As this Season of Draws has grated on the nerves of everyone, the Chicago Fire fan community has labored to articulate what is wrong with the club. The writers analyze and weave narratives about which players are the wrong fit, why ownership has failed, what acquisitions and opportunities have been missed and why players just simply are not good enough. The Fire are good enough to compete but not win, if you look at our record. Maybe just the addition of a few bright players would make the difference and push us to the top of the table?
What if the real problem is not the talent at all? What if the current players we have ARE good enough? Follow me down the rabbit hole for a moment while I suggest that there is not a failure of talent on the Fire roster, but instead something much more putrid and infectious. The Fire's problem is much more dangerous than a problem of talent. I believe that the Fire's failure is not in skill level or ability, but instead a failure to define a clubhouse identity - a team ethos - that inspires success over failure. Over their rich history, the Fire once had that intangible clubhouse passion for success, and must once again capture what they once had.
Sitting and watching the 2-0 loss to Houston Sunday, feeling numb to the results, and conversing after the match with a variety of personalities in the Chicago Fire community, I could not help but wonder if there is something more wrong with the Fire than just skill and leadership. While watching the players on the pitch I had to wonder if the players, coaches and ownership really believe in the badge, or whether even they believe in each other. Something needs to change.
My current thoughts on the culture of the Fire really reflects a cross-section of several points of view that I heard Sunday, blended with my own perspective. In one case yesterday, a friend of mine pointed out to me Sunday that the front office have brought in all levels of talent to the Fire over the last few years. Players such as Chris Rolfe, Dominic Oduro and Mike Magee have performed well when they arrived, only to later lose their edge. We've seen players like Rolfe and Oduro go on to be successful once again after leaving the Fire. To me, this is an indication that something is not right with the Fire clubhouse.
Tradition, Honor, Passion. This is what the Fire stand for, right? The Chicago Fire and the Fire community are knowledgeable about the club's history, play with honor and respect for the badge, and fight with passion to achieve. Our city, our club. This phrase speaks to pride and ownership of the club by the players, coaches, owners and fans. I am beginning to question whether the current Fire roster and team truly believe these things. Are they taught these things when they come into the club? How does that translate onto the pitch?
Leadership is the role of everyone on a club from the ownership right down to the newest rookie who signed in the late rounds of the Superdraft. All must understand what it means to play for the Fire and buy into the ethos of the club. If they do not buy into that ethos than they do not belong with the club. It does not matter whether they are a 15-goal scorer, a 15-year veteran or a first-year player on loan to the NASL. The expectation must be the same for all. The message of what the Fire are about needs to be ingrained in the culture from the very beginning so that pride in the badge is assured.
If culture is truly lacking in the Fire clubhouse as I suspect, leaders must emerge to right this ship. I do not believe that it necessarily has to be Frank Yallop as Head Coach who has to change the narrative and push the ethos of the club. I think any player or coach could step up and lead - but all people in the organization must buy into it and live the club ethos every day, especially on the pitch. However, it would certainly help if the message came from the top, and the message was clear to all.
As the season has dragged on I have watched players who started the season strong lose their edge and fade. Further I do not see as many players angry on the pitch, challenging each other to do better. I want to see players provoking each other to play to a higher standard. The expectation must be that everyone on the club lives up to the standards of the badge and plays with the passion and heart we all - as fans - expect. Players must not be afraid to call each other out in constructive ways for improvement, both on the pitch and off the pitch. The club's honor is at stake if even one player is not playing to their potential.
If leaders do emerge, and the Fire do return to an understanding of what it means to play for Tradition, Honor and Passion, it will not matter who is on the pitch. Whether the club is made up of million dollar designated players or league minimum rookies the Fire will show the same level of commitment and integrity with every match played. In many ways a strong and reaching club philosophy will mean more for success than any star player the Fire sign in the off season.
We the fans must play our part as well. Criticizing players, club and ownership is justified. When dialogue is respectful and deliberative the fans can play a huge part and holding the club accountable for the ethos of the club as well as the standards we expect to reach with our rich history. However, in our criticism we must remember to hold ourselves to the standards we expect fulfilled by the players and coaches. It is important that we the fans buy into the team philosophy.
To be fair to the Fire leadership, I do believe they understand the need to have a club culture that reflects what the organization stands for. Clearly, players and coaches were brought in from successful clubs such as Seattle and Salt Lake because those players come from a culture of winning and played in successful clubhouses. However, more needs to be done to bring the mindset of success into the Fire organization and capture it here. Without it, the Fire are doomed to fail.
The Fire have an undoubtable rich history of success. Through the last five or so seasons, though, much of what made the Fire successful in years past seems to have been lost. It is not simply that spending less money or acquiring less talent has led the Fire to be less successful. There is something much greater and more important missing. Only by finding the missing ethos of the club can the Fire return to the greatness we all as fans expect.