It’s been debated, anticipated and postponed, and must now regrettably unfold without a packed crowd due to a global viral pandemic. Still, the emotions will swell and swirl just the same as Chicago Fire FC return to Soldier Field on Tuesday night.
“I’ve known and felt since I arrived here how much this means to the people and to the club,” head coach Raphael Wicky told reporters in a Monday conference call, “going back to Soldier Field, being back in downtown, closer to the people, where obviously the club had a big history and it’s a very historic stadium. So, everyone is really excited.”
It’s been 15 years since their last MLS match at the beloved downtown bowl, the club’s first home and the host for their halcyon days of glory. There was the 1998 MLS Cup triumph in year one, a feat no other expansion team has ever matched, a Supporters’ Shield run in 2003 and U.S. Open Cup titles in '98, 2000 and ‘03, dominance of that tournament that earned them the honorific title of “Kings of the Cup.”
Along the way, the Fire proudly wore the Windy City’s identity on their sleeves, building a feisty fan culture that became the envy of most of the league.
“You had all those fans and the ultras and they made it a real fortress for us and a special place,” Philadelphia Union head coach and former Fire center back Jim Curtin recalled to the Chicago Tribune. “A team that came in there was 1-0 down by the time they walked down the tunnel, because we had such a strong team, for one, but the fan support was incredible and really intimidating.”
So much has changed since their Soldier Field swan song during the ‘05 playoffs, the prelude to their happy move to a home of their own at what we now call SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview. Hardly anyone on staff is left from that era – thank goodness for former striker and current assistant coach Frank Klopas! – and with new ownership implementing a new identity and crest amid a host of other changes last year, “the Men in Red” now wear navy blue as their primary kit.
Yet the history lives on in the memory, providing a magnetic pull toward the lakefront, a desire to connect with the old days – and in doing so, better connect with the home faithful, and weave a Fire thread back into the fabric of the city’s heart. Bridgeview was a welcoming home, but the 15-plus miles that separate it from The Loop can feel like an ocean, especially in the down years.
Tuesday’s visit from FC Cincinnati (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) won’t be quite the spectacle that the Fire had planned for March 21, the original date of the home opener, when a huge turnout was set to welcome the club back to downtown for the dawn of a new era. COVID-19 saw to that and, just like the rest of us, Wicky and his colleagues are scrambling to adapt as best they can, building the proverbial plane in midair.
“It’s a challenge of course, but it’s the same for everyone,” said the former Swiss international, who must plot Chicago’s path out of the Eastern Conference basement in the weeks ahead. “It’s not easy, but we work hard. We try to do the best, and we do the best [we can] and that’s all we can control. Obviously, we are very excited to be here in Soldier Field, finally. It took a while and that’s what is important now.
“The stadium probably would have been sold out in March, so you can see that this means a lot,” he added. “It’s just nice to be close to the city. I think it’s nice that people, when they want to go and watch the games, in this time of year they can go ride bikes or they can even come and walk to the field. I think all of that is just great. It just brings you closer to the city and the people.”
Drastically remodeled after the turn of the century – a controversial project that forced the Fire to wander to Naperville and back – Soldier Field has changed over the years, too. There’s a “Back to the Future” vibe as the Fire aim to charm a sports-mad city all over again by bringing a familiar but refreshed club back to a familiar but refreshed venue.
That endeavor won’t really hit full speed until the home faithful are back in the stands. But Tuesday is a huge first step, 15 years in the making.