The slow-burning Chicago Fire project now seeks its signature moments

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

As Chicago continues its upward trajectory from miserable years past, the Fire's long-term plan needs to show that big results are imminent.

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I’m standing in the middle of the visitors’ locker room at Red Bull Arena. Stepping back to avoid a rogue laundry hamper being wheeled out at high speed (“we leave in 20 minutes guys — don’t forget to eat”), I find myself separated for a moment from the small gaggle of reporters waiting to speak to Bastian Schweinsteiger. For a second, I get a gallery view on Schweinsteiger grinning by the team iPod and challenging the writers to name each tune.

Some clunky Europop drifts out.

“Um…Roxette?” mumbles one writer.

Schweinsteiger grins and points at him, “OK, good, good … now what about this one?”

“I think that’s…(slightly incredulous tone) New Edition …?”

A couple more rounds of this baiting of journalists and impossibly young teammates alike, and a grinning Schweinsteiger dutifully trots into position for his postgame interview.

Zlatanmania this is not.

It’s very Chicago Fire 2018, however. To the Fire’s critics that means a premium on hard-working artisans rather than natural entertainers. Ironically, the architects of the team might share the same sentiment, but see it in rather more approving terms. After reinforcing the roster late in the offseason and enduring a bumpy start in figuring out the new pieces, Chicago has just executed a disciplined smash-and-grab win at a notoriously difficult road venue. But while the players in the locker room is upbeat, and notwithstanding DJ Schweini’s 80’s megamix, the prevailing mood is set by talk of the “core group” having “remained solid” through the early games leading to this victory.

“I always try not to speak in cliches, but in this case it’s an axiom,” says Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez in a corridor of the eight-year-old stadium. “You are never as good as you look, and you’re never as bad as you look.

“The start to the year hasn’t been that bad when you consider how late it was when we were able to get some key pieces in — which is all on me by the way, nothing to do with Pauno [coach Veljko Paunovic]. But in the bigger picture, when you look at the last two years, maybe in the first year I was even a little surprised by how much patience the fanbase extended us as we put things in place, and then on the other hand I think last year exceeded expectations, to the point that with the start this year, perhaps outside the group there’d begun to be some doubt. But the group remained intact and confident in itself. Looking at the long-term project, we hadn’t beaten what’s considered an upper-echelon Eastern Conference team until now, and to do it here where the Red Bulls have perhaps the best home record in the league over the last five or six years, the result … helps.”

That it does. Rodriguez is correct to characterize the patience from all sides during the Fire’s slow burn back to competitive relevance, and also correct about the murmurings that had been growing around the team as it struggled for a workable shape early this season. Schweinsteiger had been playing a sweeper role that had at times looked awkwardly compressed up against Dax McCarty’s familiar deep midfield work. You could see what the mechanism was meant to invite opponents to do, but until the 2-1 win at Red Bull Arena, it had looked less like a strategy than a design kink. A result like this buys time to work on the motions of the team, and to further integrate the likes of rookie Mo Adams — partnering McCarty in midfield to be at the heart of everything Chicago did and New York didn’t. This was the kind of uneven but definitely proactive performance that, when seen in retrospect, is a potential inflection point which every successful season contains — even if at the time the performance itself represents no guarantee.

It’s fascinating watching the Fire staff process it. Where other teams might talk of ‘building on this result,’ this version of the Chicago project is all about smoothing the individual result back into a general upward curve — all Apollonian order next to the Dionysian craziness of what’s happening right now with both LA teams. Returning to the locker room, a smiling Schweinsteiger gets a quick hug and a muted, “bravo” from his GM outside the door, and that’s about it for euphoria.

It seems that within this version of the Chicago Fire there’s an appreciation of a good result but a general wariness of freighting it with too much meaning. It’s perhaps apt to think of the low-key image of Schweinsteiger playing impromptu musical parlor games with a few local hacks, set against Zlatan on Jimmy Kimmel, consciously sound-biting his way into an MLS celebrity soap opera. With Ibrahimovic, the Galaxy are not experiencing a smooth upward curve so much as a switchback.

There’s a place for both of course, and Schweinsteiger seemed perfectly indulgent of his former Manchester United teammate jokingly promising to make him a star when the pair met in Chicago a week prior, in front of noticeably more reporters. A World Cup winner can afford to be that indulgent of course, though should the pair happen to meet again in December, it would pose a fascinating question that might just get to the heart of this Chicago Fire project.

At some point in every successful MLS playoff campaign, there’s a point where winning teams switch gear from what worked in the regular season to a version of themselves that adds a kind of meaning and unstoppable momentum to their usual honest endeavor. All iterations of the five-time champion Galaxy have had a version of this, and it’s easy to imagine the Zlatan chapter of that legacy. With its own first flush of success long behind it, the present-day Chicago has yet to show it can write that kind of inspirational story about itself when it is really needed. At some point this year, the Fire will be challenged to move beyond steady improvement to find a way to truly inspire. And at that point, one or more of their artisans will need to find a touch of artistry.

For right now though, the Fire just got a little warmer.

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