I'm a little late to the party in terms of chiming in recent fan dissatisfaction with the Chicago Fire's recently leaked home shirt. Given the shirt's official launch at March 4, 2014 Season Kickoff Luncheon, I feel compelled to offer my views as a season ticket holder and a fan of the world's greatest sport as "counter-point" to Hot Time's recent post. I'm not picking sides on this issue. Instead, I'm offering my observations as a soccer fan who is addicted
to collecting vintage soccer jerseys.
As background, I'm a passionate season ticket holder and have been for many years. While I was not a season ticket holder at Soldier Field, I have fond memories of games there, watching the various supporters groups in the stadium. It had a "European feel" at times, in part based on the tri-lingual nature of public announcements; English, Spanish and Polish. It was a Soldier Field that many fans adopted their love for the club.
Before the Fire moved to Bridgeview, I attended a few games at the Fire's temporary home fields. I was fortunate enough to witness my grade school neighbor, Amos Magee, score an unbelievable goal at Wheaton College. I absolutely lost my mind when Amos scored, but not because I knew he was playing, but because of the sheer magnificence of the goal. Amos chested a hard cross that was coming up off the wet grass. The goal astounded me because of the split second timing it took for Amos to think "I've got this covered . . . with my chest." It was one of the coolest goals that I ever saw live. I recall repeatedly yelling "DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID?!?!?" to my non-soccer friends.
While my seats are in Section 107, I tend to wander towards Section 8 at half time to say hello to new found friends. My kids enjoy standing in cheering in the Harlem end as well as bashing the drums a half-time. Just like me, my kids erupt when a goal is scored and sulk out of the stadium if the team gives up a goal in the 90th minute. I buy new and vintage Fire gear and proudly wear it wherever I go. I get a lot of questions and compliments when I pair one of many Fire scarfs with a business suit and overcoat. It's a great way to start a conversation about the team with my fellow business associates.
As the Fire's outside legal counsel, I generally deal with contract and liability issues. As a fan of the game and the Fire, it's a dream job. I believe that my various personalities provide me with a unique perspective into the operation of the club. At times, I bring my perspective as a fan into my analysis of legal issues or in the clubs interactions with supports. That's not to say I've drunk the Kool-Aid. I was furious and shouted out on Twitter when Mike Magee missed a crucial PK which lost us two points. And as for the leaked jersey, while I haven't had time to form a full opinion, my favorite jersey is a white away jersey without the Best Buy logo.
With that introduction, I recognize that we are all fans regardless of where we sit or stand in the stadium. Some fans have been in the trenches longer than others. I hold a high amount of respect for fans have been to every game since the inaugural season as well as those who show up to every away match. We all owe a big thank you to all the persons who work behind the scenes to create the wonderful Tifo displays. The same holds true for the Capos who lead our cheers.
We are now in a new era of soccer in America. While soccer has not received its fair share of mainstream press, that's changing thanks to Orrin Schwarz of the Daily Herald and Jack McCarthy of the Tribune. Twitter and Blogs, have allowed a very vocal minority to control the soccer conversation as it relates to the Fire. With the ease of access to the internet from our smart phones, Twitter has allowed Fire fans people to "own the conversation" simply because they are the first ones to hit the internet with negative comments. In contrast, years ago, Blackhawks fans could only protest the Bill Wirtz era by peddling books outside of the United Center - with the risk of being arrested. Having said that, through thick and thin, the most vocal fans will always support the players, even if they have issues with the Front Office and the team's owner. Even when a particular fan on Twitter says "I'm done with the Fire", he's always back within a day or two.
Last weekend's leak of the 2014 home jersey upset many Fire fans. Some took to Twitter and some of my soccer friends reached out to me with private gripes. The main complaint was that people felt that shirt did not honor the "Tradition" of the prior home shirts which had a centrally located horizontal white stripe to honor our City's fire fighters. The current, incomplete image, infuriated many fans because it lacked the white stripe. I was surprised by the angry reactions given the fact that the most recent home shirt substituted a blue stripe for the white stripe.
As more tweets poured in, people claimed that the front office should have listened to their prior complaints and returned to the prominent white stripe. At first glance, this approach doesn't seem unreasonable given the fact that recent internet boycotts and on-line petitions have led to changes in world commerce. Having said that, Twitter is only a recent creation, and as far as I can determine, it's never been used to advocate for a particular type of soccer jersey outside of the Fire and other MLS teams' third-jersey contests.
As a collector of vintage jerseys, I'm scratching my head to understand how people objected to new, non-traditional jerseys before the creation of the internet and Twitter. What did fans to back in the 90s, 80s and 70s do when they were presented with a primary or away kit that that they didn't like? Fans couldn't Tweet for someone's head as tribute from a desk top computer, let alone a phone. At the same time, fans didn't gather pitchforks and attempt to storm the castle when the latest shirts didn't return to a more "traditional" look. Rather, they simply didn't buy the shirt. Let's look at the recent yellow and orange mess of the recent away Barcelona kit - they are always on sale. In contrast, the reaction to the leaked 2014 home jersey was rapid and passionate. I happened to log onto Twitter at the same time the photo was tagged with #cf97. I watched the drama unfold in "real time."
Don't get me wrong. I love the passion that people have for soccer. I don't care whether it involves a blown call, a dive or an amazing goal. All of the passion (or drama) simply demonstrates that "people care." The same could be true with the reaction to the 2014 jersey. Without a complete reveal, the jersey has been given thumbs down by some, while others have praised the shirt (I find that more people post complaints rather than compliments).
Notably, people have suggested that the production the shirt without the white stripe is an affront to the team's storied history. I get where people are coming from to some extent. While the team was created in 1997 and does not have a hundred plus years of history many famous European teams, Fire fans are just as passionate as other clubs. I tried to gauge a jersey's history by looking some BPL teams. In contrast to Liverpool who have always been red, it Aston Villa took dozens of years before it adopted its traditional claret and blue colors. History does not document how fans reacted to Villa's evolving kits from its early years.
The evolution of the USA Men's national team provide another example of evolution, as evidenced by an excellent pictorial representation in the wonderful soccer specific quarterly, Howler Magazine. The USA jersey is all over the place, though it has been primarily White. Even a major change isn't always a bad thing. As Alexi Lalas recently tweeted that the much maligned denim 1994 USA jersey contributed to his "awesomeness." Ironically, that jersey goes for big bucks on eBay.
In my opinion, given the team's birth in 1997, the removal of the frontal white stripe from the most recent home shirt and the addition of the blue shoulders are not signs of a permanent "rebranding" of the team or a rejection of tradition as some have suggested. A rebranding would be akin to the Aston villa ditching their kit for something horrible, like yellow and black (cough, cough, Columbus) or Barcelona switching from red and blue strips to a low risk, unimaginative all black home kit (cough, cough, Seattle's third kit). Drastic changes to Rangers or Barcelona shirts would lead to justifiable rage. Notably, the Seattle Sounders was never associated with "neo green" (or whatever the color is [it's rave green - ed.]) until just recently. If someone knows whether Seattle fans when ballistic when that happened, let me know in the comments section.
While many have complained that this year's shirt has too much blue in it, and that fans can no longer sing "We Are Red & We Are White", let's not forget that that the primary color is still red, which goes with many other chants. Fret not Fire faithful, there will be another design in two years , and maybe we'll all love in a more "traditional" sense. And next year, we'll have a new away kit which could include one or more the elements that fans have argued have been missing in recent shirts. Notably, the current away shirt is a top seller among MLS shirts. I didn't major in sports marketing, so for all I know the new shirt will equal or exceed the current away shirt. In a random poll that I conducted, young kids seemed to like it.
While I may offend a few people for appearing to suggest that the new home shirt has been blown out of proportion, that's not my intention. I want to believe that the Fire is the Fire, no matter what the players wear. People still love Barcelona notwithstanding the team's horrible away yellow and orange blend? Yes, I know that people may express less rage at an away shirt, but based on simple math, that's half a year of watching the Fire in the hated jersey, is it not? And while Liverpool's third jersey is a nightmare, it hasn't prevented Suarez from scoring amazing goals. And Alexi, he'd be "awesome" in pretty much anything, right?
While this post contains my own personal opinions, the following includes my observations as the Fire's outside legal counsel. Amid the Twitter out-cry over the new home jersey, people have suggested that the vote for the Third Jersey Contest was rigged to avoid the creation of the fabled "Municipal Flag" jersey. There could be nothing further from the truth. For starters, while I did not draft the original contest rules, I negotiated with MLS legal to expand the contest to include fans in states within the MLS prescribed 75 miles commercial rights zone. That was no easy task from a legal standpoint. Further, the voting process was reviewed by MLS legal - just as you'd expect in any legitimate contest. To suggest otherwise, without any support, demonstrates how Twitter has given many people the forum to voice their opinions and conspiracies - without adequate supporting facts. While everyone is free to suggest "better" third jersey options, the votes have been cast and counted. To suggest that the contest was rigged to pick a particular design that would "offend" fans who wanted a flag jersey is offensive to the final contestants who put a lot of hard work into their designs. While I can't remember the name of the designer of the top of my head, his chest will justifiably swell with pride with the team puts on his jersey and earns the club 3 points.
Anyone reading this post is a fan just like me. I anticipate that many of you will disagree with my opinions. Feel free to comment and I will try to respond to as many as I can. For the good of the players and coaches, I hope that we fans put the quality of the play on the pitch as our main concern. No matter what we think about the new shirt (positive or negative), the team will be here in 2015 and beyond. "Tradition, Honor and Passion" will continue to be the team's motto on and off the pitch.
At the end of the day, it's my personal opinion that Tradition, Honor and Passion go beyond the color of our jerseys. As a fan, I believe that these words should resonant in our hearts and minds, regardless how much red, white and blue the players wear. Given the long and cold off-season, I look forward to each and every fan representing the team's traditions, honor and passion at the home opener on March 22, and at next week's Kick-Off luncheon.
-James Vlahakis is a Chicago Fire season ticket holder, father of two fans and a 'keeper with Stare Byki FC. He
is also the Fire's outside general counsel. Except as noted above, his opinions are his own.