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Fire20: An Identity Crisis

In 2002, the Fire were shaken to their core. Soldier Field was under renovation, and they were forced to spend the season as the Naperville Fire.

Goalkeeper Zack Thornton leads the Fire onto the pitch for a home match at Cardinal Stadium in Naperville, Illinois.

Welcome to Fire20, a new weekly series that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club by making deep dives into the team’s history. This week we look back at the diaspora years in Naperville.

As we saw last week, 2001 was not the best season for the Chicago Fire. They were knocked out of both the MLS Cup playoffs and the U.S. Open Cup by the Los Angeles galaxy, and walked away from their fourth season in existence with nothing shiny.

2002 was a season that was full of anticipation. The Fire had one of the strongest on-paper squads in MLS, and were ready to set out to capture more silverware. However, 2002 was as disappointing as 2001. Today, we will evaluate what I consider to be one of the main causes for this lack of results.

Entering what would be Bob Bradley’s final year with the club, the Men in Red were supposed to continue to be a powerhouse in the league. However, they saw challenges to this before they even stepped on the pitch for preseason.

The Chicago Fire were having, for lack of a better term, an identity crisis. The team that was supposed to be based on the Loop, right in the heart of downtown Chicago. The city and its people were a huge part of the club’s identity. Something that came into question during the 2002 season.

In 2002, the Men in Red weren’t actually the Chicago Fire. Instead, they were the Naperville Fire. That’s right, during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, the Fire weren’t even based in Chicago.

Solider Field was under renovation during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, and since the project was scheduled around the NFL season, the Fire had to find a new home for these two years.

That home was North Central College’s Cardinal Stadium in Naperville, Illinois—roughly 35 miles west of Soldier Field. The ire were, quite literally, forced to move away from the city that they were so closely associated with, and find a new home for their craft.

During their time at Cardinal Stadium, the Naperville Fire struggled to find form at home. In 2002 they posted a measly 6-5-4 record at home. Compared to 2001 when they posted a home record of 11-4-3, that seems even more disappointing.

I believe that the Fire felt out of place playing in Naperville in 2002. The Men in Red had been separated from the supporters and traditions that they were used to at Soldier Field, and things were just not the same. Yes, people still came out to support one of the most exciting teams in MLS, it just wasn’t the same people that Bob Bradley’s men were used to.

Having a “home away from home” so often results in teams feeling as if they have to play every game on the road. I genuinely think that the Fire were experiencing this during the 2002 season.

Let me leave you with a disclaimer: I understand there were many factors to the Fire’s struggles this season. Major injuries to key players like Chris Armas and Hristo Stoitchkov obviously hurt the on-field performance and team morale of the Men in Red.

However, I do still believe that the Fire had enough quality and depth in each position that they should have been more of a contender for MLS Cup in 2002 than they were.

Just thought I should acknowledge that a city change wasn’t the only reason for a bad season. Though, you can’t really deny that this had to have some sort of impact on the Men in Red.

One final item: Here are the highlights of the Fire’s CONCACAF Champions’ Cup semifinal match against Mexican side Monarcas Morelia. The scenes in the video show that fans packed Cardinal Stadium for Fire matches. These fans, however, were those of more of a neutral standpoint, and did not share the same intensity of those at Soldier Field.

P.S. Cardinal Stadium looks like a pretty cool soccer venue.