Last night, the Chicago Fire took on the incarnation of evil, otherwise known as the New England Revolution, in the second leg of the first round of the MLS playoffs. The Fire were down 2-1 from the first leg after a tough away loss at Gillette Stadium in front of a pitiful crowd of 7,416. The two teams have spent most of the past decade knocking each other out of the playoffs, so it’s pretty fair to say neither club is fond of each other.
As that crowd at New England indicates, MLS teams have traditionally had trouble selling playoff games: the sales model has long depended on group sales that require a lot of advance planning, and the short turnaround for playoffs makes this difficult.
On Saturday night in Chicago, the Fire turned this on its head by selling out Toyota Park with a crowd of 21,528, and the supporters’ sections were as vibrant as I can ever remember them. The team responded, with a 2-0 win sending the Fire to the Eastern Conference final, hosting Real Salt Lake next week at home.
As the Vice-Chair of Section 8 Chicago, the Chicago Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association, I had the opportunity to observe it all close-up. Please forgive a little self-indulgence as I take you on a trip through the game.
Preparing for the Game
In the tunnel at Toyota Park, players pass the sign below on their way on to the pitch. Underneath the sign is a small chunk of old Soldier Field, where the Chicago Fire began play in 1998, winning the league and cup double in that inaugural season and putting the club on the road to what has become its hallmark: tradition, honor, passion.
That chunk is from Section 8, where different Fire supporters’ groups soon joined together to support the team. The name has stuck, though supporters now gather in sections 117 and 118 of Toyota Park, the Fire’s home since 2006.
I took the photo below as supporters gathered inside the stadium last Tuesday night to prepare a tifo display, the club being generous enough to offer their facilities for our preparation. The Fire let us use the visitor’s locker room to tape together red and white table rolls for a tifo display planned to cover four sections of the stadium. S8C funded the design by supporters’ group URS, at a cost of $500.
As well as assisting us all week — relations are definitely improving — the Fire’s marketing effort this week was outstanding. Promotional events across the city and many, many media calls got a real buzz going around Chicago for the game. I stopped by one event outside the ABC studio in downtown Chicago, as fans gathered for a clip on the nightly news. It takes serious effort to sell-out a playoff game in MLS, especially when you have a small season ticketholder base, and the Fire’s staff put that effort in all week.
The Fire even donated 200 of the scarves below they ordered for promotional purposes and gave them to Section 8 Chicago so we could offer them with a special ticket sale on our website. We ended up capping our own ticket sales of over 1,000 on Saturday morning, meaning we completely packed out the Harlem End.
Gameday: The Tailgate
Tailgating is a Chicago tradition. Yesterday was the perfect autumnal weather for gathering outside before the game, and a large, boisterous crowd got there early. The Section 8 Chicago tailgate, open to everyone, has become a gathering point for hundreds each game, with food cooked by overworked volunteers and a keg of Half Acre’s excellent Over Ale for the beer. Once our beer buses from the city arrive, it gets awfully busy.
We also took the time to arrange a surprise for the retiring chairman of Section 8 Chicago, Ben Burton, after three years running the organisation and putting in hours that shame paid MLS staff. With the help of the Fire, we got a jersey signed by the entire team, presented to him by club chairman Andrew Hauptman. A little later, former Fire president Peter Wilt privately presented Ben with a very rare 1998 MLS jersey (Nike did not sell ’98 jerseys). After all that, it was time to get everyone together and into the stadium early to welcome the team for warm-ups.
Supporters’ Player of the Year Award
After the tailgate, we headed inside the stadium, but I had one thing to do before the game began. This year, Section 8 Chicago organised the first-ever stadium wide vote for the Supporters’ Player of the Year, and we contributed $2,500 to be donated to the winning player’s charity of choice. The vote was very close after a season in which there was no obvious stand-out due to long absences for almost every key player, but the sole remaining Fire original from 1998 CJ Brown won the award for his stout defending. The Fire invited us to present CJ the award before the game, so I donned an unlikely credential and wandered onto the Toyota Park turf for the first time.
It was literally standing room only around the concourse of the stadium, as the Fire set a playoff record crowd at Toyota Park. In Section 8, it was loud from warmups to half an hour after the game.
Those table rolls we taped together at the stadium came out pretty damn good. We unfurled that at kick-off to get the crowd going. Unfortunately some idiots poked holes through it so I’m not sure it’s reusuable, but it looked pretty damn good.
We also hung up all of the banners that have been made in recent weeks, including a couple for the induction of Chris Armas into the Ring of Fire two weeks ago.
And, as tends to happen at Fire games, it turned out some supporters had brought some pyro of their own. There were problems with security again, with some ticket mix-ups and the flares causing friction: over-zealous aggression from security never helps, not that supporters are always blameless either. But overall, it was quite something to behold.
I’ll let the team speak for themselves on what they felt about the atmosphere.
“The fans were absolutely tremendous tonight. I was telling somebody earlier that they were out there already chanting when I was warming up. It gave me goosebumps just warming up because they were just fantastic. Hopefully we have that same atmosphere next weekend, we’re really excited to have that game here. It’s not going to be an easy game, Salt Lake had a great win against Columbus, it’s going be a battle but it’s just nice to have it all on our home field.” — Goalkeeper John Busch.
“I can’t remember seeing a crowd like that here. They were energetic from the start all the way through the end of the game, and all the players really fed off the energy they brought tonight.” — Midfielder John Thorrington.
“It was a special night. We had a full house. I think the guys understood what was at task, understood the moment from the get-go. We deservedly got the win. The crowd had a huge effect on us. Our guys fed off that for the whole 90 minutes and so hopefully next week we can pack the house like we did tonight.”” — Fire head coach Denis Hamlett.
“It’s great. It’s so awesome when the atmosphere [is like that]. The fans were great, they inspired the guys to fight for each other.” — Brian McBride.
The Chicago Fire, from the team to the front office to the supporters last night lived up to the hallmark of tradition, honor and passion. Now it’s time to stand and deliver in the rest of the playoffs, and take home the MLS Cup.