During a January interview with the Sun-Times, owner Joe Mansueto made clear his vision for the Fire’s infrastructure.
“The plan is to invest in the club,” Mansueto said.
One place the investments are on display is at SeatGeek Stadium, the Fire’s former home stadium but still a base of soccer operations. Over the offseason, the facility has undergone a plethora of behind-the-scenes improvements.
The first team locker room has been reconfigured and modernized, the coaches’ room has new space, the available workout space has been tripled, and refueling/wet room space for physical therapy staff was added. There’s also a new video room with stadium seating, the players’ lounge was renovated, the home auxiliary dressing room has 22 new lockers for academy players, and 9,000 feet of space for what was once the front office (which moved downtown) was replaced by room for soccer operations.
“It was a completely new place for us. It was completely renovated,” Fire sporting director Georg Heitz said. “Joe invested a lot there. Just for an example, the video room looks a bit like a cinema. It’s really night and day. It’s really a complete change of this location. It is clear we will improve more.”
And more investment is likely.
The Fire are set to be in Bridgeview for five years, but Mansueto said in January that longer-term the franchise needs to have its own Chicago training center for the academy and eventually the first team. Ultimately owning a USL affiliate is also something Mansueto said he’d like to see.
For now, the Fire are partnered with Forward Madison in the USL, and the team has signed a slew of homegrowns to show a commitment to youth. They also use a facility that in some places is hardly recognizable from how it looked as recently as last year.
“It’s positive. It’s all positives,” said defender Johan Kappelhof, who joined the Fire before the 2016 season. “When I came in, I had to find my way. I’ve been here four years, but I had to find my way. It’s good. There’s only positive things happening around the club and it’s good that everything is improving, also for the players.”
Coach Raphael Wicky sees the development as one part of building a successful club.
“If you want to have consistent success, it’s a package of everything,” Wicky said. “It’s not just one season, it’s not just the players, it’s not just the training ground. It’s all together. It’s, first of all, the people that work together have to have the same objective, the same values all pulling the same direction. We all have that feeling here. Then it’s developing the facilities, and then it’s also developing the academy - that’s what we also do. I think we’re all going in the right direction, the same direction.
“It takes time, but it’s a really exciting process.”
And Kappelhof thinks these changes could be a difference-maker, for this year and beyond.
“In a long season, details matter,” Kappelhof said. “If the facilities are good, over a long season, these details will make the difference. We have to show it on the field. I mean, the club did a lot for the players to improve everything and we have to show it on the field.”