CJ Sapong has been through all of this before.
In 2011, Sapong was a rookie beginning his MLS career at Sporting Kansas City—a team that had just dumped the old “Kansas City Wizards” name, logo and colors a few months prior. Back then, it wasn’t really the badge drawing the ire of fans, it was the new name. Many blasted the team for taking a Euro-sounding name that had nothing to do with their city.
Here in Chicago, a lot of hardcore Fire fans are frustrated with the team’s new logo and colors, to be sure. But just like he did in KC, Sapong senses an opportunity—trying to figure out what that new Chicago Fire FC badge actually means.
“The beauty is nobody knows yet,” Sapong said. “We get to build that. We get to create that. That’s something that very few people get to do— it’s not just about the players, it’s the front office, coaching, technical, medical staff. To be able to have basically a blank canvas, bring an essence to a badge, bring an essence to a city and an organization. That’s, I think, one of the more inspirational positions to be in.”
Like the Fire, Sporting also changed stadiums as part of its rebrand—moving into what’s now called Children’s Mercy Park in the summer of 2011. Sapong won MLS Rookie of the Year that season, and in the following seasons, Sporting went on to lift a couple trophies—U.S. Open Cup in 2012, and MLS Cup in 2013.
The difference here is that while Kansas City was moving into a soccer-specific stadium that holds a little more than 21,000 fans, the Chicago Fire have to try to fill the 61,500 seat Soldier Field. But the same concept applies—win, and fans will get excited again.
“We as players, we relish the opportunity to play in front of big crowds,” Sapong said. “And because we know it can hold so many people, we want to fill that up. Now, we look at what it takes to do that, and that’s where we, as players, can step up and say it comes down to us getting results, getting wins.”
Even if the wins come, the Fire still have to compete with the other Chicago sports teams. Fans only have so much money to spend on tickets to sporting events. But, the move downtown should make it easier for the Fire to find a place—once again—alongside the rest of the city’s sports teams.
“Chicago’s primed for something like this,” Sapong said. “In an arguably over-saturated sports market, to have the rebrand, to have a forward thinking owner, to have a coach who’s coached at the highest level. You have all the pieces to not necessarily compete with all these other [Chicago sports teams], but to assimilate a position with all these other teams, to show that we also are a venue and an experience in the city.”
The Fire’s home opener against Atlanta United is less than two months away—Saturday, March 21.