Soccer is a game where psychology matters. Whether it’s players trash-talking each other on the pitch, managers swiping at one another in press conferences, or home supporters unfurling tifo to demoralize the opposition, each side spends a lot of time psyching each other out. Winning — both on the scoreboard and in the post-game narrative — can come down to finding a way, to paraphrase a popular saying, to live rent-free in the other person’s home.
Once or twice a year, members of Section 8 Chicago make pilgrimages to what they’ve dubbed “Firehouse East” — also known as the away supporters’ section at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. And given the team's current striking run at the top of their conference, the mood is, after a long, dark stretch, jubilant.
Scott Greene, the current chairman of Section 8, says the traditions surrounding these trips to Columbus go all the way back to the beginning of the rivalry in the late 1990s.
“'Firehouse East' really came as way to make fun of and mock Columbus fans in the early days of MLS’ and the Fire’s existence,” said Greene. “Outside of the occasional D.C./Metro or SJ/LA match, no one traveled in numbers like Section 8, and especially to Columbus. When we showed up, we made CowTown ours.”
Among the hundred or so fans making the trip this weekend is Nicole Hack, whose family has held Fire season tickets since 2004. She says the long trips to Columbus — 12 hours round trip — help build a sense of fellowship and shared identity among Fire fans.
That's resulted in multiple bits of famous group lore -- but two anecdotes in particular stand out. The first, various fans tell me, revolves around Paulo Wanchope’s winning goal to give the Fire a 1-0 victory over the Crew in September, 2007. The game was nearly abandoned due to extended weather delays, but eventually yielded a new chant— “Urbs In Horto.” (That's the official motto for the City of Chicago, translated from Latin as "City In A Garden.")
A longtime Fire fan who goes by “Giaco” explained that the emergence of the chant speaks to the culture and sense of community in Section 8.
“I still remember the first time we really tried to get ‘Urbs In Horto' off the ground,” says Giaco. “Away games and practice games are where we see if new songs get any traction. To this day I have very happy visions of Marcin, our former chairman and capo, trying his damndest to read the words and lead us in song off a completely disintegrated and soaked song sheet that we had printed for those who didn't know the words.
And Marcin, didn't know the words! Yet somehow, it worked. We all laughed and sang completely soaked with nothing else to do but support our Men In Red and let them know that we were there for them and making the best of it — as we expected them to do as well."
So how are Fire fans feeling about this trip given their team’s incredible worst-to-first turnaround in 2017? Greene says the difference is nearly night and day.
“As a fanbase, our mood has changed from the standpoint of our hunger for the Fire to win trophies … this year,” he says. In other words, beating Columbus is crucial as always — but it’s also a crucial step in possibly picking up some silverware for a change. “Columbus is the closest geographic rival, but [also] just another step in the road to Supporters’ Shield and first-round bye contention."
Not all long-time (and long-suffering) fans making the away trip, though, have gotten on board the new hype train quite yet. Some, like longtime fan Rudy Gomez, are thrilled with the Fire’s performance, but are still afraid that the other shoe will drop.
“It's hard to gauge right now. I think everyone is excited to travel and be competitive,” he says. “But for some of us, we are still cautious about the team. But these stellar months have changed a lot around here.”
“Some have been so battered by the team’s amazing ability over the past few years to find new ways to let us down, that they are waiting for the deflation,” says veteran supporter Giaco. “But as the team finds ways to continue the success, that group seems to shrink.”
“As for me,” Giaco continues, “I can only have faith in the coach and the players and give them the opportunity to lift us up or let us down. Either way, as supporters, we must support them.”
Hack, who has seen this team (and Section 8) live through some dismal periods, says that the Fire’s resurgence as an Eastern Conference power has given the fans something they haven’t had for a very long time.
“It feels good to be hopeful for a win every game now where as the last two-plus years, we lacked hope,” she says, “even when we wanted to have hope. “
Whatever the Fire’s fortunes, Section 8 fans treasure their semi-annual Ohio raiding parties as both a means to support the team they love and to be part of a strong and supportive community.
“Away travel with the club is, for me, the best place to be,” says Giaco. “Whether you're the most reserved or the most outgoing in your group, there's always a place for you. If you're along to support the Fire, you are welcome.