Soldier Field move must be start of changes for Fire

The relocation to Soldier Field, and the other promising signs under Joe Mansueto, will only go so far to re-energize a soccer market after a decade of decay under Andrew Hauptman.

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Joe Mansueto smiles during the Fire’s news conference announcing the move to Soldier Field.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The gesture of comping 2020 season tickets for the 68 Fire fans who’ve had them since the team’s birth represents a nuanced attention to detail. Alvaro Medran looks like the type of player MLS teams need to compete, and the Fire generally have said the right things about increasing the franchise’s exposure.

But the relocation to Soldier Field — and all the other promising signs under new owner Joe Mansueto — will only go so far in turning a disheartened fan base into one that cares deeply about the Fire and MLS after a decade of decay under Andrew Hauptman.

“I think they’ve got to really get focused on returning to their roots and understanding the passion that exists for this sport here in the city,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “This is one of the top soccer markets [from] fan research. The fan research we’ve done has shown that this is a top-two or top-three soccer market in North America, and we’ve seen the success of MLS all-star games, Gold Cup matches and Copa America matches, so we’re convinced the market exists.

“The Chicago Fire have to work hard to recapture that interest in their club.”

That means building on the off-field progress with a better on-field product. Though he stopped short of explicitly saying it, Mansueto hinted Tuesday that coach Veljko Paunovic and president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez will return for their fifth season together.

If that’s the case, the results will need to improve. Mansueto said his “internal” goal is to double the Bridgeview attendance of 12,324, meaning an average crowd of around 25,000.

“Ultimately, I’d like to see numbers well beyond that,” Mansueto said. “To me, I think that’s very achievable, and I think there’s a lot of upside from there.”

As Garber and Mansueto know, Chicago has a solid base of soccer fans, many of whom turned away from the Fire while Seattle, Atlanta and Portland became MLS flagships. Mansueto said there’s no reason Chicago can’t equal or surpass those cities as a league hotbed.

“To me, it’s not a question of if; it’s when,” Mansueto said. “The thing I can’t predict is, is that in one year, three years or five years? To me, there’s no question that it will happen. There’s a rabid fan base here for soccer.”

The Fire haven’t consistently captivated those fans for a long time.

Even with three seasons of German star Bastian Schweinsteiger, an internationally renowned player who lived up to expectations on and off the field, they continued their decline after a blip of success. It’s debatable if it was the poor soccer or the Bridgeview location that truly hindered the Fire — the 2017 playoff team drew 17,383 fans per game — but Mansueto views Soldier Field as the best way to draw fans.

“This location has, I think, the shortest commute for the most amount of people,” Mansueto said. “It was just the location in the southwest suburbs that disadvantaged Bridgeview. Otherwise, it’s a fine stadium. It’s a terrific town. It’s just not accessible to all of Chicago.”

Now the Fire must build a franchise that’s attractive to all of Chicago.

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