BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — To say Chicago Fire FC have been busy over the last few months would be vastly understating how strongly the winds of change have hit the Windy City this offseason.
Fourteen players from last season have left the club, including all three Designated Players. As it stands, 12 new players have been acquired to take their places with more likely on the way. The club has a tweaked name, new colors, new ownership, and an entirely new technical and coaching staff. All of that is more than enough to create buzz, excitement, anticipation and expectation.
Now, add in the move back to Soldier Field in downtown Chicago and taking residence in what will be Major League Soccer’s fifth largest venue. No pressure, right? The Fire have had their minds elsewhere the last five weeks, spending preseason in Tampa and Los Angeles. Now, back home in not-so-sunny Chicago, they hope they’re ready for all that 2020 will bring.
“Everything seems positive, a lot of good vibes around the team, coaching staff and supporters,” said Fire midfielder/defender Brandt Bronico. “I think everybody’s excited that we’re moving to Soldier Field, but the main thing is we’re just ready to get started.”
The team’s positive outlook is led by new head coach Raphael Wicky, who has thus far received rave reviews from his players about his approach to leading the club into its new home and a new era.
“He has a clear vision, you know?,” said defender Johan Kappelhof. “He tries to pass it on to us and we have to convert it on the field. He’s a football-minded guy [and] hard work is one of his highest values.”
Their work ethic will certainly be called upon as the team works to integrate its new signings, many of whom are still waiting to be granted a visa. On the one hand, there is the pressure that comes with change and a move to Soldier Field. On the other, it’s unrealistic to think that the team that takes the field in Chicago for the first time on March 21 will be the finished article.
“It’s all about expectations,” said Wicky. “We want to try to win every single game…not having all the players, we’re not going to change that. I’m in this game long enough…to know that the team needs time to build. But we’re not talking about that much because we don’t want to be looking for alibis…It’s a long season, so it’s important that we see the team improving and I’m sure we’ll see that.”
The players echoed that sentiment, knowing that it’s not only the expectations from outside that matter, but the attitude they bring to each game and the changes this season will bring.
“Everybody wants to see the new guys play and how we’re gonna perform under Rafa,” said Bronico. “I think there’s two ways to look at it: new guys coming in, it takes time to build things; but also it’s a lot of hype, lot of excitement and hopefully we can just keep that buzz going and perform during the season.”
The club has tried to boost that buzz with an aggressive ad campaign far beyond any previous marketing operation they’d previously undertaken. Billboards along highways, posters at bus and subway stops, mobile advertising, and TV commercials run during soccer matches have all contributed to the effort. Kappelhof has been one of the faces of these ads, and said it underscores just how many eyes will be on the Fire when the season opens.
It’s hard to avoid thinking about just how much is new for the Fire in 2020. It’s been the most active offseason in club history, and on the eve of MLS’s 25th season, it’s time to show that all this change is for the better.
“Of course you know about [everything that’s going on],” Kappelhof said. “If you check Instagram there’s a lot of posts…there are a lot of things happening around the club and we are aware of that. But we know we have to give everything we have to keep the fans coming to our games. We know we have to do that.”