Oct. 8–The Chicago Fire’s return to Soldier Field is official.
At a news conference Tuesday morning at the iconic stadium, the Fire announced an agreement to play at the home of the Bears starting in 2020, ending a 14-season stint at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview and returning to the 61,500-seat venue in the South Loop.
Financial terms of the deal, which runs through the 2022 Major League Soccer season with extension options for eight more years, were not disclosed. Fire owner and Chairman Joe Mansueto, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Chicago Park District Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly made the announcement.
“We’re really thrilled and honored to be calling this our home next year,” Mansueto said.
The date of the announcement — Oct. 8 — is significant to both Chicago and the Fire. Chicago burned to the ground on this date in 1871, and in 1997 team officials announced the then-MLS expansion club would be named the Chicago Fire.
“This sports fan is bursting with pride,” Lightfoot said. “… (The Fire) will be successful with this return home.”
The Fire played their home matches at Soldier Field from 1998 to 2001 and 2003 through part of 2006. In 2002 and part of 2003, they played at North Central College in Naperville while Soldier Field was being renovated.
The Fire also announced the first match in their return to the stadium will be March 21 against Atlanta United.
The return has been a long time coming. Mansueto in September told the Tribune he had been working for about a year to move Fire home matches back to the city from SeatGeek Stadium, the 20,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium in Bridgeview that opened in 2006 and saddled the village’s residents with millions in debt, a 2012 Tribune investigation found. A 2018 S&P report said Bridgeview has an “unsustainable debt burden” of roughly $260 million. Mansueto’s effort came to fruition in July, when the Fire announced an agreement to amend their lease with Bridgeview in a deal totaling $65.5 million. As part of the agreement, the Fire will continue to train in the blue-collar southwest suburb, and their youth academy will continue to be based at SeatGeek Stadium.
The long-rumored return finally is complete after months of speculation. The Fire on Saturday sent a media release calling the Tuesday news conference about the announcement “The World’s Best Worst-Kept Secret.” In July, a mockup announcement accidentally leaked and was posted on Twitter.
The Fire, who missed the playoffs after finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference this season, enjoyed the bulk of their success on the lakefront, winning four of the club’s five trophies — the 1998 MLS Cup and three of its four U.S. Open Cups — during seasons in which they played at Soldier Field.
“We could not have dreamed of a better new owner to lead the resurgence of the sport in this region,” Garber said of Mansueto, who took over full ownership of the franchise last month.
Returning to Soldier Field comes with challenges, however, including concerns about the playing surface after Bears games and concerts and the difficulty of filling a much larger stadium. The Fire averaged just 12,324 attendance this season, the lowest in MLS.
Mansueto, however, is confident the Fire can make Soldier Field work.
“The goal right now is to make Soldier Field work, work in a big way,” he told the Tribune in September. “If you look at what’s going on around the league, (the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United) fill football stadiums with 60,000 fans and it’s a phenomenal experience.
“We have that potential in Soldier Field. I really want to see us make that work in a big way. It lets us expose a great product, a great team to a broader number of people and so that’s where the focus is today.”
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