In a league increasingly and successfully marketed around geographical rivalries, the Chicago Fire finds itself with plenty of elbow room on Major League Soccer's map.
More than 50,000 people saw San Jose defeat Los Angeles in the California Clasico on Saturday night. Fans in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver love the Cascadia Cup clashes with a passion that clearly isn't manufactured, on the field or off. Real Salt Lake and Colorado battle for Rocky Mountain supremacy, and FC Dallas fights for Texas bragging rights with the Houston Dynamo.
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MLS attendanceHere's a glance at some average attendance figures around the 19-team MLS:
Rk. Team: (matches) average
1. Seattle Sounders: (9) 39,514
2. Impact de Montreal: (8) 28,296
3. L.A. Galaxy: (9) 21,982
4. Houston Dynamo: (7) 21,632
5. Portland Timbers: (9) 20,438
14. FIRE: (8) 14,756
19. N.E. Revolution: (8) 12,249
MLS average: 18,841
D.C. United, the Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls and New England Revolution battle it out in the Northeast, each city an easy trip for visiting fans.
Newcomers Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver will decide which is the best team in Canada, a rivalry MLS officials hope develops as those clubs mature and improve.
Chicago truly is flyover country in MLS.
"I think we have a couple (of rivals)," Fire veteran Patrick Nyarko said. "I think New England hates us. I don't think we like them either. Columbus, I would say, it's not a hate thing. Columbus is not fiery, like we get into it with them and there will be fights here and there. Columbus is fair and everyone respects each other and stuff like that. New England is pretty physical.
"My first year I thought it was D.C., honestly. Then it went away and Columbus came into the picture."
So much for a team Fire fans can hate year in and year out.
"Since I've been here it kind of comes and goes in different years as far as who's at the top," said Fire captain Logan Pause, who's worn the Fire badge for 10 seasons. "I remember some of the biggest rivalries we ever had was with New England -- some of those conference championships my first handful of years. And then we went through a spell where it was D.C. was a big rival of ours, where it was just back and forth, back and forth."
But those aren't geographical rivalries, they're rivalries based on individual players and coaches, and they come and go with those players and coaches, and they wane when one team or the other struggles to win.
New England became a Fire rival because they always seemed to run into each other in the playoffs, often the Eastern Conference final. But the Fire has missed the playoffs the past two seasons, and the Revolution is down in the dumps, too, with a new coach. Can Jay Heaps provoke the same passions that Steve Nicol did?
Nyarko points out that Columbus and Sporting Kansas City are the closest geographically and attract the most road-tripping Chicago fans. The Fire sent eight buses to Columbus for its match in May.
The Brimstone Cup rivalry with FC Dallas? Klopas laughs at that one.
"Is that still going on, alive?" Klopas joked. "After I saw that Cup, it looked like someone ran it over."
Neither Columbus, Sporting Kansas City nor FC Dallas provokes much passion or hatred from Fire fans. As rivalries go, frankly, they're a reach. Traditional Chicago rivals like St. Louis, Milwaukee and Detroit (See: Cubs-Cardinals, Bears-Packers, Bulls-Pistons, Sox-Tigers, etc.) don't have teams in MLS. St. Louis, long a soccer hotbed, came the closest but couldn't find a big-bucks owner to interest MLS.
Now comes MLS determined to put its 20th team in New York City, finding land for a new stadium in Queens for an owner to be determined later, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Wanted: Rich man or woman to invest in soccer club in the world's biggest media market and create a derby with the New York Red Bulls that New York fans and media can't ignore.
Which leaves the Fire as what in MLS? Schedule filler?
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