CHICAGO — Soldier Field couldn’t have been a better venue for a soccer event on Tuesday morning: a beautiful fall day without a cloud in the sky and crisp white lines forming the border of a soccer pitch on the freshly cut grass. No soccer was to be played, but plenty was promised for the future as the Chicago Fire announced what it called “the world’s best worst-kept secret” and confirmed that Soldier Field would be the club’s new home.
Remarks celebrating the return to the Fire’s original home were given by Michael Kelly, the General Superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District (which owns Soldier Field), Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, and new Fire majority owner Joe Mansueto.
“It’s an important day in club history as we move back to the city,” said Mansueto, who gained full ownership of the team on September 13. “Bridgeview was terrific for us, but I think to take this club to the next level in terms of reaching all of Chicago we need to be located centrally. I think it’s going to change the whole tenor of the club and what it means to the broader Chicago region.”
Mansueto confirmed the club’s agreement with the city is for an initial three years with the option to extend up to 11 years. While rumors of a relocation back downtown were swirling long before he gained full control, Mansueto injected incredible confidence into the decision.
“It’s more just being a native Chicagoan and knowing how the city works,” Mansueto, who was born in Munster, Indiana and currently resides in Chicago, said of why he believed in the move. “There weren’t heavy analytics behind it, it was more just knowing the market well.”
Mansueto believes that the move can be beneficial for the club both on the field and financially, and emphasized an improved ability to engage in local communities. While his personal passion may have been the final push to make this transition a reality, Tuesday was the result of a process that started long before last month.
“[Don Garber] made no bones about it: he wanted to be more involved with Solider Field,” Kelly said of discussions that began during the planning of the 2017 MLS All-Star Game. “I had the pleasure of meeting Joe [Mansueto] through Andrew Hauptman, and Joe made it clear he was very interested in being hands-on with the team and that they wanted to move back to Soldier Field.”
Many logistical questions still remain about how the Fire will share the stadium with its primary tenant, the NFL’s Chicago Bears. The Bears’ current lease agreement says the stadium can’t be used within five days before or after a game, according to Kelly. However, all parties were confident the partnership will be a successful one and pointed to other MLS teams who have succeeded with such arrangements.
“We’ve been focused on soccer-specific stadiums but we have two really big stadiums that are in the urban core that are not soccer-specific: Atlanta and Seattle, and they are working pretty darn good,” said Garber. “We realize that markets have unique needs and communities have different focal points. In this case we thought it was really important to get downtown, and to be in an iconic stadium in a great city was something we worked really hard to achieve.”
Mansueto and others have repeatedly referred to Chicago as a “sleeping giant” of American soccer, and the club, city and league all expressed belief in Soldier Field as the potential key to unlocking that potential.
“The fan research we’ve done has shown this is a top two or three soccer market in North America,” Garber said. “We’ve seen the success of MLS All-Star Games, and Gold Cup Games and Copa America matches that we’re convinced the market exists. The Chicago Fire have to work hard to recapture that interest in their club.”
The best evidence of such work succeeding will come in the form of increased attendance. Despite averaging only around 12,000 fans in 2019, Mansueto and his partners have confidence that Tuesday ushered in a new era that will bring with it entirely new expectations.
“We’re not going into this thinking we’re closing that top deck,” Kelly said. “We’re going into this thinking we’re gonna sell out.”