Finally, two years after the Chicago Fire announced the club was moving back downtown to Soldier Field, we finally got to see the potential of the iconic lakefront stadium. More than 31,000 fans packed the venue for a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake Saturday night, the third-largest standalone crowd in club history.
It was loud. It was colorful, with the red and Chicago flag blue of the crisp new logo drowning out what was left of the Fire Crown logo in its final home game. And, most of all, it was fun. People were excited to be there, from the die-hards, to the brand new fans trying to sort out which players they like best.
Since it was the last home game of the year, I ditched the press box to celebrate my son’s birthday with family and friends in the stands, and atop the Waldron Deck before the match. The tailgate atmosphere was fantastic—sizzling grills, loud music, and kids trying to keep soccer balls from running away under cars. Homegrown signing Sergio Oregel, Jr., whose contract was officially announced earlier in the day, was there tailgating alongside fans with more than 100 of his friends and family, who were all very excited, and very welcoming.
Last season was a throwaway because of the pandemic, with no fans allowed in the building. This season started with attendance restrictions and mandated social distancing, which hurt the team’s ability to build any kind of momentum from an attendance standpoint. And, yes, the team’s poor performances hurt, too. Until Saturday, we never once saw the 25,000 fans that Joe Mansueto expected when he moved the team back to Soldier Field.
The hulking west stand upper deck was vacant, but most other areas of the stadium were full. Under the bright lights, it felt like an event, unlike any Fire game I’ve attended since summer 2017, and before that, the Blanco years.
On the pitch, Robert Berić continued his I’ll-score-now-that-the-season-is-over hot streak with the game winning goal on the last kick of the first half. Fittingly, on a day where we all looked toward the future of the club, Gabriel Slonina earned Man of the Match honors with a five save, clean sheet performance. The Fire also honored the two newest homegrowns—Missael Rodriguez, and the guy they’re particularly excited about, Oregel. One club insider told me Oregel has the potential to be a Tyler Adams-level player, and that he almost certainly will be the best homegrown player the club has ever produced, better than Djordje Mihailovic or Mauricio Pineda.
There were still problems. The pitch was better than the last game, where it was embarrassingly unplayable, but it still showed Bears gridlines and divots between the football hash marks. Long term, this needs to be addressed. And, despite two wins in a row, it’s still evident the roster isn’t, and never was, good enough to compete for a playoff spot this season. There are bright spots, but this will need a big overhaul in the off season.
The Fire have two away games to go this season, and then it’ll be a long winter before we’re back at Soldier Field in the spring. It’ll be tough to carry this momentum toward the eventual 2022 home opener, but the club will need to find ways to do it—be it a heavy marketing campaign, a marquee designated player signing or two, and even the “sampling” ticket giveaways that surely worked Saturday night.
In the meantime, we’re getting closer toward having a club we can all be proud of again, and that’s something to celebrate.