We’re more than halfway through 2017, and the Chicago Fire were top of the table during MLS’ first-ever Gold Cup break. The little caesura in league play has given everyone time to gather their thoughts about what we’ve seen so far, and the general consensus is thundering acclaim.
Bastian Schweinsteiger: Peerless Mentat exemplar
Dax McCarty: Artesian well of motivation
Nemanja Nikolic: Currently running through a brick wall to tap in a goal
David Accam: Unsolvable offensive X-factor
Michael de Leeuw: the New Dirk Kuyt
João Meira: Mr. Reliable
Matt Polster: Right back of the future
Johan Kappelhof: Unpredictable defensive X-factor
Nelson Rodriguez: Roster-carving ninja
Velko Paunovic: Tactical innovator
Andrew Hauptman: Dolla dolla bills, y’all!
... and so on. Some of these new-look evaluations are mere affirmations, but others are stunning reversals, complete repudiations of what were, six months ago, standard criticisms.
Perhaps no reputation has undergone as complete a reversal as that of Fire Investor/Operator Andrew Hauptman. After years of mismanagement seemingly starved the club of resources, Hauptman’s reluctance to shoulder the kind of payroll burden other big-market teams in MLS were boasting (see: Toronto, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta) came to a sudden end this offseason, as Hauptman and Rodriguez arguably answered the long-awaited ‘Keane money player’ criticism twice in three months by signing Nikolic and Schweinsteiger.
This supercharged a roster already built to take full advantage of MLS’ new Targeted Allocation Money, with crucial players like Johan Kappelhof, Michael de Leeuw and McCarty (and Juninho, sigh) making DP money but taking up normal roster slots. When the Fire first XI lines up with all three central midfielders, there can be as many as seven guys making over the old cap*, thanks to the use of TAM— and two of those DPs are really expensive on top of that. This is a big-budget side built to dominate, and is the first Fire team in this writer’s memory to display (and back up) the kind of swagger I associate with championship teams in Chicago.
All of which is to say, quite simply: Thank you, Andrew Hauptman.
You are delivering results for the people who love this club, and those who have loved this club for years. Thank you so, so much. Thank you for Basti, and for Dax, and for Niko, for Lucho and Michael and David— thank you for spending what it’s taken to build this team.
If I might be bold, though, sir— why now? Why finally spend big now, eight years after buying a club that was one game away from the MLS Cup final, after years of a being club whose very existence seemed like a florid experiment in the potential to create toxic environments? Please understand I’m not complaining; please don’t take it all away! I’m just trying to understand why, if this kind of transcendence was thisclose to being a reality all along, why did we suffer through the long, slow dissolution that was 2013-2015?
All that is yesterday. The money’s here, and a prevailing sentiment is just to smile and clap along— and we have, all of us, as the football has gotten more and more ecstatically beautiful. This is a very good team that has a realistic chance at greatness. Who wants more than that?
Beggars for good soccer
The ‘wallowers’— as the management of this club has called older, skeptical supporters— want more than that. Perhaps you’re wondering why.
Eduardo Galeano’s most famous quote— “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead, ‘a pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it”— is also a summary of the frustration at the heart of being a fan of this beautiful sport. We are beggars for good soccer, beggars who have as much power to make things better as the guy holding up a cardboard sign at a busy intersection.
Now imagine the curdled frustration of holding up that cardboard sign for years, exposed to the elements, just waiting for that good soccer; each year hearing promises, vague whispers of possible improvements that keep you holding on … is it really that hard to understand a diminution of trust? When does a liar become a truth-teller— after five non-lies? 10? 20?
Yes, this team has come good in spectacular fashion. And yes, all the key figures involved in this makeover have earned some degree of trust and patience. But by mocking the concerns of long-term supporters about the sustainability and long-term investments within the club, rather than answering them in any substantial way, the management of the Fire risks revealing that its core philosophies haven’t moved past the ideas of the Editorial of 2013.