As soon as I arrived at Wheaton, I quickly realized that there is a vibrant soccer community here on campus. Attendance for our varsity teams is excellent compared to many other schools in our conference, as well as across the nation. Intramural soccer participation is popular, and it is commonplace to see students and community members playing pickup on Joe Bean whenever the Wheaton weather cooperates.
However, there is also some quality soccer being played off-campus for the first time in many years. A half hour away from Wheaton, tucked away in the industrial suburb of Bridgeview, Ill. is Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire. To be clear, the last few seasons have been a disaster for the Fire. They won six out of 34 games in 2014, eight in 2015, and seven in 2016. They were the worst team in the MLS in two of those three seasons.
If you haven’t kept up with the Fire the last few seasons, or ever, I understand. And if you haven’t kept up with Major League Soccer the last few seasons, or ever, I also understand. There has not been much to enjoy about the Fire, and, frankly, there has not been much to like about the MLS. The league has largely struggled to access the soccer fan-base in its own country and has delivered more punchlines than headlines in recent memory.
Despite all this, I have actually thoroughly enjoyed watching the Fire this season. They added quality players to the roster this offseason, including 2014 World Cup-winning German international player Bastian Schweinsteiger, United States Men’s National Team player Dax McCarty and Hungarian international team member, Nemanja Nikoli?. These players, as well as an exciting core of youth, have led to genuinely entertaining soccer in Chicago for the first time in a while.
Not only is it fun to watch, the Fire are actually winning games. Coming off three big home wins against Columbus Crew (’16 Wheaton alumnus Marshall Hollingsworth’s employer), Real Salt Lake and the New England Revolution, the Fire will take their winning streak on the road against Toronto FC on Friday night. While many other Chicago teams have had success the last few years, the Fire are making a strong case to be named Chicago’s next big thing.