Like all good American soccer outlets, the new management at HTIOT made the sensible move to look across the pond for a fresh perspective on all things Chicago Fire Football Club (yes, I’m using the club’s Sunday name).
After an exhaustive search - or exactly one DM on Twitter from me asking to write a regular column - they found their Brit. So let me quickly introduce myself. My name is James Black and I’m a Scottish football journalist who has been supporting the Fire from the UK since 2013.
I’m a lifelong Rangers fan. That’s the club that has my heart and has been the constant in my life from childhood up through to the present day. I’ve been going to games since 1994 and now can find myself attending several live matches every week and watching even more on TV.
There are a few things I’m not though and it is only fair I hold my hands up to them so there are no misunderstandings about where I’m coming from. I’m not a Chicagoan (or even an American, so there WILL be British English used with all the superfluous u’s you can handle) and I’m not a Chicago Fire lifer.
I wasn’t paying much attention when Blanco was strutting his stuff or when Frank Klopas was making himself a legend. I have however had to sit through Sherjill MacDonald, David Arshakyan, #HauptmanOut and wooden spoons - and often at 4 or 5 a.m. on a dodgy stream.
Despite my distance from Chicago, I have been to see exactly one game, the 2017 home opener against RSL at Toyota Park, and will be back in town sooner-rather-than-later to take in a game now the Fire are back at Soldier Field.
Now that I’m done talking about me, let me quickly explain what I’m hoping to achieve with this column over the 2020 season.
There can be little argument that being some 3675 miles away from Soldier Field gives me a little bit of distance from what is going on around the club on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. As someone who has also grown up in an entirely different football culture to the overwhelming majority of people who, hopefully, read this I’ll have a different perspective on things both on- and off-field.
Whether it is the players Raphael Wicky has brought in, tactics, the rebrand, the new logo or anything else that is going on, I want people to be able to see how things look from afar - and it can often be very different to what is portrayed on social media and those in the stands regularly.
There will be times where I’m left clueless by Major League Soccer’s Byzantine rulebook or the difference in football culture on either side of the Atlantic. I’m far from an expert on MLS - or even the club I’ve been supporting for seven years now - but have found a passion for the club and the city that, despite my earlier mentioned distance from Chicago, is something I want to share with those closest to it.
There might also be times where I come across as some patronising Brit telling the Americans how to do football properly - and let me apologise in advance - but in my world, it can quite literally be a life-defining choice.
Anyway, that’s the formalities out the way...let’s look ahead to the 2020 season...
...just what is this year going to look like as Chicago Fire SC complete their transformation into Chicago Fire Football Club and start the next chapter in the club’s history?
As Raphael Wicky’s side begin to wrap up pre-season ahead of Major League Soccer’s 25th season getting started, there is very little familiarity between the #cf97 of late 2019 and the #cffc of early 2020.
Gone are the Florian shield, red kits, management team, ownership, stadium, much of the squad and probably a few things I’m forgetting to be replaced by the new Fire Crown, navy blue ‘homecoming’ kits, there’s a whole new football staff and playing squad and even an impressive local TV deal.
MLS’ official preview had all of their experts tip the Fire to end 2020 near the bottom of the Eastern Conference - and they might well be right - but anyone that thinks they have a clue what to expect this year are lying.
Results in pre-season mean nothing and we’ll only start to see how things are starting to gel together after the opening handful of competitive games - and that for me makes this a really exciting winter.
Despite being a solid coach, there was never really a sense of mystery surrounding the team under Veljko Paunovic but, right now, Chicago Fire 2.0 are a complete wildcard.
Of course, there are still some players around from last year but some of the new faces added to the squad during the winter could be exactly what has been needed to spark this team into life - and with so many teams qualifying for the Playoffs in 2020 there’s just no telling what could happen this year.
The addition of a couple of expansion teams makes things even more uncertain and - despite a lot of the noise on social media - there is a lot to be excited about just now.
I’ve ‘only’ been following the Fire since 2013 but for as long as I have, there have been complaints that the club needs to be back in the city. Done. We need to bring in younger DPs rather than old big names. Check. The club needs new ownership. Hi there Mr. Mansueto. There needs to be more to be done to attract new fans. Yep, got that one too. Local TV deal. Confirmed.
There are obviously strong feelings about aspects of the rebrand (I’ll have more to say on that another time) but ignoring people’s reaction to the badge for now, 2020 could finally be the start of the rebuilding process that the Fire have needed to undergo for years.
Let’s enjoy it for now. Who knows, it might end up a dumpster fire like so many seasons have in recent years. But until then, let’s just sit back and see what plays out in 2020.