A move downtown won't solve Chicago Fire's problems
Somewhere along the line, SeatGeek Stadium became the scapegoat in MLS circles for what ails the Chicago Fire.
Build a stadium within the Chicago city limits and the Fire will magically be relevant again in the Chicago area and the league, the theory seems to go. But as long as the Fire plays in the "prairie," as one out-of-town writer last year referred to the blue-collar industrial suburb of Bridgeview, located just a 10-15 minute drive through the neighborhoods to Midway Airport, it can't be successful, they say.
And so, according to multiple reports, the Fire will buy out its lease at SeatGeek Stadium, formerly Toyota Park, and move back to Soldier Field next season. Presumably, that stay would be short as the Fire builds another soccer-specific stadium in Chicago.
Nobody wants a long-term stay in 61,500-seat Soldier Field. That would set the franchise back even further.
A Chicago Sun-Times report had the club looking at the former Michael Reese Hospital site on the near south side for a new soccer-specific stadium. Fire general manager/president Nelson Rodriguez, speaking to the media before the Fire's 5-0 victory over visiting New England, downplayed that possibility.
A move back to Soldier Field, where the Fire (3-4-4, 13 points) started in 1998, won't help the Fire draw suburban fans to games. Even some city fans will find it difficult, as anyone who dealt with pre- and postgame traffic around Soldier Field at the 2017 MLS All-Star Game can attest.
The 30-minute drive to Bridgeview from central DuPage County, 45 minutes from the Daily Herald offices in Arlington Heights, will be significantly longer on the Chicago expressways, especially for weeknight games.
Rodriguez did not confirm the club's plans to move.
Still, all signs point to a change.
"At the end of last year, we made a conscious decision to try to be more present in the city," Rodriguez said, noting the team hosted a national soccer coaches convention in January, set up a pop-up shop during the holidays in the Wrigley Building and held a meet-the-newcomers event at the Blackstone Hotel, with more ideas coming. "... Today I think we need to step back into the city. We need to become an active participant in the city."
To his credit, Rodriguez recognizes that the Fire's inability to draw well at SeatGeek Stadium has more to do with the team's failure to win over the last nine-plus years than the stadium's location. The quality of the product matters.
"I think we have lost relevance, and not winning hurts us in that regard," Rodriguez said.
In a six-county metropolitan area of about six million people, surely a good team could draw 20,000 a game and fill SeatGeek Stadium. The location might not be perfect, but it's not nearly as bad as its detractors say.
Two playoff appearances, zero playoff wins, one playoff goal plus mistakes in the past nine seasons that antagonized the fan base and media point to an average announced attendance of 11,298 this season. That's last in the league, and it will drop with Wednesday's numbers added in.
Chicago is a strong soccer town. Better than last in the league no matter where the stadium is.
Even a club rebrand, which Rodriguez said is still possible, will have limited benefits if the Fire doesn't win and stop making mistakes off the field.
"I don't fool myself and say, Oh, we changed our colors so suddenly we're worthy. Absoutely not. But the whole package has to be worthy," Rodriguez said. "We could have a great team, but if we don't service our fans well, that's not going to matter either. We could service our fans great, but if we don't win games or play well, that's not going to satisfy fans either."
The Fire won the first few seasons after SeatGeek Stadium opened, and the stadium rocked. The 2009 conference championship game in Bridgeview was as electric an atmosphere as could be found at any Chicago arena.
When the Fire started winning again briefly in May and June 2017, fans again packed the stadium. When the team tailed off, so did attendance.
That won't change no matter where the Fire plays.