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The Fire Inside: At home, preparing for our homecoming

This isn’t the day we’d planned for.

So, how do we face it together?

I’m writing on the eve of what was our planned Homecoming at Soldier Field — a celebration of our city and our Club at the stadium where it all began.

It’s hard to overstate how much importance the Club has placed on this particular day over the last few months. In a period of extensive changes on every front, from amending the SeatGeek Stadium lease, to a technical staff and roster overhaul, to new city center offices, to an additive new local broadcast deal — we’ve been in constant motion. The only constant, other than change itself, was one phrase that came up repeatedly in every conversation:

“Three twenty-one.”

The home opener each season is always special, but with such a massive effort on multiple fronts this date felt like an especially pivotal moment in the life of the Club. When the Homecoming eventually happens, it will still be that pivotal moment and date and will be marked by all of us with a renewed significance. But before we can enjoy our new “Three twenty-one,” another moment has inserted itself, one that demands all of our attention.

When the news broke last Thursday of the original 30-day season postponement, our Club President Nelson Rodríguez immediately thanked the staff for all our efforts on building to the home opener. He told those of us who wished to go home that we should do so and reflect on the big push we’d all made to make this a historic day for Chicago. Finally, Nelson told us to stay at home on Friday and to regroup and, if we could, to spend time with our families. After a collective, full-throated “Fire on three!” the staff began to drift home, as the Club’s senior management stayed behind to plan contingencies.

As events unfolded over the weekend it became clear that the office would not immediately be opening again, in observation of social distancing recommendations. By the time senior management met again on Monday, it was by video conference, and over the course of the week a new visual orthodoxy had quickly settled in. By Friday night, you knew each backdrop — the view of the basement office that VP of Business Development Jeff Wagner goes to so his kids don’t interrupt the call; the front seat of my car (ditto); the wall art behind COO John Urban’s head; the map of Chicago behind Football in the Neighborhoods SVP Paul Cadwell.

It’s very human that in an unsettling time, little familiar details become comforting as they recur. We’d tease each other lightly about beard growth, or “costume changes” from meetings earlier in the day. Or we would collectively cheer indulgently when resourceful kids occasionally photobombed our “Brady Bunch” screen mosaics of each other. But mostly it’s been a briskly efficient exchange where we share ideas, updates on staff morale, and thoughts about how we can be of service.

Service matters to Chicago Fire FC.

Like all sports, people like to talk up football as an inspiration. Even at the best of times, the language around sports can be guilty of hyperbole and excess. And in the best of times that’s part of the joy — a release from the petty day-to-day concerns of our lives and a chance to participate in a collective identity that feels powerful and empowering, even heroic. It’s part of the reason fans organize in supporters’ groups — they assemble each game day to sing and chant and yell for their team, and their city, but also, crucially, they gather to celebrate together — as something greater than the sum of their parts, amplified by their connection to the Club and each other. And they do it all with a sense of responsibility to each other, as a second family who share a mutual obsession, but also a shared shorthand for what counts in life. And they do it all with loving, raucous, glee.

And right now, we can’t gather — not in tens of thousands to celebrate Chicago at our Soldier Field Homecoming; not even for a group coffee in our office kitchen.

And beyond a certain necessary defiant humor, there’s not a lot of place for genuine glee, and certainly not for the excess of sporting language that might lend itself to roaring about “beating this thing.” But, there is space for some kindness and some empathy and from those of us who are able to help, some service for our city.

In some cases, that’s about spending this week working on some direct virtual programming for Fire constituencies directly affected by schools closings, like the P.L.A.Y.S. kids and teachers and the Fire Juniors; in other instances it’s about reaching out to sporting, community and civic partners and seeing where we can amplify our collective efforts by joining forces.

In terms of direct support and fundraising efforts, we’ll make announcements soon, but have agreed to direct our efforts and resources to support existing experts in the field.

There are other very worthy and important initiatives that will be crucial in the coming days — not least the #FireForFood drive that Fire supporters have been conducting on an ongoing basis as a core part of their own community mission. The drive supports The Greater Chicago Food Depository, and there’s an important perspective for all of us in considering the particular seriousness of that resource right now. We’ve had to postpone a few games — we’re not experiencing the same degree of heartache and vulnerability others experience routinely, and may be experiencing acutely right now.

In general, there’s a feeling among us that if there’s a place for the Club, and all of us who work for it, to appropriately speak out right now, it’s in comfort to anyone who’s scared or isolated in these extraordinary times.

And in the coming days we’ll be speaking out more — trying to find some notes of encouragement and normalcy, as a Club for all Chicago, as neighbors, as part of the fabric of the city. We’ll keep you informed on how we’re trying to help, and how you can add your own support if you wish.

But we have also agreed we’re not here to ask people who may already be making tough choices, to do more than they can. We’re keeping the Club running, preparing for our eventual Homecoming, and in the meantime we’re trying as best we can to create resources and encouragement for any Chicagoans who might need them. When people we know are already beginning to be affected by the medical, social and economic fallout from what we’re all experiencing, then knowing our appropriate place and our part and our voice is important.

Football is beautiful but it’s only a game. So, if you’re hurting or scared or isolated right now, then speaking on behalf of the Club, we hear you, we value you, and we hope to be of some comfort to you in the days ahead.

This isn’t the day we’d planned for. So how can we face it? Together.

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