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Rekindling Chicago Fire?

Thursday 19th January 2017
An interesting culture change is underway at MLS cellar dwellers Chicago Fire, designed to put them back in the mix on the pitch and possibly in the crowded Windy City sports market as well.

If I had to choose one thing my parents provided, for which I'm most grateful, it's ensuring my education was steeped in classics. Those '50s and '60s Warner Brothers cartoons offered lessons in every aspect of life. Yes, I'm joking. Then again, I'm also serious.

Just think about it. Daffy Duck's misadventures showed it was no use complaining. Nothing would ever be handed to us on a silver platter. Whatever we desired had to be earned. Wile E Coyote's ever more elaborate failures taught us to avoid complications when pursuing those desires. Elmer Fudd and Foghorn Leghorn, in diametrically opposing manners, advised us to take other people's needs and views into account. The Tasmanian Devil warned us to get out of the way of fast moving objects, but also not to rush headlong into situations without having thought things through. Bugs Bunny? Well, emulating his wisecracking sarcasm did get me into a few fights at school that could have otherwise been avoided, not to mention chores and groundings at home. Yet, he also kept his head, read extensively, then used his knowledge to devise simple, elegant, solutions for every problem. He was also willing to experiment, shuffle the deck, and ignore convention when, say, hitting a bat wearing glasses was in his best interest.
After failing to make significant progress, even when signing such hot properties as Cuahtémoc Blanco and Freddie Ljungberg, Major League Soccer club Chicago Fire have decided to shuffle their deck and ignore league conventions to (hopefully) rekindle their glory years.

Perhaps a surprise to certain Welsh fans, the Fire's heyday came with Bob Bradley wearing the chief's hat. The American was the club's inaugural coach, leading them to their only league championship in 1998, MLS' third season. His side broke DC United's two-year monopoly on the MLS Cup. United would reclaim the trophy a year later, before their dynasty first faded, then flamed out following a final title in 2004. Chicago would remain relevant far longer, making two more league finals in 2000 and 2003, then reaching their conference final four times in six years. Since 2010, however, the Fire have only qualified for the playoffs once.

Some attribute their on-pitch decline to club owners, Andell Holdings, focusing revenues on an Arsenal-like move to a newly constructed stadium. Only, the Fire did not finance, build, or retain ownership of Toyota Stadium. Instead, they convinced the Village of Bridgeview, Illinois to underwrite the project. Consequently, club and municipality share gate, parking and concession revenues, with the latter claiming all moneys from stadium naming rights. Bridgeview were sold on redevelopment prospects for land surrounding the stadium. They didn't materialize. As a result, both landlord and tenant are suffering losses.
Bridgeview is a Chicago suburb. With studies showing urban or "urbanized" locations to be more viable for soccer-specific stadia, many MLS clubs, existing and expansion alike, are focusing on moving into downtown facilities. Stuck in the boondocks since 2006, with no restaurants, bars, or shops opening around the facility, one would expect any club's attendance to dwindle. Yet the Fire's fan base has remained surprisingly loyal.

Opportunity for growth, however, is virtually non-existent. Their thirty-year lease makes it expensive for the Fire to move back into the city. Although ownership has not publicly announced intentions to sell, there are indications they may be exploring the possibility.

Meanwhile, MLS is well into its planned expansion to twenty-eight teams, with each new club's entry fee at $150 million and counting. As those fees are divided among existing clubs, the Fire still hold value. Profit from franchise fees, along with a more competitive side, may entice an interested investor to take on the cost of moving the club into a new ground where it might not only keep current supporters but attract new ones.

Whether or not that is Andell Holdings' endgame, the Fire's offseason has been busier than Christmas shoppers who slept through Black Friday. After rushing into a stadium project without without considering possible consequences, talking themselves into a corner with their three-decades-long lease, and having their ambitions blow up in their face, the Fire are apparently attempting a simpler solution to become competitive again.

On 16 December, they agreed to purchase Legia Warsaw's Serbian born, Hungarian international striker, Nemanja Nikolić, for an undisclosed fee. On the 23rd, they took former LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho (not that one) on loan from Liga MX side Tijuana. Then, on Monday, they "traded" for NY Red Bull midfielder and captain, Dax McCarty. Traded, in this instance, being an American euphemism for a player going in one direction, money in the other.
While signing two talented midfielders and a prolific striker is a fairly common recipe for rejuvenating a team's fortunes, Juninho and McCarty make for an odd combination. In a way, it's like partnering Bugs Bunny with the Tasmanian Devil rather than pitting them against one another.

The Brazilian anchored the midfield in LA Galaxy's quasi-dynastic squad from 2010-15, during which they won three MLS Cups. While Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, and Robbie Keane were showered with attention, Juninho was the smooth, elegant midfielder whose efficient play supported the big names further up the pitch. He offered sublime passing and contributed the occasional, usually timely, goal. Think Michael Carrick at Manchester United.

Over roughly the same period, 2011-16, McCarty played nearly two hundred matches for NY Red Bull, inheriting the captaincy when Thierry Henry retired after the 2014 season. A whirling dervish, he darts here and there, always seeming to pop up in an opponent's path, disrupting an attack, unafraid to dive into a tackle. He can also pick out a pass to ignite a counterattack.

New Fire boss Veljko Paunović will be hoping the duo's contrasting styles dovetail to provide a base of attack for the club's two scoring threats, newly arrived Nikolić and Ghanaian David Accam. If his plan works, the Fire could be a force to be reckoned with in MLS for some time. Accam is twenty-six, Juninho twenty-eight, McCarty and Nikolić twenty-nine.

While the Galaxy and Red Bull felt obligated to let two influential players go to due to the hard salary cap MLS imposes, the Fire appear ready to follow the league's growing trend to eschew aging stars for less renowned players with their best years still ahead. With one of three Designated Player slots still available to them, look for the Fire's braintrust to stay active in the winter transfer market, perhaps adding an experienced center back to complement former Belenenses and Atlético Clube de Portugal stalwart João Meira.

Chicago is the third biggest American television market. New York and Los Angeles, the only ones larger, each have two clubs. From both football and business standpoints, the Fire have great potential to be doing much better. They are bringing players in who can help them improve on the pitch. It remains to be seen whether management can capitalize or just play another looney tune.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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