Chicago on Fire
With a wildly multi-ethnic population, Chicago has long been a hotbed for the development of football in the USA. Home to US Soccer Federation headquarters, the birthplace of past and future stars such as Brian McBride and Jonathan Spector and the third-largest city in the country, it is a buzzing hotbed for the world game. With Poles, Czechs, Mexicans and seemingly all ethnic groups in between, Chicago and its flagship Fire are aflame and leading the sport's national development.
The date 8 October is a grim and well-held one for Chicagoans. The anniversary of the Great Fire that burned for two full days, destroying four square miles and killing hundreds in 1871 does not go unnoticed or unmarked by those who call the Windy City home. On that same date 126 years later (in 1997), another momentous occasion took place - the announcement that top-flight football (or soccer as it's known in the USA) was returning to the city and the new team was to be named, aptly, the Fire.
Hot start for Fire
Since the announcement was made, the club went on to win a league and cup double in its inaugural season (1998), garner a reputation for having the most vociferous fans in the growing MLS, and reflect the cultural framework of the iconic 'capital' of the American mid-west.
Left off the list of ten cities with teams in Major League Soccer's first season of 1996, it joined the party two years later and was seen from the get-go as a perfect fit in the young top flight. Investors and operators were banking on Chicago's large ethnic population to help the club catch fire.
Second only to Warsaw in the size of its Polish population, Chicago - a favourite venue for US national team home games - also boasts a huge Pan-Eastern European community. The early decisions made by management reflected as much. The team's colours were announced to be red and white straight away, with foreign squad spots immediately targeting Europe's eastern edge.
As the now defunct two-time champion Chicago Sting of the NASL had done years before when they bought fabled Poland international Robert Gadocha, a veteran of the 1974 FIFA World Cup ™ semi-finalists that Germany fullback Paul Breitner labelled "the best in the world at the time", the Fire scoured the 'Old Country' for talent.
Piotr Nowak became their first club captain. The Poland skipper joined up with countrymen Roman Kosecki, Jerzy Podbrozny and Czech international Lubos Kubik (Hristo Stoichkov joined for two years in 2000) to form the core of the Fire side that made history with a magnificent double in their maiden season, pulling in attendances of over 22,000 at their old home of Soldier Field, where they were tenants of gridiron favourite Chicago Bears before building their own 'soccer specific' stadium last year.
In that first season, the team, coached by current USA national team boss Bob Bradley, was not without Mexican representation either. Former El Tri goalkeeper (and sometimes striker and fashion designer) Jorge Campos was called in to carry the standard for the city's large - and always growing - Mexican population. Diego Gutierrez of Colombia and Puerto Rican Chris Armas (still with the team) were also flying the flag for Chicago's expanding Hispanic core.
A new look
Now, as the City's demographics shift, so to has the ethnic make-up of the team. In 2007 Chicago boasts the second-largest Hispanic population in the USA, with a majority of those hailing from Mexico. With 37 million Hispanics in the country, the sub-set is now the largest minority group in America.
The Fire front office has taken notice and earlier this season signed up Mexico and Club America icon Cuauhtemoc Blanco in a move that rivals the arrival of David Beckham in star power, before swooping to sign up Paulo Wanchope, the striker widely regarded as Costa Rica's best-ever player. They join up with fellow Latino Fire men Bruno Menezes, Willian Oliveria and Thiago of Brazil, Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares and Honduras' Ivan Guerrero. Completing the Latin takeover, the club is currently coached by Colombian and former Millonarios boss Juan Carlos Osorio.
"There is quality in this Chicago team," said Wanchope, who is waiting for immigration papers to clear before making his first appearance. "All of the players here are going to make me a better striker. Of this I am sure."
Despite the changing look of the team, and Blanco excelling in the much-needed creator's role, the Fire are well down the ladder in the league's Eastern Conference (currently tied for last place with new boys Toronto FC) and will be hoping for a turnaround in fortunes if they want to avoid missing the play-offs for the first time since 2004 and only the second time in their nine-year history. Seven points currently separate Blanco and Co. from third place and they are 13 off the pace set by leaders New England Revolution.
East to South
The Fire's recent shift in personnel and ethnic focus is a significant one from the early days of the club, and one that both the Polish Fire Ultras '98 and the Sector Latino (two of the Fire's many supporters' clubs) are applauding. With an average attendance of over 17,000 in 2005, the Fire are about to surpass the City's beloved Blackhawks of the National Hockey League and aim to challenge the two Major League baseball teams (White Sox and the Cubs) and the Bears for popularity in the coming years. With two runners-up finishes to go along with their 1998 title and four Open Cup trophies, the club is building a tradition of consistent success.
Chicago Fire's influence is everywhere. The club's most revered player, Nowak, has joined up with former gaffer Bob Bradley as assistant USA coach. Former winger DaMarcus Beasley and fullback Carlos Bocanegra are off on a European club adventure as the second city continues to set the pace for American soccer development.
As was the case with the Great Fire of 1871 that opened the door for the city to develop into an economic power for the 20th century, the Chicago Fire is helping to pave the way for a bright future for the world's game in the USA.