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:
On the defensive performance:
Select shots from the Fire's 3-2 win over the Earthquakes
It was May 25 and I sat at Section 8 Chicago’s watch party at A.J. Hudsons, slightly distraught.
Despite seeing the Fire put in a fantastic effort in the always difficult climes of Rio Tinto Stadium I sat there in disbelief, surrounded by Fire supporters far more vocal in their dismay after witnessing Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio put the home side ahead 1-0 in the 78th minute.
The feeling was one I remembered -- the same aching pit in the stomach I’d felt nearly the entire game a week earlier in Philadelphia and then a week before that when the Fire had dominated but still found a way to lose at home to the Union.
Thankfully it took just six minutes before I felt good again and it was all down to an unlikely hero and an even less likely play as Quincy Amarikwa came flying through to volley home an improbable equalizer in the 84th minute.
Hudson’s erupted and though the game would only finish as a draw, it certainly felt like a win.
Fast forward five weeks and the Fire find themselves in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, just five points out of a playoff spot with two games in hand and on an eight-game unbeaten run that began that night on the Wasatch Front.
Four days after escaping Rio Tinto with a point, Magee would tally his first goal in a Fire shirt just 11 minutes into his club debut. All but about 1,500 people in Rock Hill, S.C. nearly missed it as my laptop carrying the YouTube stream crashed right at kickoff of the match.
As I sweat buckets there was something about the way my computer rebooted itself that told me things were going to be okay. Yes it took 11 minutes to get the feed back up but it returned just in time for anyone that held out hope to see Magee nod home his first Fire goal.
Every night since first suiting up that night in front of a small crowd in South Carolina, Magee has tallied for the Fire. Soumare has brought stability to a back line that has given up less than a goal a game in its last eight outings.
No doubt their acquisitions have helped the turnaround but it’d be wrong to say that the team didn’t already have a decent setup in place.
Along with their play, offseason acquisitions Jeff Larentowicz, Joel Lindpere and Dilly Duka have all contributed in a big way over the last month, complimenting the consistent performances of Patrick Nyarko, Gonzalo Segares, Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini.
Having never previously tallied in the U.S. Open Cup before 2013, Chris Rolfe has found a bit of a goal-scoring touch in the tournament, scoring three goals in as many games so far in this year’s competition.
This isn’t to say the eight-game unbeaten run has all been pretty. There have certainly been moments (see the first half against Portland) where we’d like to see more from the Fire and many times where goalkeeper Sean Johnson has had to come up huge to ensure the positive run.
But just as it seemed the Fire couldn’t get any bounces to go their way at the start of 2013, the karma, minutia, or maybe just the soccer gods seem to be smiling down on a team that wasn’t quite punching their weight at the beginning.
Now that I've suffiently set a jinx, yes the Fire are still 5-7-3 and yes, whether in the league or the Open Cup, plenty of work remains to be done to dig out of the hole from which they started the season. Depth needs to be built in the back and up front but it's still worth saying again, what a difference five weeks can make.
Tactical Preview: Despite international absences, San Jose will be reeling from stoppage time win over LA
After the weekend off, the Fire head back on the field Wednesday night against the San Jose Earthquakes with the team looking to extend its eight-game unbeaten streak to nine (LIVE 7:00pm CT on My50).
San Jose played late Saturday night against LA and came from two goals and a man down to win 3-2. Both teams are still on the outside of the playoff spots looking in but are moving in the right direction. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective Wednesday night.
Gold Cup changes – Both San Jose and the Fire missing players – who will it affect more?
Both the Earthquakes and the Fire will be missing players due to CONCACAF Gold Cup commitments but in terms of sheer numbers, San Jose is certainly hit harder. The California club is sending four players to compete while goalkeeper Sean Johnson is the Fire’s only representative.
The Earthquakes will also be without center back Victor Bernardez who picked up a red card against LA.
The losses of last year’s MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski and dynamic midfielder Marvin Chavez are especially tough and San Jose will certainly be relying even more on strikers Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon Wednesday.
Paolo Tornaghi is no stranger to the Fire net but will be looking to put in a better performance than his last MLS outing, giving up four goals at home to Chivas USA back in March.
Still, Tornaghi is an excellent goalkeeper and could easily be starting for another team in MLS. With Sean Johnson missing for the better part of a month, this is a chance for the former Inter Milan ‘keeper to really step up and force coach Frank Klopas into making a tough decision on the starting job once Johnson returns.
Keeping an eye on the outsides – Morrow and Beitashour are attacking threats
When you have strikers who are good in the air like San Jose has with the likes of Wondolowski, Lenhart and Gordon you want your wide players to be able to put a good cross in. The Earthquake’s wing backs can certainly do that.
Rolfe, Tornaghi Preview San Jose
Both Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour enjoy getting forward and their crossing ability is outstanding. Thankfully Gonzalo Segares did not get called into Costa Rica’s Gold Cup squad and his battle against Beitashour will be one to watch on Wednesday.
Beitashour’s numbers are certainly down from last season where he recorded six assists but he is still a player the Fire cannot allow space to cross the ball into the box.
In the ‘Quakes last away match against D.C. United last month, Morrow got forward a lot more than this past weekend’s match against LA. The outside backs attempted a combined 13 crosses in that match compared to only seven in the LA match.
Limiting the number of crosses should be a goal for the Men in Red on Wednesday night.
Tightening up at the back – important for Berry and Soumare to get their positioning right
With the possibility of both Lenhart and Alan Gordon starting for San Jose, both Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry must be prepared for some bruising physical battles.
Another thing the central defenders must keep an eye on is their positioning. An overlooked aspect of the Fire’s 5-1 victory over Orlando City in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal last week was the amount of good chances Orlando had, especially on 1v1 duels with Sean Johnson.
The Orlando strikers were able to get as many chances as they did due to some positioning errors by the Fire’s central defenders. Better communication between the pair, the back line and goalkeeper as a whole should correct this problem.
This will also be Tornaghi’s first match playing with Soumare so it will be interesting to see how good the players’ communication with one another is.
At times Berry and Soumare make it hard for themselves with some lackluster positioning which resulted in them having to make up ground and make some last ditch tackles, something we saw against Orlando on more than one occasion.
Though Gordon and Lenhart are more about physicality than movement, I look for the Fire center backs to tighten up a bit on Wednesday and continue to improve on their less than one goal a game against average during this current eight-game unbeaten streak.
Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Patrick Nyarko and “Magic” Mike Magee
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.
If you're like me, you might have spent your Friday night away from a television, meaning you missed the second episode of MLS Insider on NBC Sports Network.
No fears though, catch the full episode featuring the Houston Dynamo's 2006 MLS Cup championship, a segment on FC Dallas keeper Raul Fernandez and the best and worst moments of the past week..
Tune in or set your DVRs for MLS Insider, Fridays at 6:30pm CT. You may see a Fire player featured quite soon...
You ever watch our weekly web shot "The Centerback" and say to yourself, "Wow Brendan and Jeff nail it every time!"
No, you don't? Well you'd be right. Usually "The Centerback" takes us a little to get just right but that also means we can put together a pretty awesome blooper reel as well...
Select shots from the Fire's 5-1 win over Orlando City SC
Credit: Brian Kersey, Chicago Fire