It would be easy to point to the cranked up expectations in the pre-season, followed by a shattering drop in the performance of the Fire with the opening of the season, then the ensuing ups and downs of optimism and despair which has plagued the team with each passing week, and call #cf97's 2013 a roller coaster. However, as I thought about it more, this season has been more like a bad love affair - an up and down dating relationship - than any roller coaster.
The season started off like any good fling for the Chicago Fire. Like a weekender looking for the heart of Saturday night there was optimism and excitement rolling into the Fire’s the 2013 season. With a back line supported by the bedrock that was Arne Friedrich and a midfield bolstered by Jeff Larentowicz, Joel Lindpere and Dilly Duka things were looking up for the men in red. Fans had cautious confidence in the combo up top of Sherjill MacDonald and Chris Rolfe who had performed admirably throughout most of the previous summer. Why not feel like this hook-up might be something special?
But clearly many of us, as fans, were wearing beer goggles. As with many a floozy who is picked up in dark bars who we discovered was hiding her chub with a tight pair of spanks and her piercing voice behind the bass of club music, things were not quite what they seemed for the 2013 season. MacDonald showed up to the regular season with more chub than the floozy. Rolfe started the season with a seeming inability to find net and the Fire in general looked over matched at each turn. Like the awkward limp discovered in our late night hook-up the Fire fought with injuries to Friedrich (who would never return) as well as ones to Logan Pause and Patrick Nyarko. The additions of Lindpere, Duka and Larentowicz at times seemed effective but they also seemed only able to coordinate with the rest of the club as well as a couple of nighthawks with a hangover.
Being obsessed fans that bleed in red, we could not write off the 2013 season. Besides, sometimes we want a relationship even when we know it is bad for us. We look and find some redeeming qualities in the hook-up and reasons to continue. To that end, we were fortunate that the Fire made a huge bounce back that gave us a lot of redeeming qualities to work with. The acquisitions of Bakary Soumare and Mike Magee gave Fire fans a lot to hope and dream about. Suddenly with a player up top who has absolutely no problem finding goal and a player to bolster a stressed and disjointed back line, things were once again looking up.
Even the fans that had lost faith began to trickle back into Toyota Park as the Fire climbed out of the gutter and worked their way past the bouncer and back into the bar. Relationships sometimes are built through familiarity over time and the Fire players seemed to be gaining familiarity and gelling more on the pitch. Duka began to shine and prove his value as a wing. Alex became a sneak thief in the CAM role stealing balls and distributing well forward to players. Larentowicz was a stalwart. The defense held its own with Sean Johnson on international duty. Magee became the player that makes a fan fall in love. The Fire continued a strong push in the US Open Cup going into the semi finals and fans were charmed.
Unfortunately relationships are fickle things. What were once cute aspects of our girlfriend's personality over time can be draining. They can demonstrate character flaws and display selfishness and egocentrism. Dealing with these character flaws can cause fatigue. Fatigue is clearly what a busy midsummer brought the Fire. After running out a similar line-up each match through the slew of USOC and MLS matches, fatigue reared its head at the most inopportune time. A DC United that wallowed in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference slew the cocky Fire with a kick to the head and an end for the "Kings of the Cup" USOC hopes.
However, in relationships we as humans often find reasons to persevere. It seems so much more difficult to go out and meet someone new than to stick with the one we have. In the case of the Fire, the next new season does not come until March and the loyal fan would rather watch the Fire lose now than not have the Fire to watch at all. After all, the USOC loss is not the end. The Fire performed admirably on the road against Montreal. A playoff berth, although difficult to achieve, is not entirely out of reach. New and exciting players in Juan Luis Anangonó and Arévalo Ríos have joined the roster and helped renew hope. The Fire have somehow managed to perform better in the summer than any club in the eastern conference in MLS play. Sure things are nearly "do or die" for playoff contention but there is always a chance this relationship could still work.
Last week's loss to the New England Revolution did little to encourage our love affair. As in many relationships we look for other things to blame so we do not have to blame the one we love. In this case it is easy to blame the artificial turf at Gillette Stadium. As much as I believe that the beautiful game should never be played on artificial surfaces the performance against the Rev’s was still inexcusable. A solid club needs to find ways to win regardless of the conditions. The defense was straight out of position at times and the attack was lack luster at best. In a week where many fans found themselves cheating on the Fire 2013 season with the EPL club of choice in the league's opening weekend, it was easy to distract ourselves from the disastrous match.
So what to do now? As die hard Fire fans it is too early to give up on the 2013 season. There is still plenty of excitement left to watch and a playoff qualifying is not entirely out of the question even if it is an uphill battle. This Friday will be a challenging match against the disciplined attack and defense of Sporting Kansas City at Toyota Park. As Juan Luis Anangonó and Arévalo Ríos begin to clock more minutes with the rest of the club hopefully they can begin to prime the Fire attack in the same way Mike Magee did earlier in the season. With more depth, perhaps it is time to rotate the roster a bit better and get key players more rest. With big matches on the horizon in conference play against Sporting, Houston, Toronto and New England coming up, and a Western Conference match against Seattle sprinkled in, there remains a lot to look forward to.
Now is not the time to look ahead towards the 2014 Chicago Fire season "relationship". Sometimes a fan just needs to grind it out with the ups and downs of the season we have and look for the positives. There will be time to break things off with the 2013 Chicago Fire season in December. Now is the time to love the season we're with.