HAWL IN: The Fire’s rebuild deserves a place in the Chicago spotlight
CHICAGO – In this sporting landscape, it’s now all the rage. It wasn’t always the case.
Win quick, win now. To hell with building, this “City of Broad Shoulders” didn’t want to be burdened with patience. Not so much anymore.
The Cubs started it, the Bears have tried to adopt it, the White Sox have thrived early in it, and the Bulls are, well, drama kings in their rebuilding.
We’re forgetting someone here. They don’t deserve to be forgotten either, yet it’s not for one to blame him or herself for possibly overlooking it.
Professional soccer here in Chicago took a backseat for the last half-decade as the team fell sharply from the top of the ranks to Major League Soccer to the very bottom. A team that won a league title in their first season hadn’t qualified for the playoffs since the 2012 season, and even then were in for just one day as they were eliminated in the one-game knockout round.
Since then the team took up residency in the bottom of half of the MLS, then the very bottom in 2015 and 2016. Both of those teams finished in last place in the entire league, a far fall for a franchise that had a fast start in the league.
Like other teams in town, the Fire restructured. In came new general manager Nelson Rodriguez towards the end of the first last place finish in 2015 and shortly after came head coach Veljko Paunovic to take over the team on the field. As with others who do rebuilds from the ground up, the Fire improved by just a single point in 2016 and still finished at the bottom of the MLS.
But they were aggressive in the offseason and moved quickly to move out of the cellar.
Nemanja Nikolic was signed as a designated player from Polish League champion Legia Warsaw. Veteran striker Dax McCarty was acquired via trade with the New York Red Bulls. They got Dutch defender Johan Kappelhoff from FC Groningen. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s signing after his stint with Manchester United caught the world’s attention and that of fans in Chicago.
Remember how they piled into the international terminal at O’Hare Airport to greet him? The rebuild was accelerating in a hurry in terms of interest and it translated quickly onto the field.
A win over the defending MLS champion Seattle Sounders in front of a sold out Toyota Park made Bridgeview a place to get excited about soccer again. That was part of an 11-match unbeaten streak the Fire put together in the early summer that had themselves at the top of the MLS for a little while before the All-Star Break.
The Fire cooled a bit, dealt with a few injuries, and still finished third in the Eastern Conference with 55 points. That’s a 24-point improvement from the year before and brings MLS Playoff soccer back to Chicago for the first time in five seasons.
Under the radar they’ve been perhaps, but they shouldn’t be on Wednesday night. Playoff soccer is back in Chicago for the first time since 2012 and, again, the Fire are in a one-game playoff with the New York Red Bulls at Toyota Park for the right to keep playing into November.
When they take the pitch in Bridgeview, it will be the coming of age of another great Chicago rebuild that deserves the attention not only of their fans but the city’s sports fanbase in general.