It wasn’t supposed to end that way. We were hosting the Conference Final at home for the first time in six years, after losing on the road to Columbus last year and in New England two years ago when also 90 minutes away from the MLS Cup Final, and everything seemed to be in the Fire’s favour against Real Salt Lake, with the 21,723 capacity crowd rocking from warm-ups on.
But 120 minutes of football decided nothing, and then there were penalty kicks. And for the second time this season, we lost a championship at home in the shootout (having previously lost to Tigres UAM in the SuperLiga final): I stood directly behind the goal in the Harlem End, at the front of Section 8, an almost 2,000 strong throng of immediately silent and distraught supporters when Chicago native Ned Grabavoy put away the seventh and decisive penalty for RSL, following a miss by the Fire’s Brandon Prideaux. There followed many moist eyes for a few seconds, and then a pitiful but resilient chant of “Fire ’til I die” broke out.
Prideaux’s own miss was perhaps the saddest: the 11-year MLS veteran is retiring after the season, and his miss helped ensure his final ever professional match would be that night, instead of at an MLS Cup Final in his native Seattle. Brandon was a solid, solid pro and I hope he’s remembered for that.
This was probably also the end for head coach Denis Hamlett, the Fire’s second ever employee, 45 minutes away from taking the Fire to the MLS Cup Final last year in his rookie head coach season and a shootout away this weekend: an impressive record in many respects. Yet Denis sadly never managed to engage with fans as he could have, given he actually does have an engaging personality, and many believe the last two years will go down as missed opportunities: armed with Blanco and McBride and a strong supporting cast, the team has run hot and cold, looking the class of the league on occasion but too often falling short.
How much of that is on Denis is hard for an outsider to judge: bad luck, injuries and personality conflicts got in the way too, and I’m not going to rip on Denis as I’m sure he doesn’t need it (“Soccer is a cruel sport,” he said after the shootout). I hope Denis finds his feet elsewhere and succeeds, but it’s probably best on both sides for this to be a parting of the ways and a rebuilding project undertaken here.
Rebuilding indeed. As well as Prideaux, Chris Rolfe is also moving on to Denmark, apparently jilted during contract negotiations, but it’s also true he never quite fulfilled his potential with the Fire, despite some great moments. He is one of a few too many players who will be leaving with a sour taste this year, Bakary Soumare also having departed in anger. Cuauhtémoc Blanco has also signed with Veracruz, and though there’s a chance he may return next year after the World Cup, that’s another ending that did not have the fairytale finish scripted when he flew his mother from Mexico to watch Saturday’s game.
But we cannot say the team did not play with passion and heart on Saturday night. Dasan Robinson recalled his 2007 form with an imperious display at the back, with a few thundering challenges, ably partnered by the remaining Fire original gangsta from 1998, CJ Brown.
The departees put it all out there too, but it didn’t all come together that night. Unlike against New England the week before, despite all the preparation and work by the team, front office and supporters, it somehow did not feel like it would be our night on the field. The wait for a second MLS championship goes on.
Off the field, it has been an amazing year to be part of Section 8, and on the board of Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association. I’ve said my thank yous elsewhere to the hundreds who have been a part of it and the dozens who did the donkey work from stadium set-up to the tailgate to the road trips to the in-game support. Our diverse, intense and ambitious support has realised the mission statement of Section 8 Chicago this season.
It all came together beautifully in the final three critical games, as we exploded from a hardcore throng of hundreds to an entire Harlem End of standing, singing fans: on Saturday night, almost 2,000 were Section 8 and the entire stadium joined in chants, the +$2,000 we spent on pre-game tifo displays proving to be have been worthwhile. Fans spent three days putting together the display below, including an encounter and accusation of trespassing with Bridgeview police late on Friday night, as the finishing touches were put on the Chicago flag banner — made out of dozens of table rolls painstakingly taped together. Over $1,000 worth of confetti and streamers was also distributed to the terrace, to engage the entire stadium as the players were introduced.
In the final weeks of the season, we also experienced a dramatic improvement in relations with the front office, and this freed us up to do a lot more positive work than we have been able to do in the past when bogged down in petty arguments about allowances for flags and banners or other distracting crap. My open letter to Fire owner Andrew Hauptman five weeks ago helped lead to a private meeting with him last week, followed up by — at their initiative — a town hall meeting open to all supporters on the eve of the Conference Final. Discourse and dialogue has reinvigorated the fanbase, and we will roll this momentum on through the offseason. Saturday night was a failure, but also a success.
After these tough losses, there is always the curious feeling that one’s sense of bereavement is bizarre considering this is, after all, a game of football we’re talking about. An email I received from one of the many great friends I have made in Section 8, who earlier this season moved to the soccer desert of Arizona, had the best perspective on the night I’ve yet read. Flynn has given me permission to publish his message, which he sent to a few of us in Section 8:
One of the troubling things about Tucson is the lack of MLS fans–or at least people who know what it feels like to be a MLS fan. After the game, as I stumbled around in a daze, I received comforting words from friends who understood the fact that I was upset. But they still couldn’t hide the fact that they didn’t understand why I would be upset over a MLS game.
Not knowing what else to do, I went in search of my friend Brooke. Brooke is one of the more clever and funny people I’ve met in quite a while. About a year and a half ago she was in a car accident that left her paralyzed below the waist. Stuck to live out her days in a wheelchair.
I fully expected her to tell me a story about soccer being “just a game” and us all having bigger problems in this life. In fact, I think I went to see her because that’s exactly what I wanted to hear at the time.
But I could barely get a word out as she met me at the door with a huge smile. Her alma mater, the University of California – Berkeley, had beaten the University of Arizona in college football earlier in the day. And Brooke–decked out in UC Berkeley gear–had just returned from a bar where she had been cheering for Cal and talking trash with Arizona fans.
“Sometimes it is more than a game,” she told me. “If you and your friends have a past, have a history that is wrapped up in a team, then it really is more important than just a simple ball game. And that’s okay. That’s a good thing. Sometimes you need to care more than you should. And in order to truly celebrate a victory you have to leave yourself open to the pain of defeat. Sometimes you have to treat a sports loss like it’s the end of the world for a while. That’s what happens when you really do care about something you built with others.”
Maybe it’s trite, but I was thinking about all of you on Saturday night–and I was thinking about all the friendships we’ve built because of the Fire. On a purely statistical level, being a sports fan is a losing proposition. Fourteen of the fifteen MLS teams will go home without the trophy every year. Not good odds for any of us.
But at the same time I wouldn’t have you as friends if it wasn’t for the Fire and our unusually fervent support for the team. So I just wanted to say that I’m incredibly thankful we’ve all come together–in spite of the odds–to create something good. Something that is ultimately bigger than any one game–win or lose.
ps – fuck the Revs
I will leave you with some photos and video taken by Section 8 Chicago’s photographer, Marty Groark, from the last couple of games (for more, see last week’s photo essay). It has been a hell of a ride in 2009, and I can’t wait to see everyone again in 2010. We are red and we are white. . .We are fucking dynamite!