We take you to a late fall day in the (hopefully not too distant) future.
Reporter: I’m standing outside a euphoric Toyota Park where the Chicago Fire have just captured their second MLS title with 2-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders. The singing and chanting began well before the game and looks like it will continue late into the night. We have a young man here that has been "celebrating" since well before kickoff. [to fan] How are you feeling?
Reporter: So, are you a long-time fan?
Fan: Kind of. I loved watching Blanco play. But I kind of stopped going to the games until last year when they got that German striker and started winning again. Man, that dude is a beast!
Indeed, everybody loves a winner. That much is obvious. Certainly the casual fan will be more likely to make time for the trip to Bridgeview when the team is winning. And we can only hope the Fire would draw in its share of bandwagon jumpers interested in hitching their cart to a team on a magical run.
But this year doesn’t look to be that year. There have been some hints of promise but, more often than not, the performances have not been those that will strike fear into the hearts of high-quality opponents. More likely, they are looking at a match against Chicago like a top-tier Premier league club getting ready to face off against Norwich. They’ll say all the right things about being tough to play against and give a sop to Nyarko or Rolfe. But, in the back of their minds, they have to be thinking "we need 3 points against these guys".
There’s a line of thought that appears on these threads that asserts that if ownership/management is not committed to bringing a winning team like [name the glamour team du jour], the fans should boycott. The reasoning being that once the money people feel the wrath of the supporters, they’ll change their ways. Allusions are made to Chicago’s National League baseball franchise as an organization that is only interested in how much they can milk the fans for money. But starving the beast can have other consequences. Though I doubt that the Fire are in any danger of folding or being relocated, half-full stadiums are not going to get us from 2011-type seasons to the scene depicted at the beginning of this post.
So, if things are this bleak, what’s the point in showing up? If chances are good you’re going to walk away disappointed, why torture yourself?
First off, if you’re a real soccer fan, then you want to see games live. Early Saturday mornings with the BPL are great but it doesn’t replace seeing the game in person. Personally, I was devastated by the demise of the NASL. The Chicago Sting completed my transition from suburban kid introduced to this exotic new sport back in 1976 to rabid fan of the world game. When the outdoor version of the league folded in 1984, I tried to subsist on the indoor game but it just wasn’t the same.
And if a soccer fan needs the team, the team also needs the fan. And here I’m distinguishing between the team as business enterprise with a bureaucracy and players giving it all for the badge. Despite what you think of the quality of the current roster, the guys on the team are representing the club. As professionals, they are, of course, being compensated for their efforts. But, the energy of a big crowd can inspire a group of men to dig down and engage that extra gear. It’s done wonders for Portland and Seattle (though not so much for Toronto). And the crowd/team dynamic can be very synergistic. Good crowds lead to improved performances which boost crowds etc..
Of course, although we’re supporting Chicago, attending games also gives us the opportunity to see not only the other teams’ stars of today, but also their the stars of future. It’s great to see (and razz) established stars like Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan. But, there’s also a chance to see MLS (or even European) stars of the future. Vancouver forward Darren Mattocks and NE defender Andrew Farrell are among the names of people about whom you one day may say, "I saw them when …".
As a Fire fan specifically, and a soccer fan in general, one thing that gets in my craw more than anything is the team’s coverage (or lack thereof) in the local media. My main experience is with the Chicago Tribune and coverage has improved greatly in the last couple of years. The sports section will even include an MLS wrap-up every now and then. But, coverage on it’s TV arm, WGN, at least on the morning newscast, is practically non-existent. It is not unusual to hear the score of a Sunday game mentioned in the "elsewhere in the world of sports" throwaway commentary just before going to weather. But, even worse, the last 2 Fire games have not been mentioned at all on CSN’s SportsCentral broadcast. And this show is so starved for material that they often show the highlights from other games twice. It’s a lot easier to justify this lack of coverage when the highlight reel shows a huge swath of empty seats.
But probably the best incentive for showing up to games, even when points seem hard to come by, is that the good times are sweeter when you‘ve been there during the rough times. There can be no Easter without Good Friday. The joy of the summit is that much greater when you’ve done your time in the valley.