Chicago Fire season extinguished with subpar performances

Chicago+Fire+goalie+Sean+Johnson+blocks+a+shot+by+the+Montreal+Impact+during+the+second+half+of+an+MLS+soccer+game+on+Sunday%2C+Oct.+5.

Associated Press

Chicago Fire goalie Sean Johnson blocks a shot by the Montreal Impact during the second half of an MLS soccer game on Sunday, Oct. 5.

For the fourth time in five years, the Chicago Fire failed to make the playoffs. 

During a tumultuous season that  saw the Fire set a Major League Soccer record for most ties in a season with a total of 18, the club struggled to find its rhythm and was dubbed “the tie kings” by head coach Frank Yallop, according to the MLS website. 

The Chicago Fire closed out its season at Toyota Park Oct. 24 against the Houston Dynamo. 

Shane Murray, a Chicago Fire beat writer for MLSSoccer.com, said the record-setting amount of ties was unprecedented and is unlikely to ever happen again. 

“If you spoke to anybody watching the games, it was definitely a big surprise,” Murray said. “The manner of some of the draws was also quite surprising. A lot of them were sort of draws that looked like we were going to win. Other ones we came back late and hit late equalizers. There was a lot of luck involved in some of them, a lot of good luck and a lot of bad luck.” 

There has been much speculation about what has led to the Fire’s shortcomings this season. Injuries have played a part in the club’s subpar play. It was announced Sept. 9 that reigning MVP Mike Magee would miss the remainder of the season after undergoing hip surgery and was given an estimated six to eight months before he could return. If that projection holds up, it means that Magee is likely to miss some of next season, according a Sept. 9 Chicago Sun-Times report. 

Magee racked up 15 goals and 4 assists after being traded to the Fire from Los Angeles Galaxy 10 weeks into last season. Magee never returned to form this year, scoring just 7 goals and 4 assists while missing 9 of the first 26 games before his hip injury him ruled out for the remainder of the season. 

There were some bright spots throughout the Fire’s season, though. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson continued to produce and prove himself among the MLS’ best. His play this season was enough to get the attention of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, which recently called up Johnson for a match against Ecuador. 

Murray said Johnson has been the club’s MVP this season and soon will be treated as such. 

“The [team] standout, performance-wise, this year has undoubtedly been Sean Johnson,” Murray said. “He hasn’t made a mistake this year. If he has, it hasn’t been very noticeable or pivotal. He’s been very solid at the back and he’d get my [vote] for MVP.”

In addition to Johnson, rookie midfielder Harry Shipp has shown flashes of potential throughout this season, adding another layer of brightness to a season that has been very much in the gray area.

Brian Sandalow, who covers the Chicago Fire for the  Sun-Times, said Shipp’s stellar rookie year was a surprise to many. 

“Harry Shipp—I think people thought he’d be good but Harry has shown some real flashes of brilliance,” Sandalow said. “He started off very hot and then he hit the rookie wall and really, really struggled to get through it. But he’s certainly somebody to really keep an eye on in the future. If he continues to grow, he could be a real factor for the Fire for a while.”

Despite the club’s subpar season, fan attendance has not wavered. The Fire has consistently drawn increased attendance from its 2013  attendance figures, according to the MLS attendance website. 

Patrick Stanton, chairman of Section 8, a nonprofit organization of Fire supporters, said the Fire organization deserves a good deal of the credit for the attendance numbers this season. 

“[The organization] went out of [its] way to triple [its] marketing budget this year,” Stanton said. “The advertising campaign they built this year went a long way to remind people that it is a very inexpensive, fun atmosphere to be a part of.”

However, Stanton also said the Fire could potentially draw more fans if the location of Toyota Park was more accessible for public transportation.

“I have only missed four home games—regular season or friendlies—at Toyota Park since we moved out there in 2006,” Stanton said. “One of the most complicated things in my life is ensuring how I’m going to get to the games. Taking the [train] isn’t really an option and neither is taking the bus. It does drive fans away. If the last stop of the Orange Line was Toyota Park right in the north lot, attendance would increase by at least 1,000 people a game, forever.”

The Fire captured the MLS Cup in 1998—its first season in existence—but has not hoisted the trophy since then despite multiple playoff appearances. 

Stanton said owner Andrew Hauptman has prevented the Fire from being a top, complete club  with his failures to make a splash in the transfer window. 

USMNT superstar and Sunderland striker Jozy Altidore is rumored to be leaving his club in January and could return to the MLS. Altidore would join Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey and Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley in a wave of USMNT superstars leaving Europe for the MLS. 

Stanton said landing Altidore would be huge for the Fire.

“We could really use a guy like Jozy,” Stanton said. “Not only does he get you on the league poster again, he gets you in the league commercial again. You need to market it as the Fire, as the third biggest market in MLS.”