A perplexed expression spread across Bastian Schweinsteiger as he contemplated what he’d been asked at his first press conference as an MLS player. The reporter posed his question for a second time, only deepening the furrows of bafflement on the German’s forehead. He’d been asked whether he hopes to lead the Chicago Fire to the World Cup.
The 32-year-old brushed off the ignorance with all the class you’d expect of a player of his caliber and experience, giving a generic answer that outlined his ambitions with the Fire. The moment, however, had already been captured on social media, sparking countless jokes, memes and GIFs mocking the Chicago sports media and their distinct lack of soccer knowledge. The Chicago Fire themselves even weighed in, posting a picture of Schweinsteiger to Twitter with the hashtag #RoadToRussia.
Of course, not all Chicago sports writers are as clueless as the one who asked Schweinsteiger whether he wanted to lead an MLS club to the World Cup, but it once again raises discussion over the city’s soccer potential. Chicago has been an MLS destination since 1998, yet it remains the hardest nut for the league to crack.
For all that Chicago is one of the largest sports markets in the United States, it has never truly taken to soccer in the way it has with ice hockey or basketball. The Fire won the MLS Cup in their first ever season in the league, hinting at a bright future for the club, but what followed over the next two decades has been decidedly dull.
An MLS backwater
With new franchises springing up across the continent, MLS is an exciting place at the moment, yet Chicago has somehow been left behind. The Fire has witnessed very little of that fanfare, finishing at the foot of the Eastern Conference for the last two seasons. On and off the field the Chicago Fire have stagnated, with the signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger, along with Dax McCarty and Juninho, an attempt to stir the waters around the city’s soccer scene.
But even if Veljko Paunović’s side avoid bottom spot this season the Fire still have a tough task on their hands to capture the imagination of Chicago, a sporting city that still revolves around mainstream sports. As Dan Santaromita, a soccer writer for CSN Chicago, explains: “There is very little mainstream media coverage of soccer in Chicago.
“Neither the Chicago Tribune nor the Chicago Sun-Times, the two big daily newspapers in the city, have covered any Fire games for the past two years. Basic soccer knowledge doesn't seem to be required for some in sports media, although a growing number are fans of the sport in one way or another, and Chicago is not unique in that way. That said, I don't see Patrick Kane being asked if the Blackhawks could win the Olympics or Kris Bryant being asked if the Cubs could win the World Baseball Classic.”
Looking for a catalyst
The demographic is there for the Chicago Fire to exploit, but they have so far failed to do so, averaging the second lowest attendance in MLS last season (15,602) despite Chicago being the third biggest city in the league. Toyota Park, one of the first soccer specific stadiums built in North America, is now treated as a backwater of MLS when it should be considered a continental hub of the sport.
“I think Chicago is a respectable soccer city, but the Fire are definitely having some struggles getting MLS to click here,” adds Santaromita.
“There is a big Hispanic population that loves the sport and Toyota Park was filled when Cuauhtémoc Blanco played for the Fire from 2007-2009. Since then the team's on-field struggles have created off-field struggles. One playoff appearance since Blanco left, in a league where a majority of the league makes the playoffs, is going to create fan apathy.”
Indeed, winning games on the field is the first part of a renewed strategy that has been implemented at the club over the winter, with the signing of Schweinsteiger the poster boy for their efforts. The Chicago Fire and MLS are determined to put the city back on the soccer map, with the award of this summer’s All-Star game indicative of this.
“Getting the MLS All-Star Game in Chicago this summer and having Schweinsteiger on board are signs that the league and the Fire are making a push to join the growing number of markets where MLS is a success,” says Santaromita.
There is still some way to go before Chicago can claim to be a soccer city in the same way Orlando or Portland can, but at least moves are being made to change that. Maybe the questions will be a little better the next time the Fire unveil a new signing.