Climbing Up From The Cold Mud Pits of Sports Hell, Chicago Fire Fans Are Strangers In A Strange Land

By John Kass

In and around Chicago, you may see bewildered people walking around uncertainly, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. They want to laugh, they think they remember how to smile, but they’re not sure. They’re fond of the color red.

Many are young. A few are old. Yet even with the warm spring sun on their faces, they move cautiously, like newly freed hostages trying to shake off Stockholm Syndrome.

These bewildered folk are Chicago Fire soccer fans. And I’m proud to be one of them.

With our revamped Fire surprisingly undefeated through the first four games of this new young season, (2 wins, 2 draws, zero defeats), and after spending at least 12 solid years in the cold mud pits of sports fan hell, the beloved Fire seem to have changed their losing culture.

And we fans lost like strangers in a strange land.g

“I don’t know how to cover this team right now. It’s a new land for me too,” said Chicago sportswriter Brian Sandalow on The Chicago Way podcast. (I’m adding the link here so you may listen.)

Sandalow is the Fire beat writer for the Chicago Sun Times, and co-host of his own podcast “The Chicago Soccer Conversation” with Dan Santaromita of The Athletic.

Why write about the Fire? Because I’m a Fire fan, loyal season ticket holder, because it makes me happy. And readers have asked me to write about things that make me happy. Am I not a river to my people?  So, I’m making them happy by making me happy.

And if you don’t like it, tough.

After more than a decade of pain, the Fire seem to have finally grown a spine. And, as they take off for the international break, Americans who love The Beautiful Game will focus on the United States Men’s National Team. USMNT pushes this week to qualify for the World Cup. It’s a great time to be a soccer fan.

“There’s something different about this group,” Sandalow said of the Fire on The Chicago Way. “There’s a different mentality and you can see it. So, I’m going to have to adjust. I’ve been very negative as a reporter the past couple of seasons and especially last season. But right now, I have to switch gears. It’s a challenge for me and a challenge for everybody who covers this team, but there’s worse things than having to switch gears. It’s a good journalistic challenge and a good writing challenge to flex a different muscle.”

That is the muscle begins in a space between the ears, then makes its way down to the heart and keeps our blood pumping.

Soccer is the global game, with 3.5 billion fans world-wide. And it is growing in America, where more than 24 million people play soccer. Expansion Major League Soccer club Charlotte FC broke attendance records with a crowd of 75,000 for a home opener.  Soccer is the third most-watched sport in America, behind only basketball and American football.

There are some who can’t stop spewing negativity. I understand. They’re afraid of the future. But now that the Fire seem to have turned things around, I give two figs for negative thoughts. I’m a glass half full extremely positive kind of guy. And everything is beautiful about The Beautiful Game, a sport of such amazing skill that 60 yard passes are launched on the run, and caught out of the air on a dead run, all with the feet. Try it sometime after running five or six miles.

As you try, I’ll just sit here, light a fine Maduro cigar, and raise a glass of  Glenmorangie 18 to salute you.

We’ve been season ticket holders at the Fire since 2010, and all the years since then we’ve suffered mightily, most of the time in last place. Hapless and full of excuses. But we press on. Tradition, Honor, Passion, and having to eat tickets when friends call up and cancel, because they had errands, or just had to wash their hair.

Things are different now, aren’t they? I don’t think I’ll have to eat any tickets this year.

 For the past few seasons, we’ve been plagued by the infuriating Francisco Calvo, a center back who was the “captain,” yes, but that title meant nothing. Because he didn’t act like a captain. He was stupidly selfish and loved to dribble, going on wild adventures, foolishly trying fancy moves like a Cruyff turn near his own goal,  inevitably being stripped of the ball, committing a turnover, allowing a goal.

And yes, the Fire would lose.

 Again and again, he’d do this, and the Fire would lose. Again. We shouted his name Calvo in disgust and horror, screaming “CALVO!!” the way Captain Kirk screamed “KAHN!!” into the void. And we’d lose. We’d moutza Calvo. He didn’t care. We’d lose again.

Long before him we suffered the antics of epic busts such as Nery Castillo, Sherjill “Big Mac” Mac-Donald, and that stubborn Scot, Shaun Maloney who hated being in Chicago and played like it just for spite. He’s gone too. Oh, there were good players, talented, hard-working players too, like the German soccer god Bastian Schweinsteiger, but all it took was Calvo to ruin Basti’s time here. Even Basti couldn’t overcome Calvo.

The other day at Soldier Field, with the Fire up 2 goals to 0 against Sporting Kansas City, the Fire gave up a goal. Then it was 2-1 and we thought the old sad thoughts, that they’d give up another goal to tie, and then lose and drop three points at home.

But Calvo is gone.

Rafael Czichos, left-footed center back from Bundesliga team FC Koln, is now the Fire captain.

Czichos doesn’t make stupid mistakes.  He doesn’t try Cruyffs in front of his own goal. He’s a coach on the field. Playing next to him is Wyatt Omsberg, physically tough but up until this year not all that impressive. But with Czichos on his left, coaching him, Omsberg seems to read the game and has made the league team of the week.

When Sporting KC scored that goal of theirs, and made it 2-1, the old Fire would have been looking for a place to lie down.

“But that didn’t happen,” said Sandalow. “Instead, this team locked it down, made the right substitutions, a sign of the team that has a different mentality. We don’t know how good this team is yet. They don’t expect failure. They expect good things to happen. And to have that created within four games is a testament to the coach, Ezra Hendrickson.”

A coach is only as good as the players. After the season last year, the Fire cleaned house, dropping nine players. For years though, what Fire owners wouldn’t spend money on were the right players to make a strong team with a spine.

When new Fire owner Joe Mansueto took over, he was a guest on the Chicago Way podcast and promised to build a team with spine. He’s building it.

Yes, Mansueto and technical director Georg Heitz have also brought in Czichos and added the amazing Swiss magician, Xherdan Shaqiri, he of the gigantic calves. Shaqiri may be too good for the players around him who aren’t ready for his Magic Johnson-like passes. But they’ll get used to it. And Polish center forward Kacper Przybylko is now scoring goals.

But Czichos is the base of the spine. And the young keeper, local homegrown goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina.

It’s only a matter of time until some big European club lures away the phenomenal 17-year-old keeper  Slonina. The central defense is forming a hard bark, only given up one goal in four games. Right now, the starting defensive midfielders are home grown Mauricio Pineda and designated player Gaston Gimenez.

But Gimenez, while talented with the ball at his feet, bothers me because his brain has a tendency to shut down at the wrong time, for lengthy stretches. We can’t trust him. Pineda should be paired with Federico Navarro in the defensive midfield.

It’s the new mentality that amazes.

“Bringing in a captain with that kind of respect like Czichos, a coach in Ezra Hendrickson and I don’t think he (Hendrickson) has enough fingers and toes for all the rings he’s won from his (MLS) career,” said Sandalow.  “And then you bring in a guy like Shaqiri and that tells the players, the Fire are in it to win, now. You’re not trying to be average. You don’t bring in Shaqiri just to be a little better than the year before.”

It’s still early. There is little depth on the team and the league is extremely physical, and physical means injuries. Clubs without depth don’t last long. But I like the start of this.

Go Fire (men who once wore red and may wear red yet again).

And Go USMNT.

It’s all about your hearts, and ours. That’s what being a fan is all about. The heart.

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(Copyright 2022 John Kass)

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