In the week leading up to the Chicago Fire’s game against the LA Galaxy, midfielder Dax McCarty said it was key for the Fire to deal with the “circus” that comes with Zlatan Ibrahimović’s arrival.
Ibrahimović certainly brought the circus: a record crowd at Toyota Park and the only goal of the game. That crowd was an announced 21,915, the most for a regular-season match in the stadium’s nearly 12-year history.
Now, the Fire have to keep that excitement after the circus has left town.
Ibrahimović was well aware of his impact. He received the loudest ovation when lineups were announced. When later asked about getting a warm reception from the opposing crowd, he said, “It was good. I heard they never fill the stadium so I should come often.”
After the Fire lost, McCarty vented about his team’s 1-3-1 start. He said “Lionel Messi isn’t walking through that door,” a reference to the team having to work with what it has. Ibrahimović won’t walk through that door again, either. He may not make another trip to Bridgeview, Ill., unless the 36-year-old is still playing in 2020.
So how do the Fire keep the stadium filled without high-level star power drawing in neutral fans?
“You gotta win games,” McCarty said. “You gotta play better and you gotta score goals. You gotta entertain them. You gotta be a team that’s easy to root for, and right now we’re struggling a little bit. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame the fans for not coming out, because if you don’t win games maybe you don’t deserve to play in front of a packed stadium. It’s on us to improve and get better and try to fill this place up more.”
Apr 14, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Los Angeles Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (9) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Fire at Bridgeview Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Last season, the Fire had six home games classified as sellouts. The criteria the club goes by for a sellout is 20,000 tickets sold. A temporary extra stand behind the south goal and standing-room-only tickets can boost that number, as was the case on Saturday. Even Bastian Schweinsteiger’s debut April 1 wasn’t a sellout — but as the team won, the crowds started to come.
The biggest crowd of 2017 was an Aug. 19 battle against league-leading Toronto FC. The Fire held the best record in the league a few weeks prior, but entered having lost four of their last five matches. Still, the game was a big test and a last-gasp chance for the Fire to be in the Supporters’ Shield race. An announced crowd of 21,891 came on a pleasant summer Saturday. That’s nearly the same number the power of Zlatan drew.
So while the Fire aren’t drawing the gigantic crowds of Atlanta or Seattle and don’t have a season-ticket waiting list like Portland or even Minnesota in its new stadium, fans will come if the team is good.
“Obviously last year we had a very good season and I don’t think it’s depending on the fans coming out for us to win,” defender Jonathan Campbell said. “We need to be winning, playing well and that’s obviously going to bring more fans. They want to see good soccer and we’re trying to do that.”
Last year, the Fire appeared to resurrect after years of poor performances. The team finished with the third best record in the league and made its first playoff appearance since 2012.
Since then, things have not gone well. The first-round playoff game against the New York Red Bulls was essentially over minutes after starting. The Red Bulls scored twice in the first 11 minutes and won 4-0.
In the offseason, the Fire traded away winger David Accam, who was second on the team with 14 goals and shared the team lead with eight assists. They then failed to bring in any significant reinforcements to improve the team.
General manager Nelson Rodriguez said the roster was “incomplete” just before the season began. That incomplete roster is off to the Fire’s worst start since 2014. Even last-place teams in 2015 and 2016 had more points through five matches.
“I think it starts always with playing good football,” coach Veljko Paunović said. “I think that’s what we are looking for. We are looking to reach the level we had last year, the style we played and all that stuff. But, obviously, it is going to take some time, as I said before, especially because of the start we had and the circumstances we have.”
So, big crowds may not return to Bridgeview in the short-term. The burden is on the Fire to win, and they know it.