Hosting MLS All-Star Game good first step to re-ignite Chicago's soccer interest

Major League Soccer announced Tuesday at Soldier Field that it is taking the first step toward making Chicago a soccer town again.

Of course, commissioner Don Garber didn't exactly say it that way when he announced that the MLS All-Star Game will be played Aug. 2 at Soldier Field with the Chicago Fire as host.

"We thought it was a great opportunity to sort of celebrate the Fire's 20th anniversary," Garber said. "A way to bring some excitement to this city with our sport, similar to what we did with the Copa America (last summer)."

But the truth is pro soccer has been a dying sport in Chicago since 2009.

Bringing the MLS All-Star Game - along with a "top-five team in the world" (rumored to be Real Madrid) - is the league's way of sparking interest in the game here.

"I've never looked at it as a reboot," Fire chief operating officer Atul Khosla said. "There are no handouts in the league. We have built for the last five years a tremendous soccer community, whether it is at the youth level all the way to the pro level. ... This, I think, allows us to really put a spotlight on all of those programs and reach a much larger audience and grow the fan base."

The Fire hasn't been relevant - in Chicago or MLS - since 2009's conference title game, when fans packed Toyota Park and the atmosphere in Bridgeview was electric.

Last year the Fire finished 19th in a 20-team league in announced attendance, averaging 15,602 fans a game, according to MLS stats.

"This team has done a lot more than they get credit for," Garber said. "It's something that personally disappoints me. The club has its challenges with the facility and some of the issues that are related to that. But we have very few owners that are as committed to our league and their club as Andrew Hauptman is. If this game can help celebrate that and their anniversary, I'm all for it."

The commissioner isn't alone in suggesting the attendance problems are because of Toyota Park's location in Southwest suburban Bridgeview instead of closer to the city's center and public transportation. Or because a stadium lease favors the village.

Don't believe it.

The reason for the dwindling attendance is simple: The Fire finished dead last in the league each of the past two years and has played just one playoff game since 2009. Ownership has been reluctant to make the necessary investments in the club.

A still young and growing league can't allow a doormat in its third-largest market.

"I want to make this crystal clear: We're in the business of trying to grow the sport in our country and to make our teams more popular," Garber said. "And if we can bring an international club and have a 70,000-seat stadium, that has enormous benefit for the Fire and for Toyota Park, because it's just going to create more excitement.

"This is an opportunity for the Fire to be in the middle of something really big."

Chicago sports talk radio is allergic to soccer. The Toyota Park press box isn't as full as it used to be for games. Something had to change, and bringing the all-star game here is a sign the league has had enough.

Another good sign: the Fire's roster finally looks like it might be capable of playing decent soccer and making the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2012.

MLS could have let expansion teams in Atlanta or Minnesota host this game. It could have gone to Orlando City's new stadium. It was more pressing to bring it here.

There is more work required to make the Fire relevant. It will take patience, persistence and, yes, money.

But it can be done as long as the MLS All-Star Game is a first step and not the only step.

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