The MLS All-Star Game was the marquee event of a multiple day onslaught of soccer in Chicago.
The league sent all of its marketing, promotional and financial muscle behind making it an extravaganza with the idea of boosting the profile of the sport, and by proxy the Chicago Fire, within the city. Ultimately, the game and the result were insignificant towards that goal.
While the All-Star Game won’t single handedly turn around the visibility and public perception of soccer and the Fire in Chicago, it was a marquee event on a big stage with 61,428 fans at Soldier Field and the Fire got to play host.
Before the game Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez called it a once in a lifetime event. On top of that, the Fire had the player who turned into the face of the event, Bastian Schweinsteiger.
When it was announced that the game was coming to Soldier Field back in January, the Fire were still viewed as a laughing stock in the league. Back-to-back last place seasons will do that.
The Fire had already made some notable offseason additions in Dax McCarty, Juninho and Nemanja Nikolic, but by adding Schweinsteiger the team had someone capable of being a significant part of an event like this. The move had already been in the works, but wasn’t finalized until after the season began in March.
Schweinsteiger captained the MLS All-Stars and was one of two Fire players to start, alongside Johan Kappelhof. Only Toronto FC, with the trio of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, had more starters. McCarty and Nikolic entered after halftime and Schweinsteiger and Kappelhof exited. McCarty played a role in the MLS All-Stars’ lone goal.
The Fire had more players than any other MLS team on the roster, including the fan-voted captain. That the team is having a good season and had so many players worthy of All-Star selection is more valuable than the game itself being in Chicago. Having those two things at the same time is a bonus.
“I think we are putting the pieces together in our club,” Fire and MLS All-Star coach Veljko Paunovic said. “I think it’s very important to represent the community, starting with our club in the MLS. We had some progression. I think that also helps. Obviously the team is doing well, but being on the right path doesn’t mean you did it all. We have to continue with our process, with everything we have done so far. Improve our team, our results. From there in the coming years I believe we can light up the rest of the critical mass that is needed in order to not only have Chicago as one of the best sports cities in the United States, but we are missing soccer. We want soccer to be important in this city and in this community and obviously in this country.”
The MLS All-Star Game was a showcase for the league and the Fire in Chicago, with Real Madrid drawing in more spectators and eyeballs. It gave more attention to the winning season the Fire are enjoying, but the more significant events for soccer in Chicago occurred when Nikolic, McCarty and especially Schweinsteiger joined the team.
“I think that it was great,” Nikolic said. “The city deserved this game played here and Chicago is a city of sport. People like sports a lot here and they deserve to see these kinds of games.”
The All-Star Game is a glorified exhibition between a team that is in its preseason and a collection of players that had less than three days to turn into a team. It won't change soccer's standing in the city. There are already plenty of fans of the sport in the city, but that critical mass that Paunovic spoke of is likely only something that the Fire can chip away at over time.
Oh, by the way, Real Madrid won in penalty kicks after a 1-1 game.