The domestic season begins today, Friday March 6th, with Major League Soccer (North America’s first division) getting underway. Later this month, on March 21st the third division will open (United Soccer League) and on April 4th the second division (North American Soccer League) will start. For US and Canadian soccer supporters, this matters.
Tonight, the MLS team I support, Chicago Fire, will take on the defending champions Los Angeles Galaxy in Los Angeles.
I can’t imagine Chicago winning the match. Last season Chicago had its opener in Los Angeles as well. They played against the now dissolved brand Chivas USA–one of the worst teams in the history of MLS–and lost 3-2. Prior to this, in 2013 Chicago made the opening trip out to LA to play the Galaxy. It was a humiliating start to that season, Chicago lost 4-0. In 2012 and 2011, Chicago drew (the then expansion Montreal Impact and FC Dallas respectively). It was the New York Red Bulls who beat Chicago in the season opener in 2010, a limp 1-0 affair.
You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time Chicago won its season opener. Over the past five seasons, Chicago are 0-2-3 and have been outscored 10-4 in season openers. You’ll forgive me if I doubt that tonight it will be victorious. But don’t mistake that for cynicism. I firmly believe that the Fire will outperform expectations this season.
Most outlets have place Chicago at or near the bottom of the league in their preseason rankings. League proxy sites usually give short shrift to Chicago Fire. It’s understandable–the team isn’t sexy, the owner has really lived up to much more than the minimum expectations, the fan base is notorious for infighting, and it in the true Midwest. Other brands take precedent. The money brought in by the bile green of Seattle and the new sky blue of dirty money of New York City are the anchors. Expansion is all the rage with Orlando and NYCFC (and soon a re-brand in LA and a carpetbagging team in Atlanta). The Galaxy is still the flagship and most winning brand, and US national team stars get shunted to where the league believes they’ll have the most impact. Chicago isn’t, rightly, in any of these conversations.
Yet I still watch this team. I don’t know. I came back to supporting Chicago when I made the decision to come back to soccer in 2010. Where had I been? Elsewhere. The 90s were a busy time, high school and college. Chicago became my MLS team because it was the nearest to me (I was in Kenosha when the brand was created). My first ever live soccer match was in Soldier Field watching the Fire. I don’t remember the game at all. I remember the cheering and drumming around me. I loved it.
But it went on the back burner as a young adult. As a full adult almost fifteen years after that match at Soldier Field, married and drinking at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning with my tiny Indian friend as he got me into Manchester United, I came back to soccer. I wanted to support Chicago again. I did. They were awful. Just really, really bad. And have been since I returned. I have to apologize.
This season sees perhaps the freshest Chicago Fire side in recent memory. Nearly all these players are new to each other and just under half are new to the league. This is as close to a clean slate as supporters can get.
I believe the team will give a good account of itself. But there are still a couple of serious issues. First, the team’s defensive line is porous if not incomplete. Youth or, rather, inexperience is the calling card of the defensive line’s depth. The starting core consists of an iffy rightback, a central midfielder pegged into the centerback position, a platoon at the second centerback slot, and inexperience at leftback. The bench is shallow.
Secondly, the midfield is confused about what it is. The Fire have a tendency to push central attacking midfielders out to the wings. Once there, they flounder or struggle to do a merely adequate job. This is maddening because if they would be deployed properly, they’d likely excel. Chicago is not a team with width. Historically, only Patrick Nyarko (my favorite Chicago Fire player of all time) has been a proper winger. He held the right side down and was dangerous and successful. His presence allowed for the team to skim by with mediocrity on the left. Nyarko is injured. He’s taken too many beatings over the years. Chicago must embrace the fact that they are a narrow team, a compact through the middle squad. I believe that Chicago need to give up the wings.
But all this could be overlooked if the trio of Designated Players (players who are given world market value contracts that exceed most of their teammates contracts by an order of magnitude) stay healthy and produce as expected. Scottish midfielder Shaun Maloney is being looked to as the Fire’s version of Tim Cahill. Forwards David Accam, a Ghanaian international, and Kennedy Igboananike, a Nigerian international, could very well both score double digit goals this season. Both gave good accounts of themselves in the Sweden’s top league, the Allsvenskan. If they stay healthy. Accam is already out of the season opener. There’s anxiety about Maloney as he’s had a history of injury, even though he’s good to go tonight. So, we’ll see. I have that cruel optimism that blends seamlessly into grim realism that only someone who grew up as a Cubs fan can really understand. The gulf between what I hope Chicago Fire will look like and what they will most likely line up as is great.
This is a make or break season. For me, I’ve grown disgusted by the way the league insists on bullying fans and its stubborn refusal to admit that it doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, that soccer is the only global sport, and that the US needs to get in line. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of having to support a league over an actual team.
But I’m not ready to take my ball and go home just yet. My wife decided to treat us, so she bite the bullet and dumped $80 for the two of us to go see see the Fire play at Sporting Kansas City this May. I’ll be one of the lone Chicago Fire tshirts/jerseys in the crowd, next to my wife who will be in Sporting gear (she desperately wants to turn us into the Sporting Caseys). I think it’ll be fun no matter what.
Although I’ve watched a good deal of live matches over the past couple of years (mostly Minnesota United) and watched and written on Chicago from afar, this will be my first live MLS match in a long time. My first Chicago Fire match since that very first match I saw at Soldier Field.
Of course they lost. And all my anxiety about a shoddy defense, a feckless midfield, and an anemic offense were confirmed. Oh, and once again MLS Live failed to provide any service. At least it charges an obscene amount of money to blackout games.