Hope has a short shelf-life. When fresh, hope can work miracles - it's the stem-cell of the soul, becoming belief or courage or strength as needed - but it does not survive long in its native state before curdling into its negative aspect, despair. Hope, delayed, curdles to despair.
We all began this cf97 campaign with a tremendous amount of hope. The team was solid last year, and we added some solid, battle-tested MLS warriors to the roster - should be good, right? We sailed through preseason. Everyone seemed on the same page. Then the season started, and it became apparent it was all a mirage. Giving up four to LA was humbling, but four to the Goatitos? Fire faithful found themselves staggering to the cupboard for a swig of that cool, delicious Hope, and instead found themselves drinking blood-warm, bitter Despair.
Now Despair has become the beverage of choice through the first quarter of the season, and not without reason: Some of the personnel moves haven't worked; several of the holdovers look lost; and the defense has been savaged by injuries. The XI on the field sometimes look unacquainted with one another, and their deployment has been alternately puzzling and uninspiring. The football, put simply, has been bleak.
One of the side-effects of hammering down Despair is difficulty with tone. A guy having a bad game becomes a clueless assclown, just as the guy with an opinion becomes a clubhouse cancer, that sort of thing. It works both ways - passionate fans become pinheaded nutjobs. The center cannot hold. We begin, at this point, to enter vicious cycle territory: We see poor play; we excoriate poor play; the players, excoriated, play poorly; we see poor play, excoriate, ad nauseum. When supporters have a hard time being supportive, the whole creaky structure looks primed for collapse.
At the same time, it's not like the front office have sat on their hands. They're trying:
- Oduro wanted to be first choice, they couldn't promise it. After a powerhouse sulking performance in the late stages last season, dealing him seemed the right move - especially since Columbus offered Duka, who was in a need position for us. Of course, Duka has resembled dookie more often than not, so that colors things.
- Pardo retired, meaning something needed to happen in midfield. The Fire brought in two guys for the center of midfield who had played at or near Best XI level in the last couple of years. Of course, Lindpere has not been sharp, and we've learned more about Larentowicz' limitations than his abilities, so that colors things.
- MacDonald and Rolfe connected intuitively last year, at least until Rolfe started getting his legs kicked out from under him. We kept that duo together, initially reshaping the team into a 4-4-2 to allow them to play the two-man game. Of course, this season has been a horrifying shit-show for our starting forwards, especially Mackie, whose hard work has looked increasingly the product of desperation, so that colors things.
And the drumbeat of criticism is thumping right along; people who've drunk deep of Despair don't mince words. Other than ‘make better decisions,' it's not clear what the front office could have done to head off this fanbase crisis.
I'm lying. It's actually perfectly clear. In fact, it's transparent.
Tradition of Transparency
Now, I'm not going to hoist a flagon of mead and spin an epic about the Ancient and Halcyon Days of Our Youth, When Peter Wilt Ran Things (and We Won Stuff); we can circle back to that topic later, perhaps. What I am going to suggest is that this front office could save itself a tremendous amount of grief - and break the vicious cycle of bad result-backbiting-bad result - by simply opening the process a little bit, embracing transparency as a club-wide goal, and moving forward in that spirit..
I'm not saying run an open-source front office. Clearly that will not work in a competitive environment where contracts with prominent players are worked out in secret. Would you trust Seattle or KC not to try to get involved in our negotiations at the last minute? Yeah, me neither.
What does work is giving the fans enough information to give them a sense of the narrative of the front office. At this point, all most Fire fans know about the transition from last season to this is that we cut loose Gargan (who we could certainly use right now), dealt Oduro (3 goals) for the so-far-underwhelming Duka, and kept faith with Mackie (youch). We lost a Mexican World Cup vet, and added two solid but totally-not-sexy players in his stead.
There is surely a counterbalancing narrative which management could bring into the conversation. Absent some transparency, though, it's very difficult to counter alternative explanations; scoffing at ‘internet trolls', as has sometimes been the case, has the unfortunate side-effect of mocking people who care enough about the club to spend their spare time thinking about its problems - not a public relations winner, certainly.
The team has limped out of the gate this season, yes. And fans are going to have hard questions any time the team struggles, especially if the struggles seem to have their origin in flawed decision-making at the team-building level. An embrace of transparency would, in our current situation, have two happy outcomes: First, the most critical members of the fan base will have less room to advance a narrative of incompetence; and second, management might find a bit of breathing room once they demystify the process. Essentially, if you're going to keep every decision a secret as it's made, then management needs to get every single one right. Let us in on the story and we are less likely to suspect negligence or foolishness are the problem.
Again, I am not proposing the Fire go to some kind of radical, open-source model. I'm not asking for a voting share. The presumptive benefits of transparency for any business organization are fairly simple: Transparency builds trust, creates a more positive customer service environment, curbs paranoia, and allows a business to control the narrative around events more easily than a closed model. CF97 has surely struggled with several of those issues for years. Isn't it time to try transparency? I mean, since it worked magnificently before?
Passion and Honor: Growing the Game
An increased emphasis on transparency would surely go hand-in-hand with one of the truly positive trends in the club since Hauptman's takeover - the increased engagement of the Fire with communities in the area. Under AEG, these efforts seemed either half-hearted or overly focused on marketing, as opposed to building trust and love for the club through unselfish action.
The Chicago Fire street team has a schedule packed with do-gooding and love-sharing - if you're throwing a soccer-related shindig in Chicagoland, they've proven they'll show up and help everyone have some fun. The last several years have seen the club really put some resources toward being seen as a true member of the community, and I salute these decisions.
The Fire are not playing well right now. The hope we filled our larder with in preseason has all curdled to despair. But hope is an endlessly renewing resource, given the right conditions - in this case, exposure to the sunlight of scrutiny. Transparency, I believe, is the answer to our club-wide crisis of confidence.
This is the second of this two-part series. The first is located here.