A supporters’ post-mortem of the 2017 season.
It has been three weeks since the Fire’s revitalizing season was completely destroyed in the first round of the playoffs. After a five year drought, the weight of expectation on Nelson, Veljko and the first team must have been immense, both before and after the dreadful game on that Wednesday night. While blame will be laid on their feet, some rightly and some not, I would rather spend some time reflecting on the positives, and the few negatives, of what has been a very productive season for the Fire and the Chicago soccer community. It can’t be denied that many of us will still be feeling disappointment from just how brutal the collapse against Red Bulls was, but there is now an off-season worth of complaining, ranting and otherwise wallowing about this game and the state of the team for next season. Before we give into that, let’s take a moment to be appreciative of what we have.
This season has been a landmark season for supporters in several ways. We saw the first string of sellouts in Toyota Park for years, both due to the acquisition of several higher profile players and to the team’s amazing winning record at home, which lasted for the majority of the season. We experienced several amazing wins, including an amazing summer filled with games where the Fire looked unbeatable and could not stop scoring. We traveled, we made new friends, we made new enemies (looking at you Bobby Dodd stadium security) and we got back to loving how our team played. It was a year that saw our community grow, founding new events and charities, reestablishing old events and welcoming new Fire supporters into the ranks. The supporters also need to be celebrated for their own achievements in the 20th anniversary party, an event that brought the current team together with legends of the past and really allowed the supporters of the Fire to start to own the history and future of Chicago soccer. The energy, passion and community I saw on October 8th, and from those who gave their hours and days making this event possible, reinvigorated my love for this community. We should not be content with the state of the Toyota Park until it is as one of the most electric atmospheres in the league, but we have every right to be proud of what we accomplished this year.
I would like to thank those in the front office for giving their all to the administration of this team and always being there for the supporters. Despite the years of difficulty and the team making their jobs no easier, many in the front office have worked tirelessly through it all and never gave up on the community. The 2017 season was a step in the right direction, but hardly everything that they deserve, and I hope this trend continues for their sake as much as anyone else. Most of all, Mike Ernst deserves constant praise as always for keeping the ship steady even through the most difficult times. Leaving the game on Wednesday and seeing Mike still shaking hands, saying goodbye to people and thanking them for coming, even after a game that must have been devastating to him, was probably the worst thing I had to see all night. No one deserves a resurgent Fire more than Mike Ernst.
Before we give in to complete depression after that sad picture I just painted, let’s stop and realize this is what the playoffs are. They are brutal, cruel and often swift. Teams that “deserve” to go on often become the first victims of the postseason, and at the time of writing this, regular season powerhouses Portland, Atlanta and 2nd place NYCFC have all exited the playoffs far before they caught even a glimpse of silverware. The Fire should not expect playoff success due to their long drought, nor do they deserve it, and anyone who watched the last months of the 2017 campaign should not have been expecting much better than what we saw against Red Bulls. The complete collapse may have been emphasized by the destruction brought by the Red Bulls, but anyone who watched the Minnesota United debacle, or the final game of the season against Houston only days before the end came at the hands of RBNY, should have seen this coming. We lost something in the late summer that was never found again and, in a structure like the MLS playoffs, losing that special something for even one game can be catastrophic. This team will not be ready to compete on the level that Chicago deserves until it can address and solve this problem. Pundit’s will claim it was one factor or another, many will most likely point to Schweinsteiger’s injury that kept him from being in the team as constantly as he was during the first half of the season. Some will blame our goalkeeping situation, a tumultuous journey that saw three different keepers start games for the Fire, none of which seemed to win over the majority of public opinion with their showings. Others still will blame our continued failure to integrate a true playmaker into the side, which I think has been tried and failed by this administration and by previous administrations. These criticisms are valid, and I’m sure each one will be made several times over before the Fire next set foot on the pitch competitively in March. The task of building this team is not finished yet, but 2017 was the first year of true progress in the last several.
Roster building will not be the entire extent of intrigue in this early off-season, though. Before the melee of the playoffs will be resolved, and while the body of the 2017 season is still warm, we were hit with rumors that our fearless leader Veljko Paunovic has met with the Serbian FA about Pauno taking the reigns of the Serbian senior team after the abrupt dismissal of previous coach Slavoljub Muslin. In a press conference on Wednesday morning of last week, both Pauno and Nelson denied that contact had been made with the Serbian FA, but with Serbia already qualified for the 2018 world cup, this would be effectively offering Veljko a chance to coach his beloved national team in a world cup. If Veljko decides to proceed this way with his career it would not only be understandable, it should be celebrated. He has given much to this city and team over the last two years, and while we would all like him to give just a little more time, it is great to see him being recognized and, potentially, being offered a next step in his career. For now though, we must wait and see what the future holds for our coaching staff. If this was Pauno’s last year with the Fire, all I can say is thank you for the passion you brought back to the team and best of luck in all of your future endeavors. I certainly hope to see you at the 25th anniversary party.
And this brings us to the end of this rant, and the true focus of the off season: Nelson Rodriguez. I will be the first to admit that when Nelson was hired I was skeptical to say the least. I thought we were looking into a version of the Fire where corporate culture was the end all and be all, a far cry from the days when Peter Wilt would spend his free time with the fans whenever possible. Nelson definitely brought his own style of management to the job, clearly changing the culture of acquisitions and hires within the team, but it has not been quite as distant and soulless as I initially feared. In reality, Nelson made efforts towards building fan relations this year, in a way that I have not seen in years from Fire technical staff. He sought out interactions with the Section 8 board, making his presence felt at the Malört 5k and the 20th party itself, as well as stopping by the north lot or the away section when he could before games. I truly think he believes in this this team and community and is in for the long haul. The winter will be a true test for him and newly hired Eddie Rock, as they will need to both find ways to hold on to several high value players while also finding space in the salary cap to add several pieces that were missing this year. Based on the progress made over the last two seasons, I have no doubt they will be up to this task.
Now, as supporters, we head into the uncertainty and excitement of the off season. We will clutch onto every piece of news (and rumor) we can find and stave off the boredom that we are left with during the slow soccer-less months of the year. While the season may not have ended as we hoped, we made a huge amount of progress this year and that needs to be praised. We will always be there for the team, en las buenas y las malas, and no matter what or who this winter brings, we’ll be there on the other side, ready to support this team through whatever comes next.
Vice-Chair, Section 8 Chicago