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11/23 FINAL
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11/30 9:20pm
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Fire fans welcome 2012 with open arms after offseason

Chicago Fire fans weren’t ready for the 2011 season to end.

Sure, enthusiasm was down when the year began with just two wins in the first 24 games. But then, the Fire acquired central midfielders Pável Pardo and Sebastián Grazzini, and everything changed.

Head coach Frank Klopas shuffled the lineup, and the Fire finished the season 7-2-1, just three points out of the MLS Cup Playoffs. What had started as the dullest season in team history became one of the most exciting – and then ended all too quickly.

“It’s been a long winter for the team, for the club, and it’s been a long winter for the fans, too,” Jeff Krause, a longtime Fire fan and blogger, told MLSsoccer.com.

That excitement has spilled over to the preseason. Fans packed into cars to create a small fan section when the Fire played Real España in New Orleans (pictured above), more than 900 miles from Toyota Park. A few fans bought plane tickets when the Fire had the second phase of their preseason in Ventura, Calif., and some, like Krause, are in Charleston, S.C., for the Carolina Challenge Cup.

“The end of last season was like the last day of school,” said Peter Bychowski, one of the denizens of the famous Section 8. “We had a great thing going at the end of the year. I think that carried over. People have been dying to get out and see the Fire.”

That hasn’t happened during the last few years, when the team missed the playoffs for the second and third time in club history. Traveling to preseason games gives fans a chance to interact with players.

“Absolutely, there’s a difference,” midfielder Patrick Nyarko told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Charleston. “It’s definitely a good thing to be interacting with [the fans]. Obviously we’re working hard, but that’s part of what we do.”

Over the years, Section 8 has encouraged traveling more and more.

This year, some fans have discovered that preseason is a more personal way to watch their club.

“I think the word is getting out that preseason is a good time to go see the team,” said Josue Gomez, a Section 8 board member. “It’s a little more laid back, and the team actually sees that you’re out there. You actually get to spend some one-on-one time with the players because obviously they’re appreciative that we’re traveling for a preseason game.”