Commentary: Changing Chicago's identity

New demographics, new coaches, new players mean a new Fire

Perhaps no franchise in MLS has undergone more of an identity change in the past three years than the Chicago Fire. And consequently, no club seems to be further ahead on the curve reaching into the future of the league.

The Fire built their early success largely on Poles, Czechs and Greeks, boasting names like Nowak, Kubik and Klopas, which resonated with Chicago’s diverse and wide-reaching Eastern European population.

The heroes of the modern-day Fire though, are more befitting of how much has changed in Chicago—and the US—since the late 1990s. Now the names belong to Blanco, de los Cobos and—following his presentation as the Fire’s newest Designated Player—Nery Castillo.

Changing Demographics

But it’s no wonder the Fire have expanded from their European roots. Chicago is a city at the forefront of the nation’s dynamically changing demographics, and the Fire seem to be wisely adjusting their lineup to more accurately represent what’s to come for soccer fans in America.

A 2006 report by the US Census Bureau revealed what most Chicagoans already know, that the city now boasts the second-largest Hispanic population in the country behind Los Angeles, at roughly 1.72 million residents. Compare that to the decreasing Polish population in the city—roughly 182,000 in the same 2006 report—and it’s clear why the Fire are making marked steps to change their identity in Bridgeview, drawing attention from new fans in suburbs like Cicero and Melrose Park or other heavily Hispanic pockets within the Chicago city limits.

Although raised predominantly in Uruguay and with no professional history in Mexico, Castillo is an ideal Designated Player for the Fire’s transformation. His late father played professionally in Mexico, and Castillo himself has scored titanic goals for the Mexican national team, endearing himself to much of Chicagoland’s 1.36 million or so Mexicans, 53 percent of which are men.

According to Oscar Guzman, who handles play-by-play for the Fire’s Spanish-language radio broadcasts on Univision Radio, the numbers are impossible to ignore.

“The immigrants, they want to see immigrants on the field,” Guzman said.“The Mexicans want to see Mexicans on the field.”

The Fire have a history of courting Mexican fans—flamboyant Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos played for the club briefly in 1998—but they’ve truly set a precedent since 2007. The signing of Cuauhtémoc Blanco was a watershed moment for the league, firmly tapping into a Hispanic demographic speculated to comprise 29 percent of the US population by 2050.

The 2009 hiring of Carlos de los Cobos as the most high-profile Mexican coach in MLS history, coupled with the signing of a rising Mexican star in Castillo, signifies the Fire have the inside track on landing at least some of those prospective fans in a seat at Toyota Park.

“It’s a huge, huge motivating factor. We knew it, and the folks at the Fire absolutely know it,” said former Fire GM John Guppy, who signed Blanco as the team’s first DP in 2007. “If you can find a player who can help you on the field and they’re Mexican, it’s hard to look beyond that.”

Blanco’s arrival buoyed nearly every category by which teams mark success off the field: jersey sales, ticket revenue and sponsorship interest. He carried the greatest name recognition the league had ever seen to the growing Hispanic community, resonating not only with Mexicans, but also with fans of South and Central American lineage who were familiar with his play through the wide-reaching proliferation of the Mexican Priméra División.

Best Buy soon came on board with a multimillion dollar sponsorship deal, as the retail chain expanded into Mexico in 2008 with the nation’s most celebrated athlete asking kids to root for the Fire. Ticket and merchandise sales skyrocketed at Toyota Park, and Blanco drew constant comparisons to the league’s crown jewel, LA Galaxy superstar David Beckham.

And that appeal meant as much to Guppy and the Fire as signing a player like French icon Zinedine Zidane, who was a Chicago DP prospect less than a year after he won the Golden Ball at the World Cup in Germany.

“When you stacked everything up, all roads kept coming back to (Blanco) being the right decision,” Guppy said.

Said Guzman: “When LA signed David Beckham and Chicago signed Cuauhtemoc, I was sure the Fire were in the better position. Beckham was a superstar throughout the world, but if you focused on Hispanics, Cuauhtemoc was better. He was, of course, the stronger figure.”

Lessons from Landin

But Blanco, of course, could also play. Guppy knew that when he courted him in Mexico City, and those who didn’t know it learned quickly. Blanco was an MLS All-Star in 2008 and 2009 and a perennial MVP candidate, and he led the Fire to the Eastern Conference final each of his three seasons in Chicago.

And that’s what matters most to Frank Klopas, now the Fire’s technical director and the man behind the Castillo deal. Klopas has risen up the ranks to the Fire’s top personnel post, but he’s still instinctively a player before he’s a businessman, with a reputation staked on the talent he signs, not on the marketing strategies he enhances.

So while Klopas—who played with Polish great Peter Nowak and Czech defender Lubos Kubik when the Fire won their only MLS Cup in 1998—admits the Hispanic base is one the Fire can’t ignore, signing a player simply because he’s Mexican won’t necessarily move the needle in the right direction.

“I know the marketplace here. The big Hispanic community, the big Polish community . . . it’s a big soccer community,” Klopas said. “It would be great to have players who can represent the soccer cultures here. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is that we find good players who can make our team better.”

“What’s the point of bringing a Mexican player who’s not a good player on the field?” Klopas added. “[Fans] are not going to come and watch something like that.”

Chris Canetti agrees. The Houston Dynamo’s chief operating officer took a calculated risk at using his club’s first ever DP slot on Mexican striker Luis Ángel Landín last summer, attempting to bring in both a talented player and a promising commodity to the Hispanic population in Houston.

On paper, Landín’s signing was a no-brainer. Houston boasts not only the country’s second-largest population growth rate over the last decade, but 29 percent of the city’s 2.26 million residents are Hispanic, including the country’s third-largest Mexican population.

Landín, though not on par with Blanco from a notoriety standpoint, was a former star with Pachuca and Morelia. He signed last August and many believed he had the potential to grow into a fan favorite in a lucrative Hispanic market. Instead, he appeared in just 16 league games with the club and was back in Mexico inside of a year, leaving Canetti to wonder what went wrong.

“It would be favorable to us to have a Mexican player on our team that represents the large population of Mexican fans in the area,” Canetti said. “But that’s a lot easier said than done. It didn’t work out, we haven’t hidden from that, and we move on.”

It wasn’t that Landín necessarily lacked the star power a player like Castillo carries into Chicago. The Dynamo never counted on the 25 year-old to completely energize the Hispanic fan base the way Blanco did for the Fire, but they were disappointed to find few residual effects, if any, from his arrival. Landín struggled to resonate with the Houston community, and as a direct result, the Dynamo saw little to no change in ticket revenue or attendance during his brief time there.

“We need to be a credible soccer league with credible players, and Hispanics are very smart fans,” Canetti said. “They get it. If they’re seeing quality soccer, attacking soccer, they’re going to like it.”

“The only way he would have resulted in a massive increase in ticket sales was if he played well,” Canetti added. “And all of a sudden people wanted to come and see 10 or 12 or 15 goals a season, someone who really lit it up. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from—you want to see players who play well.”

That’s the challenge now laid out for Castillo in Chicago. Can he deliver?

Playing in the Shadow of Blanco

Castillo signing hasn’t been met with nearly the acclaim of Blanco’s three years ago, but those comparisons are unfair. Blanco was older, more established as a star with Club América, a brand unto himself among Mexicans. He dated telenovela stars and boasted an infamous temper that made him legendary and, consequently, impossible to ignore.

Castillo, on the other hand, is still just 26 years old, with a career yet to truly take form. He played for big clubs but in European soccer’s smaller leagues, like Greece and Ukraine. He enjoyed a stretch of play in 2006 and 2007 that made him a hero to Mexican fans, scoring four goals for El Tri in the Copa America tournament in Venezuela, including a brilliant finish against Brazil that serves as an internet sensation and perhaps the greatest single example of his talent.

Where Blanco was a creative set-up man, Castillo is more of a goal scorer. He was a dynamic threat for Greek side Olympiakos four years ago, leveraging a string of Champions League goals into a jaw-dropping $27 million contract with Ukrainian side Shaktar Donetsk.

“You can see Chicharito Hernandez with Manchester United, but he’s so young. You can see Carlos Vela with Arensal, but he’s not ready,” Guzman said. “Nery… to me, he’s better.”

Still, injuries and transgressions have made Castillo largely expendable to top-flight European clubs over the last three years, and he’s stated publicly that he has avoided a career in Mexico due partly to harsh criticism recently leveled on him by the press there. By comparison, it’s tough to imagine anyone—particularly the press—running Blanco out of Mexico.

Castillo’s dealt with personal strife too. His mother passed away in January 2009, and his father—who de los Cobos remembers fondly from their playing days in Mexico in the 1980s—passed away last December, leaving Castillo without the man who first guided him to a career in Europe as a teenager.

But it’s the setbacks that made him an option for MLS, and help define him as a different but equally endearing Mexican star.

“When Mexican players are playing in Mexico, they’re thinking about their career in Europe,” Guzman said. “That’s not Nery. He has to come to MLS to regain his form. And people in Mexico are waiting for to him recover that level again.”

Added de los Cobos: “People here at the stadium told me they were excited about him. Like me, they think he can come and be successful here.”

The Fire’s future doesn’t rest on whether Castillo succeeds or fails. MLS’ history is littered with players of all ethnicities and nationalities who were once eager to open the league up to new markets, different demographics and a broader fan base, but who never delivered on the promise. Yet the clubs have persevered.

But there’s certainly plenty at stake if Castillo succeeds. The Fire’s former heroes have moved to the sideline or the board room, while some of the fans who once cheered them and spoke their native tongue are gone. The transition to a new generation in one of the league’s biggest markets is afoot, and success in Chicago will certainly influence how the league embodies its rapidly changing fan base.

And that seems fitting. Cities change; entire nations change. It’s only right that our sports teams change with them, not living in a vacuum, but instead representing the community that surrounds them and embraces them as their own.

Nick Firchau is a new media editor at MLSsoccer.com.