When success turns to failure, soccer takes an even more distant back seat to the other major sports in Chicago. The same - until the past four or five years - was always said about the Blackhawks. For them, winning championships has turned the local sporting landscape on its head. An often chastised fan of ill-repute has in recent years come to the forefront of the Hawks fan base, and to an extent the Fire fan base as well: the bandwagon fan.
Much of Toyota Park’s attendance fluctuation throughout every MLS season is blamed primarily on the weather. March is too cold, April is too wet, two weeks of June are spent using your timeshare in Florida, etc. That reasoning is understandable to an extent, but for decades has consistently failed to explain high attendance at Wrigley Field or Soldier Field regardless of the success or failings of the Cubs and Bears. High attendance at the aforementioned venues can be explained by the fact that the NFL and the sport of baseball have been entrenched in the minds of Americans for decades. They simply offer something more “American” for lack of a better word, than the cosmopolitan sport of soccer.
A mid-week game against the San Jose Earthquakes (according to MLS Soccer) drew 14,815 fans at Toyota Park. It honestly felt like more. It looked like more. The atmosphere, especially towards the end of the game was possibly the most electric it had been all year. Frank Klopas and his men were going into the matchup with an impressive unbeaten run, and the acquisition of Mike Magee has given a face to a faceless club. Were these the reasons why a fraction of fans turned out in respectable numbers on Wednesday night? Would the despair of a retirement announcement, and the trotting out of an ineffective number 7 in a world without a Magee/Soumare swoop, only lead to half the fans we saw against the Earthquakes? Make no mistake there has always been a visible improvement and consistency with attendance when the Fire are producing results.
The Blackhawks were mentioned specifically because they suffered through just that. Years of poor results left only the rabid die-hards to attend each home game. When the team became constant contenders again, new fans came in droves. Those new fans may not have known every player’s name, or the definition of icing. They did however, cheer during the national anthem – a United Center tradition for the teams fans – and they did fill the place up on game day.
A striking similarity seen with the Fire crowd in mid-week, compared to the new age Hawks fan base, was the vocal support. Seldom this season has chanting and singing from Section 8 spread through the stadium as it did Wednesday night. It’s possible it was primarily the typical fan base, or it could have been an unusually high smattering of fair-weathered bandwagon jumpers; those who only recently caught wind of the unbeaten streak and some goal scoring freak named Magee. Whatever it was, the result gained was immeasurable vocal support from the stands, and three points earned on the pitch.
There is no doubt the recent moves made by the front office to bolster the roster have thus far saved the season. Fire fans are seeing their team pick up points every week, and advance in the U.S Open Cup. The transfer window will allow time for perhaps another move or two which can help solidify a deep playoff run. Along with that, new and casual fans will begin to attend games more frequently. Perhaps some of them are fair weather, or just waiting for a star player they cheered for in Europe or South America to don the red. Some of them may not even know the meaning of an offside trap, or the role of a holding midfield player. That’s ok. You can leave the petty in-fighting to hockey fandom; the ones who for the longest time in Chicago felt like second rate citizens. Soccer is a global sport that grew to become the most popular in virtually every country in the world. At any given time, new fans weren’t always the most knowledgeable. The same can be said for some of the newer or more casual fans you may start to see at Toyota Park. They might not know who Daniel Paladini is just yet, but they’ll get the hang of it.
When Section 8 turns to either side and asks who the best is, and the band wagon fan responds with an emphatic “Fire!” we cannot – and should not – complain. Knowing Chris Rolfe’s career statistics and the evolution of 2-3-5 formations into 4-4-2's should be secondary to a fan base that needs to welcome all newcomers with open arms. Next thing you know, these bandwagon fans may just become the next group of die-hards.