Fire exposed to benefits, challenges of playing at NFL stadiums
On March 21, the Fire officially will return to Soldier Field. Before then, they will have seen the best-case scenario of playing in a football venue and a place that hasn’t worked out as well.
On March 21, the Fire officially will return to Soldier Field. Before then, they will have seen the best-case scenario of playing in a football stadium and a place that hasn’t worked out as well.
Last Sunday, the Fire opened at the Seattle Sounders, an obvious role model for what they hope to become. The Sounders have won two MLS Cups, broken new barriers in attendance and turned the Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field into one of the most vibrant home-field advantages in North American soccer.
While praising the Fire fans who made the trek to Seattle, coach Raphael Wicky gushed about the atmosphere at CenturyLink, calling it ‘‘great’’ and ‘‘amazing’’ and saying, ‘‘That’s what we all train for.’’
As for bringing that kind of setting to the lakefront, Wicky said it won’t happen immediately.
‘‘I know that Chicago is a big sports city, there’s exciting fans,’’ Wicky said. ‘‘It takes awhile to build that. It’s up to us on the field. Like I said in the beginning of preseason to the team, it’s up to us to bring the people to the stadium. How do we fight? How do we work together? What do we show the fans who come and support us? Hopefully there will be a lot of fans, and hopefully we’ll keep them in the stadium.’’
That’s what the Sounders have done to build one of the premier franchises in MLS. The situation for the New England Revolution, who host the Fire on Saturday at the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, is different. It’s one the Fire should want to avoid.
The Revolution made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2015, but their 2019 attendance was only 18th in the league at 16,737 per game — still 4,000 more than the Fire — and games felt empty at the cavernous NFL venue. Finding a new soccer-specific home is an urgent matter for the Revolution, who, like the Patriots, are owned by the Kraft Group but feel worlds apart from the football dynasty.
Of course, which franchise the Fire emulates isn’t something Wicky and the players worry about. But the Fire have to do more than just win this season; they have to reintroduce a franchise to a city.
‘‘We have our goals,’’ striker Robert Beric said. ‘‘We’re trying to reach our goals, for sure. We want to play in the playoffs. To play in the playoffs, you have to win, you have to play good football. Those are our goals and bringing as many fans as possible to Soldier Field.’’
Wicky said those topics aren’t touched on every day, but it is an ‘‘exciting moment’’ for the Fire. He doesn’t see that as pressure; he sees it as an opportunity and a privilege for everybody with the organization.
‘‘It’s up to us to work hard every single day and then to bring it on the field,’’ Wicky said. ‘‘The results obviously help, but with the way the team works — and you were seeing that in Seattle — being a team on the field working and working for the crest, that shows there is passion in there. That’s what we want to give the fans, and then I’m sure the fans will come and see us.’’