Dispatch from a Man in the (half empty) Playoff Stands: Fire vs. Houston Dynamo

Lights out Chicago. (photo: Jeff Krause)

Tricks, not treats, were on offer at Toyota Park on Halloween night.

After moving up front to applaud the boys at the end of the match (and then almost getting into a fight after shouting down a disrespectful boo-bird behind me), I hurried over to what was left of Section 8 to pay my respects to some folks I had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few months – both personally and online. Josue was there. Rudy too. We exchanged handshakes and pleasantries and I thanked them for what they do for the club and the fans. I also did my best to be positive and encouraging – which was difficult considering the circumstances.

I saw Jeff M., but didn’t get a chance to talk to him because I was busy consoling Zach. As the two of us sat there alone in the Section, I felt cold for the first time all night. After about five minutes of watching and listening to Frank Klopas address the media on the big board, Zach and I could take no more. It was all too disappointing, sad, and lonely. So we parted ways and resolved to connect once again next Spring.

Oh yeah, did I mention the post-season ended almost as soon as it began? Chicago Fire lost 2-1. It didn’t have to be this way.

What am I going to do here? Give you the usual detailed run-down of events, chalkboards, stats, etc.? No. Why? Because none of that shit matters now. The season’s over. But, if you want the best play-by-play commentary and coverage of what went on last night at Toyota Park, please check out my man Graham Parker at the Guardian. He does not disappoint. And if you want a bunch of “good efforts”, “wait ’til next years”, “plenty to build upons”, “Fire remain positive despites”, or any other number of sports cliche requiems, well, you’ve come to the wrong place. You know where to find that stuff.

So, with match coverage handled by the able Mr. Parker (and others), I’m going to paint a picture of what game day was like for me. Then, I’ll follow that up with some analysis that speaks, generally, to some of the issues facing our Chicago Fire Soccer Club moving forward. I hope you’ll stay along for the ride. 

I’ll try not to be too harsh, as the wound is fresh. I will, however, be critical and get into a few finer points; but this piece is a lament more than anything. So dear reader, indulge me while I write my own personal coda on the 2012 season.

My morning was busy. I edited and put the finishing touches on two fine pieces: one by our new man Ricardo, the other by Stephen. We were off and running. You, dear reader, were able to properly “Know Your Enemy” and “Prime Your Fire Pump”, so I set about doing some of my other work.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, I prepared a presentation for one of my graduate seminars. As I read reviews about and typed up my handout on Walter Johnson’s wonderful Soul by Soul: Life in the Antebellum Slave Market, I paused periodically to respond to and send out some tweets. And despite my skepticism about the Fire’s chances, I tried my best to wear my game day hype-man hat straight.

4:00pm came around and I was so distracted that I left the house without my wallet; which wouldn’t have been a big deal had I not needed to fill my gas tank. Oy! A mad scramble ensued: back home, back to the gas station, and finally on the road to the city. Classes don’t wait. Their start times are fixed. I drove as fast as I could.

I arrived 15 minutes late. Impatiently, I gave my presentation and led a discussion of the book. Unfortunately, due to me being distracted by wanting to leave as soon as possible to get to Toyota Park, things didn’t go as well as I had wanted. Little did I know that theme would continue throughout the evening.

I hopped in the car and sped to the match, only to find a half-empty stadium. I became worried. If you were there, did you notice that the attendance wasn’t announced? Wanna know why? It was 10,923 — announced. In reality, it was four figures, and I’m not talking 9,999.

The wife had to work, so I was on a solo jaunt. Luckily, I met up with loyal reader Rob and his buddy. They invited me to sit with them (after all, there was plenty of room to spare) and I very much enjoyed my time talking soccer with those boys and drinkin’ some Wee Heavies before kickoff.

My first half in Section 107, row 4 (beautiful seats by the way) is summed up in two words: Curse Fest. I literally swore my way through the first 45 minutes of the match, and must admit I felt a bit self-conscious about my behavior. That said, I did get a wink and a smile from Boniek Garcia. However, I didn’t give my foul mouth a second thought after the rest of the folks around me picked up where I left off in the second half. And speaking of the second half…

At halftime, I grabbed a beer and hung out with some folks on the concourse. With the Fire down 1-0, I did an informal survey to see what people thought and whether or not they felt a tactical change was in order. As you can imagine, most called for a different look. The consensus was that Chicago needed to go with two forwards up top. I couldn’t have agreed more.

Conversations over, I grabbed a slice of pizza and headed back to my seat. As soon as I sat down it was 2-0. I became numb. So what do I do when I think a result is all but decided? Enter the Tweetosphere of course. What noteworthy material did I find from others and contribute myself? Have a look:

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And if that’s not raw enough for you, check this out: From 2:07 to 8:30,  Listen to me rant live from the stands for six and a half minutes about the disaster unfolding in front of my eyes to Brian Smith on a special live edition of OLearys Podcast.

So that about sums it up. Alex put one in late to provide a sliver of hope, but by then there were only about 5,000 of us left. Crap ref Toledo blew the whistle, and the stadium was virtually empty within five minutes.

I was one of the last fans to leave Toyota Park. The gates were locked, so I had to find an opening in the fence. I then made my way back to my car, head hanging. Finally, I drove away, sat in a McDonalds parking lot, and reviewed and responded to tweets while I, alone, tried to stay warm over a couple of cheeseburgers. What a heartbreaking way to end the Long and Winding Road that was the Chicago Fire’s 2012 season…

Play the Music.

Parting Shots

Why’d we lose? For the same reasons the Fire went 1-4-1 down the stretch and into the playoffs: Mental lapses, tactical rigidity, and an inability to finish scoring chances – save last night for Alex, who better be back next year and in the starting XI. And despite what Frank Klopas would have us believe, the poor run of results that finished the 2012 season cannot – and should not – simply be chalked up to “not getting breaks”. That’s a cop-out. There are good reasons why things happen and that’s not one of them. Sports cliches be damned.

At least Patrick Nyarko gave an honest answer: “I think our mentality dropped off a bit. We made mistakes, we got punished, and then we had to climb back again.” And it’s interesting, because this was the pattern all year – but no one paid it much mind when the Fire were coming back to win. Back then, folks wore the penchant for comeback wins like a badge of honor. The skeptics, at worst, simply warned that Chicago’s comeback account would eventually be overdrawn. And of course, they were right.

The Chicago Fire gave up the first goal in 21 of its 35 MLS matches this season. Put another way, Klopas and company put themselves in a difficult position to win 60% of the time. So here’s the question that must be answered before next season: Why does this club fall behind more often than not, and what can be done about it?

In my opinion, the problem is not a personnel issue. Chicago has good players. For example, don’t try to convince me that, man for man, Houston Dynamo is better than the Fire. The issue is how the players are coached and deployed on the pitch. Heed two-time German World Cup veteran defender Arne Friedrich’s words: “Today, you saw that the opponent was a little smarter. The effort was good, but in the end, the [other] team was a little smarter.”

And there you have it.

It’s not that Chicago doesn’t have the talent to advance in the playoffs, it’s that they need to change how they prepare and how they play. Mental toughness, resiliency, and tactical flexibility will get you trophies. This is what the Fire need to work on and improve. That said, with the exception of two, maybe three players, the team (including the entire coaching staff) should remain intact for the 2013 season.

So now that I’m done talking about the Fire’s shortcomings, let’s bring this saga to an end with a little pivot, shall we? Last night, we the Chicago fans received one failure in return for our own. We got what we deserved. The fanbase (whoever they are) failed to show up, and the Men In Red in turn failed to put in a playoff-worthy performance for about 10,000 people.

Ask yourself, how would you have felt if you were a Chicago Fire player and saw a half empty (literally) Toyota Park last night; knowing that there’s no way in hell such a scene would occur in most other MLS stadiums. Do you think Sporting KC fans would fail to fill their park for a playoff match? How about Columbus? Houston? Salt Lake? Portland? I could go on.

When we the fans don’t collectively heed the call, why should we expect the players to? They know there are other cities where 50% of the fan base isn’t of the fair-weather variety. They’re not stupid.

Poor Frank Klopas. Here’s one of the first things he said when he assumed his position in front of the microphone during his post-match press conference. “Wherever we play, we’ve always looked out in the stands and we’ve always seemed to find our fans there with the Fire jerseys supporting us.” Right. So can you imagine how he, and particularly the players, felt when they saw so many empty seats for a do-or-die playoff match inside their own so-called fortress? Disappointed at best. Speaking for myself, I’m disgusted.

Yeah, I’ve heard all the arguments about how, attendance-wise, the Fire don’t do well (comparatively) because of so much competition from other pro sports teams in the city. The logic follows that smaller cities with fewer pro sports teams provide better, sustained support for their respective MLS franchises simply because there is less competition.

Bullshit.

There are 9.8 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area. There are 20,000 seats in Toyota Park. So, somebody (or group of bodies) needs to sit down and figure out how to get .002% of Chicagoland to truly commit to our club.

I’ve got my ideas. What are yours?

What’s Next?

Clearly, there are plenty of questions left to be answered. The good thing is that this blog will live on. We’re four writers strong now and growing. Plus, we’ve teamed up with Jeff Krause of Soccer by Ives and Brian Smith of Reckless Challenge Radio to bring you the Red Priests Podcast. We’re going to continue to write about and talk Fire during the off-season, as well as cover MLS playoff action and American and world soccer issues. We intend to engage all of that (and then some) going forward.

So if you like what we do here on the blog and on the pod, do us a favor and recommend us to your friends and fellow soccerheads. And perhaps more importantly, introduce us to folks you’re introducing to the game we all love. There’s a lot of room to grow pro soccer in America, and this is part of the reason why we do what we do.

I’ll close with a quote from the head Man in Red, Frank Klopas: “Work harder and come back stronger.” Indeed. But, to echo my beloved Arne Friedrich, you’ve got to work smarter.

So you know what? In solidarity with our Chicago Fire, its coach, and its players, we aim to do the same. That my friends is the key to victory.

Lowlights

Press Conference Lament

Klopas Answers Questions

Locker Room Sadness

Stats/Box Score

Quote Sheet

#WasPlayoffs

8 thoughts on “Dispatch from a Man in the (half empty) Playoff Stands: Fire vs. Houston Dynamo

  1. As I said on Twitter, I felt like the last month for the Fire was simply a case of market correction. That winning streak that vaulted them up the table was simply unsustainable, especially by a team as rigid as the Fire were. You can’t keep going behind and expecting to win, and you can’t expect that the understanding between two players — Rolfe and MacDonald — is going to be enough to see you through. Especially when other teams do actually get to look at video of your previous games and figure you out. But I never felt that the Fire were in KC’s, or SJ’s, or RSL’s, or Seattle’s class at any point this season. They just got hot and everything went right.

    Klopas needed to find more of a role late in the year for Alex and Paladini. He gave them to Pause and Pardo simply because. His subs were predictable and easily dealt with. it’s a serious issue. He stuck by players like Fernandez and those midfielders for far too long late in the year. There are other issues as well.

    But I don’t think that means the Fire are a bad team, They were certainly worthy of anything from a 2-4 seed in the East, the way that conference shook out. With a good signing or two and keeping those who might leave (Alex, Oduro, others) they can do better next season.

    As for the fans, it seems to simple an explanation to say that people don’t like going out to Bridgeview. But it’s hard to find another one. It’s a gorgeous stadium with lax tailgating policies that make it fun. But it’s hard to get to. And that’s not going to change. So maybe it’s something the die-hards are just going to have to accept. And I know I wasn’t there, but I’m unemployed and broke and had to pick my spots. I chose the DC game thinking they’d win that and give me time to get to the next one. I chose poorly.

    • Dear Sam,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. There’s so much to digest and mull over this off-season, and I hope you’ll stay with us and add your voice to the mix.

      You know, on the Toyota Park issue, I agree about the facility’s quality. For me, its location is no problem at all. I’m there in 25 min by car. But, if you don’t have a car, well, it’s difficult indeed. But even then, is it more perception than reality? We’re talking 20,000 (approx) seats to fill.

      Anyway, all of this has me thinking: if Peter Wilt (or whomever) was the driving force behind the project to locate a soccer specific stadium in Bridgeview (because he, and/or others, knew they could get a sweetheart deal), will history judge the decision as a failure, thus tainting his otherwise sterling reputation?

      It just seems to me that the decision may have been short-sighted. That said, I know how excrutiatingly difficult it would have been (and still would be) to get a stadium built within the city limits and near public transportation links.

      The only solution then, as I see it, is to 1) improve the club’s relationship with the city of Bridgeview, i.e. throw them a financial bone, and 2) embark upon an agressive, targeted marketing campaign to dispel the myth (for some) that Toyota Park is hard to get to.

      Yours,

      Scott

      • Ask anyone who knows me Scott. You can’t get rid of me easily.

        As for the stadium issue, whether it’s actually true or not I definitely feel that perception when talking to the host of other soccer fans I know who don’t go to games. Remember, this is a town where the White Sox can’t draw and that’s on two train lines. They only draw a touch above 20k, so the Fire being around 14k might not only be expected, but better than it could be. What you have on Wednesday is a match on short notice with no buildup on a weekday. I can’t imagine how long it would take to get out there if you left directly from work downtown.

        As for deciding to go there, it’s hard to argue with a decision where basically you get the stadium for free. I wish they’d built it on Northerly Island instead of just a concert venue, but I’m not sure there’s enough space and lord knows what that might have cost.

  2. Hey Sam,

    Clearly, you make good points. My response is:

    1) Being around 12th in the league in average attendance simply isn’t good enough for a metro area of nearly 10 million people, regardless of the reasons (good or bad) you and I set forth herein. There are people who make good money, sometimes lots of money, to ensure this doesn’t happen. Clearly, they need to do a better job. Perhaps they should hire you! 🙂

    2) Regarding your comment, “it’s hard to argue with a decision where basically you get the stadium for free,” sure, in the short run, But if the organization doesn’t have a long run plan to fill said stadium, well, now we’re back to my points about perception vs. reality and legacy of Wilt and company.

    Best,

    Scott

  3. Pingback: Why Nobody Cares About The Fire | On The Fire

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