MLS should do for Chicago what it did for LA: Fold the Fire, start over

I'm going to say the unthinkable, as hard as it is for a soccer fan to do.

Fold the Fire. Start over.

That hurts to even think about, but it's the right thing to do. Pro men's soccer needs a reset in Chicago.

I covered the Fire's birth at Navy Pier in 1997. I followed the Fire from Soldier Field to Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium in Naperville back to Soldier Field to Toyota Park in Bridgeview. I couldn't follow the Fire back to Soldier Field again. I lost interest.

I wasn't alone.

There are good people working for the Fire, people who have put their heart and soul into the club. People I call friends. I feel badly for them. They deserve better.

It's still the right thing to do: Fold the Fire. Start over.

In Major League Soccer terms, the league should do for Chicago fans what it did for Los Angeles fans in 2014. Chivas USA the Fire.

In that case the league took over operations of Chivas USA, then soon after folded the club. The league then gave an expansion franchise to Los Angeles to replace Chivas. Los Angeles Football Club opened in 2018 under new ownership, under new management, with new players in a beautiful, new soccer-specific stadium. Most importantly, LA got the second chance it needed.

Since then LAFC has surpassed the Los Angeles Galaxy in the hearts of LA soccer fans. LAFC plays to capacity crowds. MLS is thriving in its second-largest market.

MLS is dying in its third-largest market. The thrill is gone. The window of opportunity has closed.

Fold the Fire. Bring a new club to life in a soccer-specific stadium near United Center, with a new state-of-the-art training facility, under new leadership.

It's too bad, really. The Chicago area has a rich soccer culture. It's a metropolitan region full of immigrants who come from places where soccer is beloved. Kids all over the suburbs flock to clubs, their parents paying big money to trainers to teach junior skills. There is money to be made here, a gap to be filled.

Chicago soccer fans do fill Soldier Field. They fill the stadium for the MLS All-Star Game, for the Gold Cup, for the rumor that Lionel Messi might play.

It's hard to remember, it's been so long, but the Fire was actually successful for the first 11 seasons of its existence. It made the MLS playoffs, went deep in the U.S. Open Cup tournament, won trophies.

Won fans. Earned media coverage.

In 2009 the Fire played the Eastern Conference final in front of a packed Toyota Park, now known as SeatGeek Stadium, in Southwest suburban Bridgeview. The evening was electric. The future looked so bright fans could imagine soccer growing as big as hockey here.

Since then the Fire has reached the playoffs just twice. That's incredibly hard to do, considering more than half the league advances. The Fire has scored one - yes, 1 - playoff goal in the last 14 seasons. The Fire has zero playoff wins since 2009.

Over the last decade the Fire has changed ownership, it has changed technical directors, it has changed business leadership, it has changed coaches, it has changed home stadiums, it has changed colors, it has changed logos - twice. Nothing works.

They tried to rebuild the brand. Instead they buried it.

One thing that hasn't changed: Fans stay away in droves. This season the Fire finished 23rd in MLS in home attendance with an average of 18,175 fans at 61,500-seat Soldier Field. Remove the full house that went to the lakefront hoping to see Messi and the average would probably be a little over 15,000 a game, good for 28th of 29 teams.

Over the last several years MLS has added expansion clubs in smaller markets: Nashville, Miami, Cincinnati, Austin, St. Louis. They are thriving.

Each has left the Fire in their dust, the Chicago club wallowing in its repeated failures.

What makes the Fire different from Chicago's other struggling teams? Fans, sponsors and media attention. The Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, even the White Sox have them.

The Fire? Even Google wonders if the club still exists.

Fold the Fire. Start over. Chicago deserves better.

Daily Herald Sports Editor Orrin Schwarz can be reached at

Chicago Fire fans react after a Fire goal was disallowed in the 90th minute of an MLS soccer match against CF Montreal, Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Eileen T. Meslar)
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