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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and 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.
Chess fans sometimes talk about how the number of possible permutations in a game outnumbers the number of atoms in the observable universe. Every game starts the same, they say, with the pieces set up exactly so, but from there on it’s almost impossible to predict. And that’s with pieces that are limited to certain movements and don’t have independent decision making capacities! Surely in soccer there are many, many more possible permutations in a game.
It seems like this Fire season is full of unexpected permutations. Shots that don’t go in, sucker punches, surprise goalscorers, the Nyarko-Rolfe partnership, 11 different starting lineups in 11 games, it goes on. And then there’s the season as a whole, which, if it were a chess game, would still be in the first stages with no clear path to victory or defeat.
Then came the news last week of two bona fide MLS starters joining the squad in Bakary Soumare and Mike Magee. In defense, where Soumare’s experience and size will fit right in, and up top, where Magee’s six goals this season matched the Fire’s entire team total until Saturday night, the Fire are hoping to take away some of the frustrating unexpectedness of the season thus far. To keep the chess analogy going, the Fire’s front office is castling 11 moves in, which makes perfect sense. They’re moving pieces into a more recognizable system, complete with pawns staggered to protect the king in defense and positioning other players to be poised in attack.
Chess fans also like to talk about the three phases to a game: the opening, middlegame, and endgame. Within individual games, everybody’s been talking about the Fire’s endgame problems in front of goal. But there’s been less discussion about middlegame and opening. How are the Fire positioned when they get the ball? How are they moving towards goalscoring positions? And so on.
After going down a goal in the second half on Saturday night in Salt Lake City, coach Frank Klopas started throwing players forward in a way we haven’t seen all season. The Klopas Gambit was bold, necessary, and ultimately successful in helping the Fire steal a point against the always well organized RSL.
Two images show the difference. First look at this shot from a Fire attack in the first half:
Some context: Soumare won the ball, it fell to Dilly Duka in the center circle, and he floated a ball forward towards Chris Rolfe. But nobody except Nyarko and Rolfe are forward, they’re surrounded by eight RSL players! Compare that to this image, after the Klopas Gambit:
This is right after Sherjill McDonald came on as the last sub, joining Quincy Amarikwa and Alex. Now it’s six attackers on seven RSLers up top. It’s no surprise that the Fire’s tying goal came just a minute later.
OK it’s not totally fair to take snapshots because so little in soccer happens in a vacuum. It makes perfect sense for the Fire not to commit too many players forward in the opening minutes of a game at the formidable Rio Tinto stadium, etc. But the point is the flexibility of the team. This team is definitely still being built. Despite having played 11 games, Klopas found success with something he hadn’t done all season, there are two new starters, and it’s clear that the Fire are still in the opening part of the season.
For the Fire this season, the board is still open. The game against RSL should allay the worst fears of Fire’s faithful: If the season’s opening is as tough as the opening at RSL on Saturday, there’s always the middlegame and endgame to come. New pieces are being introduced and mobilized, and if these images are anything to go by, there are many, many, many more permutations for this team to go through before the season’s end.
Some of the best tweets in the lead-up to, during and after Saturday's 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew...