In 2007, Martin Tomszak went to a soccer game, and it changed his life.
He joined the Chicago Fire traveling supporters' group for a match in Toronto. "I think there's a sense of having your back against the wall when you're at another opponent's venue and the camaraderie that comes along with that," he says. "Having 200 or 300 away fans in a Toronto venue was something special. I fell in love immediately." On the bus back home, he bought Fire season tickets and is now the vice-chairperson of Section 8, the team's independent supporters' group.
Last week, Tomszak went on another trip, driving five hours and 300 miles south to St. Louis, where the Fire were starting their 2019 U.S. Open Cup campaign against USL side Saint Louis FC. The MLS club has won the domestic cup four times, and places a high priority on competing for it each season. First-teamers including Dax McCarty, Djordje Mihailovic, Nemanja Nikolic and Nicolas Gaitan played against a team whose entire value on transfermarkt.com is less than the salary of World Cup winner and Chicago Fire center-back Bastian Schweinsteiger -- who missed the Open Cup match.
On paper, the match was a walkover. In reality, a listless Fire squad fell 2-1, bounced out of the Open Cup in their first game. Tensions boiled over after the match, with Mihailovic getting into it with a supporter, then apologizing later.
"They lost in a way that it wasn't even close," Tomszak says. "You would have thought that the roles were reversed with the way that they played. You see a lack of playing style. You see a lack of tactical identity. It's super frustrating to me to be a supporter right now."
It's been a long fall for one of MLS' most successful early franchises. The Fire, with alumni including DaMarcus Beasley, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Piotr Nowak and Eric Wynalda, reached the playoffs 11 times in their first 12 seasons. The team won the MLS Cup under Bob Bradley in their debut season of 1998 and the Supporters' Shield in 2003, in addition to the four aforementioned Open Cup titles.
But they've made the postseason just twice since 2009 -- losing two knockout-round games by a total score of 6-1 -- and today are tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference standings. The most recent Open Cup failure served as another low point. "There haven't been any signs of change in the team or the club to move up from this state of decline for like the past 10 years," Nicole Hack, Section 8 chair, says. "It's extremely frustrating. It's disheartening."
Chicago is a great sports city, and the Fire are increasingly irrelevant. It's an issue that management understands and is trying to solve. "We have a talented team. We have a team that I think is pleasing to the eye, a team that I think is an exciting team, a dangerous team," Nelson Rodriguez, the team's president and general manager, says. "But for our fans and for ourselves, we are summarily frustrated because we just haven't been able to get the results that we expect, that we demand, yet."
The results aren't there. The investment, however, is. The Fire are third in total compensation, having splashed cash to get Schweinsteiger. "That was a good moment in the last few years," Hack says. "But having a player like him on our team and having a Golden Boot winner, and still not being able to make the playoffs is not encouraging for people who want to attend matches."
The depth is there, too. Tomszak believes it's a top-four or -five team in the Eastern Conference on paper, while former Fire general manager Peter Wilt says "this is the deepest Fire team I can remember since I was there myself." Rodriguez likes the roster as well. "If we had two more wins, would we even be having this conversation?" he says. "If we have two more wins, we have 24 points. We're tied with Red Bull[s]. We're three points out of second place with games in hand."
But, of course, they are not. Head coach Veljko Paunovic rotates players frequently and has struggled to instill any sense of continuity from game to game.
There's also the issue of the stadium situation. In 2006, the Fire moved to what's now SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, a suburb of Chicago. The soccer-specific stadium made sense at the time, but it's a relic of an older version of MLS. The team is trying to get out of the lease so it can move back to downtown Chicago. Rodriguez is "optimistic" that they'll be able to finalize a deal.
The plan to inject life by returning to downtown Chicago might work. It also might not.
"I think that moving back to the city could be good," Hack says. "That said, if the team doesn't improve on the pitch or make some big signings that come back to the city's culture, [it could be a problem]. Soldier Field is an NFL stadium. It's huge. We're getting 8,000 people at games right now (official average per-game attendance 10,635 in 2019). I can't imagine that would be the atmosphere that the club is hoping to get by moving."
But in MLS, fortunes can turn quickly. Last summer, billionaire entrepreneur Joe Mansueto purchased a 49% stake in the team. Supporters hope that the injection of capital will help spur change, encouraging majority owner Andrew Hauptman to spend more -- or sell his remaining share to Mansueto.
"Without a doubt, this mediocrity and this rot and the hiring of this wrong personnel for over a decade comes from one place: Andrew Hauptman still being the majority owner of this franchise," Tomszak says. "Andrew Hauptman runs a holding company. At the end of the day, a holding company comes in and buys low and sells high."
Rodriguez understands that something needs to change as well. The Fire have three Designated Players on the books this season, but none next year. This was intentional, a way to provide maximum flexibility in a year when a new collective bargaining agreement starts. The team has a solid core, still-dedicated fans and management that knows what they need to do. Squint, and the Fire are close to something.
Because ultimately, the solution is simple: Win. "The fact is that we need to win more games to justify our work," Rodriguez says.
For the diehards, however, goodwill is growing thin. After the Open Cup loss, Nate Thompson, Section 8's director of fundraising, tweeted what many who love the team were thinking: "Three capped USMNT players, a golden boot winner, a La Liga #10 and we're losing to a USL side. You don't need a rebrand, you don't need a crest change. You need a heart. Don't expect your city to care if you don't. @ChicagoFire #cf97"