We were led up the dingy, dark enclosed ramps of Giants Stadium in the Swamplands as if we were on a death march. The band played on — we had a drum, a trumpet, and seventy full-throated Chicago Fire fans, after all — but I half expected to find our bête noire, New York’s coach Juan Carlos Osorio, at the top of the ramp with a machine gun in his hands.
After all, only the day before the game, I politely requested the Fire beat the New York Red Bulls and also deliver me Juan Carlos Osorio’s head on a stick.
How to Find Yourself Driving 1600 Miles to Support an MLS Team
Rewind: it’s a year ago, and I’m just getting stuck into my first season as a full-on headcase Chicago Fire supporter, part of the Section 8 supporters who commit themselves to the Fire until someone realises they’ve gone completely insane and has them sent to a mental institution.
I’d initially found it difficult to get properly into MLS in my first few years in the United States after moving across the Atlantic from England at the age of 21. Back when I arrived, too many teams still played in giant, empty American football stadiums and the family atmosphere seemed alien to the terrace culture I’d grown up in (albeit, the latter has been largely muted back in England now anyway).
But last year — and this is partly how this blog got going in the first place — I decided to immerse myself in MLS and Fire supporter culture as far as I could. It’s fair to say that I reached its epicentre pretty fast. Something about Section 8 helps you keep coming back, even when the football’s terrible.
How to Hate in MLS
The problem was, for the first few months of 2007, the Fire were perhaps even worse than terrible. I went on a thousand mile roundtrip to Toronto for my first away game to watch them hand the Canadian expansion team their first goal and win in MLS. I saw the Fire play soporific football and suffer depressing defeats at our home, Toyota Park. I saw dwindling crowds and growing disenchantment with manager Dave Sarachan and President John Guppy.
Then two things happened: the Fire replaced Dave Sarachan with Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio and veteran Mexican superstar Cuauhtémoc Blanco arrived. Everything turned upside down: the Fire powered into the playoffs, eventually losing in the Conference final in a tough one to New England.
Then Osorio decided to turn everything inside out: in the offseason, he suddenly discovered his family needed to be in New York, and handily the New York Red Bulls had a coaching vacancy and a lot of cash to toss his way and try to resurrect their struggling team.
Off he went, a bitter war of words breaking out between Fire ownership and New York, leaving most in the Fire organisation and fanbase feeling very bitter towards the Colombian. Further enmity developed when Osorio and the Red Bulls tried to poach one of the Fire’s key defensive acquisitions of 2007, Wilman Conde, who had decided he wanted to be reunited in New Jersey with Osorio.
Fire ownership stayed firm and refused to trade Conde east, frustrating the defender who did not start a game before Sunday. A further battle with Osorio broke out over a discovery claim on Paraguayan Lider Marmol, who also eventually ended up at Toyota Park. It’s fair to say the bitterness between the two teams found no bounds.
You can presume everyone had Sunday’s match, the Chicago Fire versus the New York Red Bulls in New Jersey, circled on their calendars.
The Bowels of New Jersey
So around 70 Fire fans made the 800 mile journey to New York by whatever means we could. It soon became apparent that the Red Bulls efforts to derail us from attending the game knew no limits as we drove in from New York City (that’d be a good place to put a soccer team, wouldn’t it?), cleverly playing the game in the pits of decaying post-industrial New Jersey, with a spaghetti junction and barely existent signposting sending us on a detour to Newark International Airport before the match.
We made it in time to tailgate a little in the parking lot, before being led by stadium security on the aforementioned Death March to the
upper deck mezzanine, from where we were able to survey the entire near-empty caverbous stadium and the unappealing artificial turf. This was the set-up of MLS that had initially repelled me: but now, I could not care less, at least for the next ninety minutes.
All that mattered was a Fire victory that would stick in the craw of Juan Carlos Osorio forever and ensure we’d make it back to Chicago alive. Osorio’s replacement as Fire head coach, Denis Hamlett, had even stirred the pot a little further by handing Conde only his second start of the season, anchoring the backline alongside the immense Bakary Soumare.
And this is what happened:
Chicago Fire (6-2-1) vs. New York Red Bulls (3-2-3)
May 25, 2008 — Giants Stadium
CHI — Chad Barrett 3 (Cuauhtemoc Blanco 3) 8
CHI — Chris Rolfe 2 (Cuauhtemoc Blanco 4, Bakary Soumare 1) 48
CHI — Cuauhtemoc Blanco 4 (penalty kick) 55
CHI — Chad Barrett 4 (Justin Mapp 3, Cuauhtemoc Blanco 5) 60
CHI — Gonzalo Segares 1 (unassisted) 62
NY — Jozy Altidore 3 (Hunter Freeman 1) 74
Blanco has never said much about Osorio’s departure, but his demolition of the Red Bulls on Sunday perhaps gave us a clue about his feelings. It also reminded us that for all the Fire’s pragmatic progress under Osorio at the tailend of 2007, it’s under rookie head coach and Fire original Denis Hamlett that Blanco and the rest of the team have really been freed to reach their potential in the attacking third.
The Fire were as good as the Red Bulls were bad. Osorio was not on the bench due to a sideline ban, but one can only sweetly imagine the apoplexy his team’s disintegration drove him to.
After the match, we were asked out to the team’s hotel nearby for a celebratory drink or two. Several members of the Fire’s team and staff were very friendly to our slightly inebriated selves, the vastly underrated forward Chad Barrett in particular.
Juan Carlos Osorio was not invited to join us.