USL Expansion Ramble – USL Chicago

The latest feature in our expansion article series breaks down USL Chicago.

With expansion news coming hot and heavy recently, we, Brian Cook and Richard Rainwater, are taking a look at each of the new teams gearing up to begin play in the USL Championship. We will be covering the teams already announced to join the league and will be looking at how the teams can be successful, what struggles they face, and what we think the outcomes will be.

It’s the Expansion Ramble! And today, we take a trip up to the Windy City for some deep dish, mismanagement, and possible conspiracy theories.

Background/General Information  

America’s “Second City” has been home to the original MLS expansion team, Chicago Fire, since 1997. In that time, the team has won six trophies, including four US Open Cups, but have struggled to win the hearts and minds of Chicago residents. With the team sitting towards the bottom in attendance, revenue, and the standings, local investors have decided that the time to break MLS’ monopoly is now.

What will make this team successful? 

Richard – Chicago would be the largest city to host an independent USL team. The size of the city bodes well for USL’s first head-to-head matchup against an MLS team, as there will be plenty of fans to go around. Chicago residents have shown that they are willing to show up en masse to soccer matches and this team should be able to reap the benefits of that.

Years of stumbles by MLS in this market will also help USL get off the ground. The Chicago Fire ownership is very unpopular with the fan-base, having made poor on-field and off-field decisions. Their stadium is located outside of the city and is only connected via a single bus route. There is no development around Toyota Park to attract fans outside of match days, and attendance has been towards the bottom of MLS as a result. These struggles are compounded by the very ugly and public dispute with their supporters groups, an air-tight lease that keeps them at Toyota Park for the foreseeable future, and poor on-field results as well. The Fire are a mess, and MLS hasn’t been able to figure out how to capitalize on a successful past, in one of America’s most passionate sports towns.

USL Chicago’s ownership situation will position it as one of the best in USL, almost from Day One. The group that initially bought the franchise rights to Chicago are planning on building a 20,000 seat, retractable-roof stadium on the city’s north side, close to Wrigley Field. The addition of the Ricketts family to the ownership group gives them knowledge of the Chicago sports market and even deeper pockets to draw on for player purchases and team infrastructure. Already, they will have a newer stadium, in a better location, with a beloved local owner, and none of the baggage that the Fire carry with them. It could not be better set up for success than that.

Brian – Chicago might be the most interesting market. It’s been seen as taboo in the past for a USL team to even think about stomping in the sandbox of an MLS team. Chicago Fire seemingly are at a crossroads. They are struggling on the field and the front office is struggling to connect to supporters off the field. Protests, supporters groups suspended or outright kicked out, and poor results on the field have left Chicago Fire fans at a crossroads as much as the team is.

For USL Chicago to be successful they need to present themselves as that. The other option. Don’t directly touch on the clear (pun intended) fire that is growing at Bridgeview and Toyota Field but giving fans an option and a place for them to turn to might gain you not only supporters but key supporters at that.

What will make this team struggle? 

Richard – The Minor League Soccer label will be difficult to get rid of early on. While many people will flock to the new stadium and team early on, the team will have to prove that it isn’t in the same realm as AAA baseball if it wants to continue attracting fans. Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez has already begun making comments about this team playing in “the minor leagues”, so expect Chicago Fire and MLS to intensify that critique as the launch date nears closer.

The stadium is not a done deal yet, and real estate projects in city limits are notoriously difficult to complete. One of the main reasons the Fire ended up in Bridgeview is how hard a stadium project is to complete, given the complex nature of Chicago politics. Having the Ricketts on board will help that process, but nothing is guaranteed. Should the stadium not come to fruition, which was the biggest motivating factor for buying the team, they would have to either find a new location to play or possibly pull the plug on the project entirely.

Finally, there is the scenario of building the stadium, launching the team, and not bringing in enough fans to be financially viable. If they are unable to shake the minor-league moniker, USL Chicago will find themselves in a 20,000 seat stadium and an uphill battle to attract fans. They could end up facing a situation that is similar to MLS-2 sides, in which the teams can’t remain relevant in their city’s sports scene. Chicago will have to be spot-on in their marketing, be competitive on the field, and pray for the Fire to remain in their current state to be the team they hope to be.

Brian – Don’t be Chattanooga. Simple as that. From a marketing perspective, avoiding being the Walmart coming to shut down a mom and pop shop is the only thing that would make this team struggle. They have the finances, they have the motivation and seemingly have the ability to keep the team in Chicago opposed to a nearby suburb. Chicago has the moves it needs to make and knows how to win the game from start. It just can’t come in and act like it will be bigger, better, or more quality than Chicago Fire. Don’t be ignorant to the history, embrace and be an ally of it.

What do you think is more likely with this team: MLS Expansion, Successful USL Championship team, Future League One Superstars, Soon-to-be ghost of American soccer past?

Richard – Get your tinfoil hats ready, because the future for this team depends on which (if any) of the conspiracy theories you believe.

Theory 1: USL Chicago will build and play in the Lincoln Yards Stadium while MLS prepares to relocate Chicago Fire. With the team in a similar position to Columbus in business metrics, the Fire would be taken to one of the cities that did not participate in the current expansion lottery. That would give MLS time to negotiate a settlement out of the Toyota Park lease, while a new team gains traction and support without the Fire’s baggage. Once completed, USL Chicago gets awarded an MLS expansion slot, and they have a better hold on the Chicago market.

Theory 2: The USL team will never take the field, as it was a cover to avoid legal action from Bridgeview. The current owners would have an understanding that MLS will sell the Fire to them, once the stadium is built. At that point, a settlement is reached with Bridgeview, and the Fire acquire a shiny 20,000 seat stadium, while getting out from one of the most city-friendly leases in MLS.

Theory 3: The USL team will take the field and operate independently of MLS. The league will either let the Fire continue, or fold the team, and wait out their current lease. Once the term has passed, the Fire will join USL in Lincoln Yards Stadium, and the two will share the space.

All of these theories, as most conspiracies do, have a hint of truth to them. MLS is not happy with the state of their team in Chicago, and the current situation is untenable. While the Fire could be successful at Toyota Park, the Lincoln Yards project would take them to the level of Atlanta United and LAFC. However, there is no evidence pointing to their involvement with any phase of this project, so rumors like that should be ignored.

USL Chicago will be positioning themselves to be a top team in the Championship, once they arrive. As long as they are able to get their stadium built, and aren’t secretly colluding with MLS about alternative plans, they have all the tools available to succeed. The USL is seen as an upcoming league, with many exciting projects coming up in the next five years. My genuine belief is that the Ricketts see this as a low entry point for an investment that could end up growing many times over. And as long as they learn from the Fire’s mistakes, they shouldn’t be held back from doing just that.

Brian – I think the at a minimum, Chicago USL has a chance to be a successful team. Whether the longevity is League One, the Championship, or eventual MLS expansion team depends entirely on what the future holds for Chicago Fire and what kind of start Chicago USL has itself. Keep in mind, the owner of this team is also the owner of the Chicago Cubs. This isn’t a brand new to the area team from an ownership perspective. This team will know the area and know what it takes to build a long standing team.

Richard Rainwater

Richard is a passionate soccer fan, who can be found in the heart of Brickyard Battalion on match days. You can follow him @da_safety_guy on Twitter, and see his work on BGN Written throughout the season.