Oh hi! I’m Jiggly. And it’s a Tuesday.
As always, I actually write my column the day/night before. That’s how I try to make sure my column is as topical as possible for the day it comes out. The thing is, the Chicago Fire didn’t play anyway, so there’s nothing much to talk about. I’ve already given some opinions on how I think the Orlando game will go a while back, so that’s not really much of a topic for me to get into. Besides, Tim will have a preview later this week. No, the most topical thing that I can bring up is WOW, that was a lot of rain today yesterday in the Chicago area. Looking at the official NWS record, it was apparently only an inch of rain, but I swear it was going hard all day. It’s the sort of thing that I actually enjoy, but I’m sure must make others sad. So let’s get sad and existential today. Come on, let’s have some fun.
I’m Still Here
This past week, there was an incredibly stupid and fun moment where Kylian Mbappe and Neymar were both connected to coming to MLS. As we know now, Mbappe doesn’t appear to be going anywhere this season and Neymar is headed to Saudi Arabia. But during that brief moment, there was genuine buzz that they could be here, especially Neymar. The thing is, while Fire fans can make jokes about the possibility of either of these two world-class players coming to Chicago, it didn’t really seem like anyone else around MLS was buying it. They already started to push them toward New York, LA, and Orlando. Fire fans beg for recognition as a valuable soccer market that could use a major player like him, but those cries were ignored. Why? Why doesn’t anyone care about Chicago anymore? The Fire used to be THE team for aging European stars to pretend like they were going to in order to get a better contract with their current team. Why can’t the Fire even get a solid rumor anymore?
I remember back in the day when the Fire were always the random team that players’ agents would name-drop. We’d have Polish midfielder Sebastian Mila get mentioned every summer, Miroslav Klose was a leading candidate for a while, and there were even multiple times when Arda Turan was apparently in talks with the Fire. None of these rumors ever turned into anything and whether or not they even spoke to the club is equally inconsequential. The fact of the matter is that they were connected to the Fire and fans were excited. More likely than not, it was just an agent trying to leverage “interest” in MLS in order to get a better contract with their current club or the club that they would eventually go to. And the Fire were just the team that seemed to instantly come to mind for those agents.
The Fire had gained a reputation early on for being a bit of a destination, especially for Eastern European players. Piotr Nowak, Lubos Kubik, and Roman Kosecki were all major names in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland, and the addition of Hristo Stoichkov later on wouldn’t hurt that reputation either. “Chicago Fire” seemed to just be a name that these guys had heard at some point and would just be their random MLS team that they would pull out of their ass when negotiating. And you know what? It’s at least nice to be known. Take it from me, a guy who appreciates being handed a beer in the parking lot because someone read my column (That hasn’t happened, but it could…). That specific status may have died out within a few years of Hristo’s exit, but the Fire continued to make plays that kept them in the mind of many in Eastern Europe. Despite the switch in focus in the club’s acquisitions begun by Juan Carlos Osorio, there was still the signing of Ekstraklassa scoring legend Tomasz Frankowski and the loan of the deeply problematic youth prospect, Krzysztof Król. The Fire remained in those conversations and that’s how we got those Mila and Klose rumors, even if the Fire may not have been involved in trying to acquire these guys.
The problem is that the league has expanded and now there are other teams that are much more known for making those kinds of signings. The random Polish players aren’t talking about the Fire, they’re talking about Charlotte. And maybe it’s just that the Fire are plugging leaks better, but if that were true, then that would honestly be more sad and less fun. Because sports are entertainment. We’re here to have fun. And hearing the Fire connected to some random interesting player is fun (as long as they’re not trash or don’t fill a need).
I think another piece of this is that the Fire aren’t really well-known anymore. This is a consequence of history books. Not really “books”, but more about league media and its portrayal of the club. I’ve always been a massive critic of MLS’s account of the early seasons and their blatant disregard for the Fire’s history. They mention the double and then move right on from 1999 and the end of DC’s dynasty all the way to 2006, with just a passing mention of “El Classico” and how we should all totally care about it. The Fire and the Kansas City Wizards dominated that period of MLS’ existence and it’s barely even a footnote to those writing the history of the league.
It’s also the fault of the club. I am constantly talking about how cool the Fire’s history is, but my problem is that I don’t really have too much of a living memory of it. There’s a lot of people who do, but are either no longer involved with the fanbase or simply just aren’t being asked about it. So many of the kids these days forget that there was a season where the Fire had Hristo Stoichkov, Piotr Nowak, Jesse Marsch, DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, Josh Wolff, and Eric Wynalda on the same team! And Wynalda was the leading goalscorer! But even the Fire seem to ignore that era, instead limiting discussions on the past to just The Double and Blanco. Kids these days know more about a Frank Klopas goal in ‘98 than they do about the sheer dominance of Ante Razov and Damani Ralph in ‘03.
The reason I find this part so important is that teams like the Cubs, Bears, and recently the Bulls have been able to sustain themselves with new signings is the pitch that there’s history in the building. That this is a historic team in a city where you can make a difference and write new history that’ll matter. Chicago is an amazing soccer city, but there’s been such a poor job done to compile and chronicle the stories that make Chicago amazing that people literally forget that we have a professional team around here.
Finally, I wanna take a quick moment to talk about a movie I watched the other night. Cause recently an unnamed streaming service added Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to its selection. As a screenwriter, I really appreciate John Hughes. There’s a simplicity to what he writes, it’s a lot of family drama that doesn’t need to be high concept. There’s a levity and heart in almost all that he wrote. He also put literally everything in Chicago, one trait I can say that I absolutely share with him. But something I’ve noticed is that since about the mid-90s, when Hughes started slowing down, is that Chicago has sort of disappeared from the cultural landscape of media. Now, you’re gonna say “Hey, they filmed all those Batman movies here,” and they did! But those were set in Gotham, which, as we know thanks to the NWSL team, is just another name for New York. Of the recent high-profile shows and films set in Chicago that aren’t copaganda, we’ve got some shows about how living in Chicago sucks (Trial of the Chicago 7, Shameless), how people don’t want to live in Chicago (The Big Sick, The Bear), and then there’s one actual show that Chicagoans identify with as a solid vision of the City. Unfortunately, I don’t think The Chi is very popular outside of Chicago. As I said in my earlier column about the MLS x Marvel collab, there is only one superhero from Chicago and even Moon Knight is based in Manhattan.
This isn’t the Fire’s fault, but it is a problem for the Fire. Chicago just isn’t really as “global” as it could be. The branding’s all off thanks to years of being called some pretty terrible things and being the subject of a lot of really stupid uninformed lies about crime rates. When I really think about it, the only big name I think the Fire could even try to grab and get over here is someone like Antoine Greizman. Hell, just tell him he can get a hug from Derrick Rose and I think he might even play for just a max contract. Unfortunately, D-Rose is in Memphis now, so that probably won’t work. Sure, Robert Lewandowski sounds great and you can try to convince him with Chicago’s massive Polish community, but can that really get him to leave Europe? Like, if he wants to retire, he can just go home and play his last few seasons with Legia Warsaw or even go back to Lech Poznań.
I always say “This is Chicago.” That’s because I believe in the city because it’s my city and I care about it. But, sometimes you do have to look at the situation objectively and realize that maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Whether it’s because of the Fire’s lack of ambition, the league’s lack of historians, or even Chicago’s lack of a global presence anymore, the Fire are just not on the map for players. They’re not on the map for those weird dudes on the internet that try to start rumors. We’ve gotta do that on our own just to amuse ourselves. Instead of Messi, Neymar, and Mbappe, we’re stuck with Shaqiri, some random South American dudes, and… idk, El Shaarawy? Wait, he’s good again now, nevermind. I guess this really is Chicago now. This is where we are now. From Ditka and Jordan to obscure disappointments across the board on our sports teams.
He Must Be Happy
Recently, I’ve been really confused by my peers on this site and on Twitter (it’s the Sears Tower, it’s US Cellular, it’s Twitter). Everyone seems way too optimistic about the Fire right now. I guess I must be so jaded from all my years around this club, but we are all pretty much in the same age range. There’s no way that I’m just more jaded than my peers (Dad, I know you’re reading this. Stop laughing). But, when I actually look at what they’re saying, reading between the lines, their optimism also has this jaded tint to it. Making jokes about how amazing objectively bad players are, talking up a Fire team as MLS Cup contenders when we’re barely above the playoff line with an interim coach. It is just a part of the mindset that my generation has taken with the world. Zoomers and younger millennials know that the world that we have been born into is burning down. We are stuck with such massive amounts of debt, both metaphorically and literally, that many of us have simply chosen to check out entirely in hopes to avoid being sucked into the death spiral. We make weird nonsensical jokes that either need dozens of layers of references to other memes or the joke is that there is no reference to anything. It is in that area of humor where we can find much of the younger side of vocal Fire support.
So let’s start with defining what optimism is. Not an actual definition. If I ever quote Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary or Encyclopedia Britannica unironically, I want the nearest person to slap me in the face as hard as possible. What I mean is: How do we define optimism for Fire fans?
For many, it means that you believe that the Fire can make the playoffs. This is a task that has been getting easier and easier to do as time has gone on and yet the Fire have somehow failed to achieve this 11 times out of the last 13 years. In fact, in 2020, MLS was practically begging for the Fire to make the playoffs. The rules were bent so far and the Fire just declined the invitation with a home loss to NYCFC. Maybe a cup run is where most Fire fans hold their optimism, as we’re still the “Kings of the Cup”. But, after the past few times through the tournament, this isn’t really a realistic goal anymore either. In the end, “optimism” for the Fire is really just the bare minimum for a lot of other teams in the league. But, because of the way the season goes, people still feel “optimistic” at some point or another. The mere idea that the Fire can avoid missing the playoffs again slowly creeps into their head. That’s because, much like any other great epic tragedy, the Fire are in a cycle.
I know I used that word incorrectly, but I don’t care. The Chicago Fire Cycle is one that you can set your watch to. While there are some slight deviations in seasons where the team actually just explodes on impact, most seasons in the past 13 follow this path. We start out incredibly ambiguously. Maybe a couple of losses where the team had a decent performance, maybe they’re some draws that were definitely not convincing. It’s held back up by a few solid performances that make you think they might have something here. This immediately morphs back into some more disappointing games as those “decent performances” have not been improved on outside of random big wins in games they have no business winning and likely just caught an opponent by surprise while they’re on their own down stretch. After a bit of a lull through May and early June, the side burst into life from July into early August, lifting them above the playoff line. This is swiftly followed by a massive collapse, usually four or more losses in a row. The Fire then struggle to get back to the playoff line until they’re ultimately mathematically eliminated. After that, they just sorta win some games that don’t matter while their underperforming striker stat-pads. This is the script. There have been many side-quests, fun bonus loyalty missions, but that is the main story that you’re gonna have to go through.
So far this year, the Fire have followed that cycle to the letter. Unfortunately, the Leagues Cup has interrupted the cycle. This is not good. You see, the Fire were supposed to have their big run continue through into August, but those wins in July and August are now no longer in the league. If we read the script correctly, we’re about to hit the sudden collapse. Maybe they can get past it? But interrupting the cycle has some very terrible consequences. There is one major example in the past few years where an alteration has been made. Some thought it was good, but for me, it was a harrowing experience.
In 2017, the Fire peaked too early in the season. Their summer bump was moved from mid-June at the earliest to May. This meant that the bump would end early. At the time, in early July, it was the first time in years where the Fire sat at the top of the league that far into the season. But something sinister happened there. We were given hope. A glimpse of relevance. It would be too much.
Look, the average Fire fan who has been around for years has come to expect failure. They are numb to it, accepting it as a simple fact. When you lower your expectations, they will likely be met most of the time. If you say the team will suck and then they go on and suck, you will not be surprised. You can be disappointed, but it’s not a big deal. We went into 2021 expecting garbage and we received garbage in the form of quite possibly the worst Fire team ever sent out onto the pitch. It was predictable. Similarly in 2015, we didn’t really expect anything out of the team that Frank Yallop had barely cobbled together after shedding most of the squad’s veteran presence in the offseason. So there’s no surprise that it was statistically the worst season in Fire history. But in 2017, we went in with fairly low expectations right at the start. So none of us were prepared to actually believe in them. For the first time in years, I was actually excited about the team’s chances to not only make the playoffs, but do something there. League media that had long felt like they were ignoring us was actually talking about the Fire. Their tone of voice was no longer sympathy, but praise.
The collapse, which was usually in August, came from late July all the way through August, with six losses in seven games. That shaky trust that was rebuilt earlier in the summer was shattered once again. They fell from the top of the conference at the all-star break to just barely getting to host their wildcard game. I remember previewing that game, saying that the New York Red Bulls were built so incredibly solid defensively that the only way through is by attacking it head-on. Other teams who sat back with the ball were picked apart by the high-line pressure. The Fire had played in their own high-line style earlier in the season, so it was completely possible for them to do the same here to counteract the Red Bulls’ playstyle. Instead, coach Veljko Paunovic essentially instructed his players to roll over and let the Red Bulls do whatever they wanted. I had a genuine mental health crisis at that game and likely for a while afterwards. Something had broken in me. After that game, I genuinely couldn’t watch soccer for months. Compounded with whatever else I had going on at the time, it was probably the heaviest loss I could ever experience in sports. Because there was hope. Because there was genuine optimism.
Maybe we don’t need optimism to be happy.
Those who’ve followed my work for a long enough time know that I have a very interesting relationship with the works of Albert Camus. He’s an Algerian-French philosopher that I like to quote a lot. One of my favorites involves soccer. While Camus attended the University of Algiers, he played goalkeeper for their team. Allegedly, he was pretty good at it too, only seeing his fairly promising career end due to tuberculosis. He once said “What I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” And so, with him in mind, I must bring up the fact that in order to find any true joy around the Chicago Fire, we must embrace the absurd reality that we live in. Much like those fans that have befuddled me with their blind optimism, I guess I should just be happy. Because the goal is no longer to see the Fire win, it’s to simply have fun. It’s to hang out with a group of strangers who are no longer strangers, they’re your Fire Family.
As the Swedish Women’s National Team coach Peter Gerhardsson recently said, before walking into a utility closet, “If you as a human being know everything, it’s not exciting. And that’s why football is so exciting.” He’s a bit confused, but the strange man does have a point. It’s because I went into that playoff game with such a complete understanding of the Fire’s and Red Bulls’ strategies that the loss hit me as hard as it did. Paunovic didn’t approach the game with an understanding of his opponent, so why should I have done so? Why should I suffer through meaningless facts that have no bearing on the equation at hand? We should approach all things surrounding the game with a sense of incredulous wonder. MAN KICK BALL IN NET! We are not here for the game, we are here for the story! Chicago Fire on NBC has nothing on the sheer melodrama of Chicago Fire on Apple TV+ (with a subscription to MLS Season Pass).
We, the fans of the Chicago Fire Football Club, are Camus’ Sisyphus. We are doomed to fail with purpose. We cheer for the Fire, not with any expectation to reach the top of the mountain, but for the joyous sensation of being in motion on the annual roller coaster that is the Chicago Fire season. Maybe we know where the next twist or turn is, but we are on the ride. And someday, maybe the club will finally figure themselves out and fix things. Maybe the Fire will actually be contending for trophies. But there’s no turning back for us. We are already broken. But we are happy.
Ember Island Players. I don’t know if any of you have really noticed, but the Fire II have been doing pretty decent recently. Victor Bezerra and Alex Monis have actually been getting some solid chances down there. The problem is that I’m not sure if they’ll ever see the first team.
Kerr-chow? I think we’re all disappointed that Colombia and Japan are out of the tournament. Especially because Sweden is such a boring team to cheer for and England sorta lost their fun when Lauren James literally stomped on a Nigerian player. Here’s to Sam Kerr, then.
Purple People Eaters. I’ll be honest, I was watching the América v Nashville shootout and I turned it off after the Nashville “miss”. In my defense, I really wanted to watch the new episode of Jon Bois’ current documentary series on the Minnesota Vikings.
That’s a Pen. VAR is built to either confirm or overturn calls on the pitch. If a play on the pitch is marginal and the referee is too timid to call it and wants VAR to check it for them, then their decision to not call it on the field is gonna be confirmed rather than anyone actually taking accountability and making a decision. What I’m saying is that it was definitely a foul from Onana, but it wasn’t the wrong decision by VAR.
SEVEN HOURS! NFL season is starting soon and I’m just so excited to have a nice routine for my Sundays. Premier League in the morning, then Redzone from noon until dinner.
Metropolis, IL. Started watching My Adventures with Superman and I like it a lot. Tomboy Lois Lane is a really interesting and fun character and the animators appear to be giving her and Clark “:3” faces at least once per episode. So that’s fun.
I love you.
And I’ll see you next week.