Part of the wonder of world football is the interconnectedness - to an American, used to our parochial athletic competitions, the movement of players and the varied relations of the clubs and leagues are a dense knot to untangle. In this, the second of Hot Time's offseason roundtables, we ask the writers to imagine the Chicago Fire further enmeshed in this snarl of possibilities with this question:
You get to pair the Fire up with one foreign team, NYCFC-Man City style. Which team do you pick and why?
As many of you might know, I am a big Newcastle fan. However, with such a toxic owner in Mike Ashley (as well as the club being in a constant state of upheaval), I wouldn't wish that type of heartache on my worst enemy. OK, I would if they were a Sunderland or Crew fan. As much as I would love to see a Fire/Newcastle link, I don't see it ever happening. The Magpies haven't ever been interested in the American game, and that won't change anytime soon. It is interesting however that many Fire fans have drawn parallels between the two clubs (i.e. the Fire are "the Newcastle of MLS"). I apologize to you all for this comparison.
More realistically, we already have a supposed link with Atletico Madrid. Yet we don't seem to be utilizing that at all. At least, not in the public space that fans can see. If we have a link with a giant international club, why aren't we exploiting that more? Personally, I think part of the failure on that goes on to the shoulders of the ousted front office personnel. I don't think they knew how to properly tap into that partnership. Time will tell whether Frank Yallop and company can extract true value from the friendship of such a large club. Or, on the flip side, maybe the whole partnership was blustered about by the front office in a manner much more in depth than the link really is. Either way, let's utilize this partnership to it's maximum potential.
Beyond that, I would have to say a partnership with a Bundesliga team would be ideal. The league is world renowned for quality of play, loyal fans, and money making structure. While Bundesliga games aren't shown as widely as MLS and EPL games in the states (though this will change next year as Fox Sports secured the rights to televise German league games), the action is always a spectacle to behold. World powers like Bayern Munich and fan owned clubs like Borussia Dortmund make for some damned good television. I would think that a partnership with a club in one of the top 3 leagues in the world could only benefit the Men in Red- IF it is tapped and utilized properly.
My first thought when the question was asked was "Wouldn't it be cool if it was FC St Pauli?" I mean, really, FCSP is one of the coolest things soccer has going, especially when so many soccer clubs in Europe define themselves as right wing, politically, to have an inclusive, left wing, artsy club that loves women and children, and whose marketing is awesome and flawless?
But the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. They're a second division German club, so in the grand scheme of things, the Fire would be the dominant member of that partnership. And they don't really do anything all that impressive, soccer-wise. So, I ended up looking at our list of sister cities, and really, I shouldn't have had to, because it's been staring us in the face, and on a scarf, since 2010. It is our ticket to one of the greatest players of our time, who just this year said he was considering coming to MLS when his deal is up, because "...maybe in America nobody knows who I am there,. So maybe I should come over and play some seasons so people get to know me." I am of course, talking about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And his current club, Paris St Germain.
Full disclosure: I am a rabid Tottenham Hotspurs fan who schedules my work life around getting to watch Spurs and Fire matches week in and week out. It may seem like the biased opinion of a fan who wants to see his two favorite clubs connected when I say it, but I think the Spurs would be an excellent pairing, a la NYCFC-Manchester City, for the Chicago Fire. However, I think there is some justification for my argument.
I think primarily this would be a good pairing because it would be a more practical approach than some of the other options. Head Coach and Director of Soccer Frank Yallop has already indicated that he has close connections in the Spurs front office when he visited the club earlier this offseason. As fans, we have already seen the benefits of this relationship. The Spurs young talent Grant Ward was invited to spend the pre-season with the Fire and has shown his talents already, knocking in two goals. Why not expand this relationship further so that all of the Spurs young talent is sent to Chicago to get their feet wet?
I understand that the Spurs are clearly no Manchester City, which is a well-oiled machine with tons of young talent to spare. In addition, the Spurs spent boatloads of money for this current season on players (like Valencia striker Roberto Soldado) who have underperformed, bringing into question their abilities to build a club. It is my opinion that the Spurs current weaknesses could be a benefit to the Fire. If the Spurs have players not jiving on the first team they might be inclined to sent them abroad for further seasoning.
Clearly the Spurs are not afraid to send players out on loan. In this most recent transfer window the Spurs sent Lewis Holtby, a scrappy young German international, on loan to Fulham. Would the Fire get a player of his talent, who is ready to play in the EPL, on loan to the US? Probably not. But still there are opportunities for partnerships here and you never know.
Finally, I think the planned summer Friendly between the Spurs and Fire this July speaks to the practicality of this type of partnership. The Fire front office is going to get to spend a lot of time with the Spurs front office this summer. The Spurs will get a chance to tour the Fire's facilities, and see the plans for the Fire's new north side facilities. I think there could be an opportunity here. Boy, would this partnership make my life great!
I'm going to have to go with Bayern Munich for a few reasons. One, they know how to financially run a club. They are just overflowing with money that they made, not from a wealthy owner. That is something rare these days. Recently they sold a small share in their club. What did they do with the money? They paid off their debts on their stadium and invested in their youth infrastructure. Another thing they do well is take care of their fans. In order to make it cheaper to go to the Arsenal game, they subsidized the prices of tickets for their fans. Bayern Munich understand the relationship between the club and the fans. The club also has a great youth academy which has produced some of the world's best players. Bayern Munich are financially savvy, treat their fans well and have a great youth academy. I wouldn't mind them teaching our friend Andy a thing or two. They also have a large squad so there would be the chance to pick up a fringe player or two on loan.
I think a pairing with Crystal Palace in England would be interesting. Palace have a long history of churning out talent from their academy. Most of those players go on to make a name for themselves at bigger clubs. The partnership can consist of player swaps. If an up-and-coming Palace player needs more minutes, and the Fire have a need, the player can be loaned to them. Conversely, a player who has achieved success with the Fire, and has aspirations of playing in Europe maybe loaned out to Palace. This way they play for a London club where playing time is more likely and the pressure isn't as high as it would be at Spurs, Arsenal or Chelsea.
I'm going to go with a club that I support and that isn't your typical powerhouse or comes from a league that is well known throughout the mainstream soccer community. I would, if possible, partner the Fire with Feyenoord of Rotterdam. With the way the current regime is going why not partner with a club that is in a league that is known for churning out talent in their academies. What people don't realize is that the Dutch have a strong tradition of producing some of the world's best players. From Cryuff, Van Basten, Bergkamp, to current players like Salomn Kalou, Robin Van Persie, Rafael Van Der Vaart, and Wesley Sneijder they have all come from academies in Holland. I would like the Fire to take the road less traveled and partner with a team that maybe isn't a household name but has a strong tradition of developing talent.
I'm going to go a different direction here, because as much as I like the idea of setting CF97 up with a sugar daddy a la a hacked game of Football Manager, I'm dubious that our club - already blessed with one oligarch at the helm - would benefit tremendously from a big brother/little brother relationship with a football superpower. No, I'm going to suggest that what the Fire should do is double down on player development, and not just domestically.
We've seen the Liga MX clubs starting to compete in hotbeds like Southern California and Texas for players born and raised in the USA. I'd like to reverse that talent drain by encouraging the Chicago Fire to buy a Mexican second-division team - like, say, Oaxaca - and invest in a Fire Academy there, searching for talent we can import while spreading the club's colors, name and philosophy in Mexico in an organic way.
Failing that, perhaps we can turn our ‘special relationship' with the Sounders into a formal agreement. Chicago Fire: The fabled Elephant Graveyard of underperforming Seattle DPs. Embrace what you have!
... I'll show myself out.