This is the second of a two-part retrospective on the 2018 season. You can read part one here.
In retrospect, the humiliation caused by the loss to St Louis FC was the catalyst for much of the good news that was to come during the second half of the season. The now familiar refrain of “Hauptman Out” was picking up steam once again, this time with much more urgency. Something had to give, and soon.
The first domino of change came in early July, when It was announced on the 9th that the Fire were indeed leaving Bridgeview, and paying a grand total of $60.5 million for the privilege. The news had been bandied about since early May, but this was the first official notice of the club declaring it’s intent to move back to the city. The reaction was largely positive, and the assumption was that the Fire would play in Soldier Field for at least the short term, with the site of the former Michael Reese Hospital speculated as the home of the Fire’s new soccer specific stadium.
Meanwhile on the pitch, the Men In Red had to sit and stew in their misery for two weeks waiting for the group stage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup to play out, and when they finally returned to action, things were as bad as when they left.
They dropped points to Real Salt Lake in their first game back. It was another good start destroyed by defensive mishaps. Aleksander Katai scored in the first 5 minutes with a worm burner of a set piece that confused everyone and wound up in the back of the net. 26 minutes later, an RSL cross was headed towards the penalty spot and the arm of Mo Adams, leading to a penalty that was buried by Albert Rusnák.
The Fire would then go on to win only one of their next eight games, including losses to FC Cincinnati on the road and Philadelphia Union at home. Their one win, a 5-1 victory over Atlanta United, was a game that could only be described as bizarre. Atlanta looked like they wanted to be literally anywhere other than SeatGeek Stadium, and played like it. An 11th minute red card for ATL center back Leandro González Pírez set the tone early, and for the next 79 minutes, the Fire had what amounted to a training session. That would be it for good news throughout the month of July, though. At least not until the Fire got some support from a new signing.
Jonathan Bornstein was announced on July 22nd as the newest member of the Chicago Fire roster and he made an instant impact. His first two games with the club, a scoreless draw with DC United and a 1-0 win at Houston, were both clean sheets due in no small part to his experience and poise under pressure. All of a sudden, for a while, the Fire looked like they could have turned the season around. They even beat Philadelphia, the first place team in the east at the time. However, a 2-1 loss to New England would ultimately be their undoing. By the end of the season, that result would come back to haunt them, as they finished three points back of the Revolution. A win in Foxboro that night would have meant they were playoff bound, and would have made what came next all the sweeter.
After years and years of poor results and an increasing slide into irrelevance, the pressure for club owner Andrew Hauptman to sell the club to someone else from the fanbase was as strong as ever. With Open Cup debacle, and the move back into the city already in motion, it seemed like the perfect time for him to divest himself. On September 13th, it was announced that Hauptman sold his majority stake in the club to Joe Mansueto.
After Mansueto, who had purchased a 49 percent stake in the club the previous year, completed his takeover of the club, the mood changed. There were celebrations on Twitter and in real life. Fire players once alienated by Hauptman were all of a sudden coming back to the club. From Mike Magee to Diego Gutierrez, Fire legends were celebrating this new era of club history.
Buried under all of that was news of a much more sinister kind. This was a tumultuous year for the league, as it found itself in an ideological battle with the forces of good that it would eventually lose. Members of supporters groups across the country were being banned for fighting back against the growing nazi presence at MLS games and in the United States in general, and the Fire’s FO joined the rest of the league in cracking down on anti fascist displays while still burying their heads over the growing nazi problem. In late September, MLS backed down, and displays of the Iron Front were allowed in stadiums once again. However, we should always keep in mind where MLS stands on this issue, and their unwillingness to actually solve the problem.
With eyes on things more important than soccer, the Fire would finish the season undefeated, and play the best soccer of the season. Their first game after the sale was a 4-0 victory over FC Dallas, securing the Brimstone Cup officially for the 7th time in it’s 19 years of existence. The next two draws from Cincy and Toronto officially eliminated them from playoff contention, but they ended the season on a high note, a 5-2 win over Orlando in Orlando. The Fire ended the season in 8th place with 42 points, and a 10W-12D-12L record.
The 2019 Chicago Fire season was a roller coaster, both on the pitch and off of it. The highs of Joe Mansueto’s takeover and some beautiful soccer will be marred by what could have been on the pitch, and MLS’s political stand off of it. At the end of the day, the 2019 season will go down as one of the most important in club history. For good, and for ill.