Earlier this week the Chicago Fire hosted Chivas USA, the Los Angeles based MLS team affiliated to Chivas Guadalajara of Mexico, in the first sold-out game at Toyota Park this season. The game attracted many extra visitors from the huge Hispanic community in Chicago, which stands over a million strong.
The Fire, like many MLS teams (including most notably of all, Chivas USA themselves) have attempted to tap in to the Hispanic market for soccer in the United States. This is one reason they recently signed Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a Mexican national hero. It’s not the first time the Fire have signed a Mexican star: Jorge Campos had a brief and poorly received spell with the team back in the 1990s. These efforts have not been entirely successful; TV ratings for the Mexican League far outstrip those for MLS in the U.S., with many Mexican fans apparently unimpressed or uninterested in the American league.
There were a few thousand fans of Chivas at Toyota Park on Sunday: though notably, they were mostly fans of Chivas Guadalajara rather than Chivas USA, and they were not travelling fans: they were just a small selection of the many Mexican fans that hold on to their home loyalties in the United States in cities such as Chicago.
Perhaps most interestingly, a number of Blanco’s fans were also present: he stars for Club America of Mexico City, the main rivals of Chivas Guadalajara, who they had come to boo. A number of fans epitomised the strange situation his arrival in Chicago brings to the thousands of Club America fans here: they wore custom shirts literally split down the middle, half Fire jersey, half Club America jersey.
Some Fire fans find this frustrating: why support a Los Angeles based MLS team when there’s a Chicago based one to follow? Or why embrace the Fire only when a Club America star shows up in Chicago? Of course, it’s also exactly the passion that makes these fans follow their teams so wholeheartedly even when they live thousands of miles away that soccer in America needs. These issues cut across many political and cultural questions regarding Mexcian immigration that it would not be wise to address in a half-arsed manner on this blog.
So let’s return to the game: it seems that many Chivas fans were happy to support both teams. At the back of Section 8, the raucous Fire supporters section, I was standing next to a middle-aged Mexican man in a Chivas Guadalajara replica shirt. I chatted to him, and mentioned this was a Fire partisans section he was in. No problem, he said, he lived in Chicago and supports both teams. I grew up in a country where it is wildly inadvisable to stand in the supporters section of a home team wearing an opposing team’s jersey, and, indeed, such is equally the case in Mexico. Yet in the more placid setting of MLS, he seemed quite comfortable.
Fortunately, he had not observed a couple of childish xenophobic signs unveiled by several high schoolers in Section 8 pregame with anti-Mexican slogans: hardly wise, not only ethically, but especially given the Fire’s own signing of Blanco! Thankfully, senior members of Section 8 did not stand for this, and tore up the signs. MLS supporters groups may not yet have the size or power of those in Europe, but at least they are, in relative terms, good at self-policing. Section 8 prides itself on being open to diverse influences, and even has a Spanish language chant.
The game began. Section 8’s passion is infectious, and I noticed that within a few minutes of kick-off my Mexican neighbour had removed his Chivas shirt. The atmosphere in the stadium was excellent, with Chivas chants arising periodically, before being crushed by the weight of Section 8’s better organised chants.
One problem MLS has is how few away fans are able to get to games usually, given the huge distances between most teams, but this game was another reminder of how easily passion is stoked in fans when they have to defend their turf from rival groups, even in the curious case of Chicago-based Chivas supporters.
But the game dragged on miserably, the Fire putting in a particularly insipid display even by the standards of what has been so far a disappointing season, as they await the arrival of Blanco later this summer; finally, Chivas scored and won 1-0. The Fire mustered up just one shot on target all night.
At some point in the second half, my new Mexican friend had departed Section 8. I finally caught sight of him on the way out of the stadium. He was wearing his Chivas shirt again.