Fire

USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

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USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

Stadium talk is always circling around Major League Soccer and that goes double for the Chicago Fire, which has been criticized for playing in suburban Bridgeview since Toyota Park opened in 2006.

That's why the Chicago Tribune's story about a United Soccer League expansion team playing at a proposed 20,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof in Chicago is such a big deal. According to the report and confirmed by a USL spokesperson, real estate developer Sterling Bay has purchased the rights to a USL expansion team. The stated goal is to begin play in 2020.

The details of the stadium are not finalized so the features and capacity could still change.

The proposed location of the stadium is along the North Branch of the Chicago River between the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the Kennedy Expressway. The stadium was previously mentioned as part of Sterling Bay's bid to bring Amazon's second headquarters to Chicago. A spokesperson for Sterling Bay confirmed that the stadium being built is not contingent on Amazon coming to Chicago, it will happen regardless.

Further information from Sterling Bay said that "announcements on ownership and team structure will come at a later date." The team does not yet have a name, but fans will be included in the naming process.

A 20,000-seat stadium and a retractable roof will make for a fancy and impressive, but also expensive venue and a USL team as a primary tenant may prove difficult to justify the cost. The location itself would be an easier sell to draw in fans than Toyota Park out in Bridgeview. However, minor league soccer may not excite local residents in large number.

The USL had 30 teams in 2017 with eight more teams planned to join by 2019. This past season, only two USL teams averaged above 10,000 in attendance: FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC. Both of those are prime MLS expansion candidates and Cincinnati beat the Fire in the U.S. Open Cup in front of 32,287 fans in June.

Many USL clubs are either owned/operated by MLS teams or are affiliated with an MLS team. The Fire switched from Saint Louis FC to the Tulsa Roughnecks as its affiliated club in 2017, sending players to Tulsa to gain playing time as opposed to sitting on the bench with the Fire.

According to the Tribune's story, the stadium would also try to attract other events such as international soccer matches, college football, college basketball and concerts. Rugby and lacrosse were also named in documentation sent by Sterling Bay. Sterling Bay has also yet to present formal plans and still needs to gain zoning approval.

At the Fire's end of the season media availability on Nov. 7, general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked about the proposed stadium and if he or MLS had been contacted about it.

“I can’t speak about MLS," Rodriguez said. "I don’t know if they have or have not. I have not. I haven’t spoken, been approached by anyone. I’m not sure I would be the person they approach or speak to, but I’m not aware of any conversations.”

The Fire moving to this stadium could be an ideal solution for both parties. An MLS team with an existing fan base would have an easier time drawing big crowds. Boosted by the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Fire drew crowds of 20,000 or more six times in 2017. The regular season average of 17,383 was the highest since moving to Toyota Park and highest since the club's inaugural, championship-winning season in 1998.

However, things aren't that simple. The Fire are locked into a 30-year lease with Bridgeview and Toyota Park, which the Fire have played in since 2006. Getting out of that would require a significant buyout or a breach of contract.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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USA TODAY

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.