magee and the suddenly more clinical Duka - Nyarko - Rolfe supporting cast will continue to carry the Fire towards a playoff spot. It only seems right.
But with big road games in Vancouver and Houston coming up this month and the games starting to wear people down, the Fire are going to have to prove that their ascent is legitimate. They’ll have to prove that June’s run was no lie, that the early goals were a bunch of mistakes, errors, blips - not what defines them.
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.
The Fire start sluggishly and give up an early goal thanks to some sloppiness. The first half runs its course with a series of dreary long balls, and very little else worth mentioning. The second half begins, the Fire come out a totally different team. They move the ball quicker. They even the game. They continue pressing. They take the lead. The second half develops into a series of counter attacks on one end and dramatic blocks, saves, and misses on the other. The game ends, the Fire players celebrate.
Sound familiar? After almost carbon copy games against Colorado and in Columbus last week (not to mention similar feeling games against Portland and RSL), the Fire games are becoming something like the works of one of those airport authors - the characters change and the setting is different, but the arc remains the same.
Not that we’re lacking any drama. These comebacks are scintillating, and we deserve it after those early games that were, frankly, difficult to watch. Now Fire games are chaotic, fun spectacles.
I was pining for a hockey-like empty netter on Saturday when all possible counterattacks flamed out and, yet again, we never got the insurance goal that would let us relax and enjoy the last few minutes of the game. Just like Wednesday against Colorado, the Fire survived Columbus thanks to some great work by Sean Johnson in goal, some miscues, and a few fortunate bounces.
Of course, every comeback is different, and this time there was no Klopas Gambit. There weren’t major changes in shape or personnel. What was different was who stepped up to change the game.
Last week we talked about Jeff Larentowicz really driving the Fire upwards, and literally the first play of the second half, the play that set the tone for the ensuing comeback, was of Larentowicz tackling Oduro hard at midfield.
But all of a sudden it looks like the Fire have depth all over the place. Players that struggled to make an impact at the beginning of the season are proving their worth. Joel Lindpere had two beautiful assists, Dilly Duka was arguably player of the game Saturday against his old team, and with Magee about as hot as a player can get, it’s no surprise the Fire are charging up the table.
The attitude in the locker room has to be refreshing. After the game on Saturday, Magee said, “We know we can battle and we fight for each other, that’s the hardest thing in soccer.” Despite the slow starts and the stressful endings, the Fire are building something.
Let’s enjoy it with another look at Duka skinning and megging Chad Barson.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.