In the one video I have saved of my wife, she has her arm around another woman.
We are in a train in Munich, making the most of what little space we have in the center of the car, chanting and singing and smacking the ceiling. My wife, Una, sweaty and sunburnt, hangs on to one of our other traveling companions for stability while jumping and shout-singing, full-throated and having the time of her life.
Most of our fellow passengers are headed, albeit much more quietly, to the same place we are: the Allianz Arena, to see one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world, Bayern Munich, pay tribute to one of its legends, Bastian Schweinsteiger, in a testimonial exhibition match.
We are singing, very loudly and badly, for Bayern’s opponents—the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. (Yes, Soccer Club, none of this “Chicago Fire FC” rebrand mishegas.)
As we found our away section (80 of us in a stadium of 75,000) and absorbed the sheer, majestic fortress of humanity, I found myself pulling a David Byrne and asking, “How did I get here?” How had we cast all our plans for summer 2018 aside and, on the heels of perhaps the worst season in the 20-year history to be a supporter of Chicago’s okayest pro sports franchise, sprung for a transatlantic flight to watch them get pummeled by some of the best athletes on the planet?
Una wore a Fire button the night we met. Six weeks into our courtship, she took me to my first match, enticing me with the prospect of a tailgate. I spent that night like I did all of that first summer together, in a blissed-out, euphoric summer-love haze. I was smitten with her, but also, when at that match, with the palpable energy of the supporters’ section, drums and horns blaring, the capos at the front, directing the chants, one so in the throes of the moment he took his pants off, the perfect companion to the thrumming joy of a new relationship. It was the first time I saw a future with another woman, and consequently, with my local soccer team.
A year later, I would accompany Una to my first away match, spending 16 hours on a crowded, rowdy round-trip bus to and from Columbus, Ohio, while our fellow passengers treated us to bawdy songs and a mouthwash-and-gasoline-flavored concoction known as “gin-lort-jitos” (the “lort” being Malört, Chicago’s favorite wormwood-infused spirit). Over the next five years, we travled to five states and across the Atlantic to cheer on our Men in Red, seeing large swaths of this massive country we may have otherwise skipped.
But even when there was no grand trip to be planned, the Fire seeped its way into the day-to-day of our relationship. Our sweet-nothing texts would be peppered with player transfer speculation: “I can’t wait to see you tonight, also, did you see that Juan Anangonó is out of contract? It opens up a Designated Player spot! Maybe Jermaine Jones?” We planned elaborate tailgates with fancy sausages and Bloody Mary bars. Loving the Fire became more than a hobby, but a shared thread in our developing story together.
When we married in June 2017, the Fire were even a wedding guest of sorts—a supporter-made scarf served as our kerchief for the Hora and our parents surprised us with a congratulatory video from two players, tossing confetti in the tunnel.
But the honeymoon eventually ends, and once you’ve posted all your shiny pictures to the ‘gram, you still have to go back to work and peel off all your sunburn. You’re irritable after long, exhausting days at work. You fight at IKEA because she’s trying to find window treatments and you’re posting about all the funny Swedish furniture names on Snapchat, Lindsay. (We still haven’t bought those window treatments.)
You wade through people who are supposed to be on the same side repeating the same five arguments on social media, watch the front office piss away fan-favorite players for MLS funny money. And there are times when you sit back and have those existential crises of “what was it all for?” When you realize you’ve made the choice to suffer thanklessly through this in what precious leisure time our capitalist hellworld offers.
It also definitely doesn’t help when the team you love is really, really bad.
The Fire have failed to advance beyond the knockout round of the playoffs in a decade, and finished dead last in the league three of the past four seasons. (And yes, Bayern Munich did, in fact, pummel them, a resounding 4-0.)
Sports fans romanticize loving a perennial loser. I saw it growing up in the ivy-choked nostalgia of pre-2016 Chicago Cubs lore, in the many iterations of Fever Pitch. Loving a niche sports team with an uncaring, inept management and a dwindling fanbase situated in a large, competitive market is less cute, and far more frustrating, and even in our day-to-day lives, those frustrations bubbled to the surface.
Being diehards for the Fire has brought out the best and worst in us, in the stands and at home. We leverage our soccer friends to launch and fund philanthropic efforts for community organizations we care about, including the 2018 Fire and 2019 Red Stars Prideraisers and an initiative called “Giving for Goals” where we supported nonprofit We fire up the grill for our friends. Una’s enthusiasm and work ethic shine through spreadsheets and carefully drawn tailgate layouts and the patience of sitting through the Independent Supporters’ Association’s three-hour board meetings. I spend all our time at the tailgate entertaining and pouring drinks and leave her the grunt-work of setup, failing to show my appreciation for said enthusiasm and work ethic. She fumes after a difficult loss and withdraws. I scroll through the most odious depths of Soccer Twitter and let fury and anxiety infect me like a bad cold. So much of any relationship is learning how to function as a team, and through the Fire, we were able to see in stark relief where we succeeded and failed.
Our relationship with the team itself had been tested by piss-poor performance on the field and an uncaring front office off it, but the first real schism came in the summer of 2018, when the front office decided to ban Section 101, a predominantly Latinx supporters section, following a pair of incidents: a parking-lot skirmish with rival supporters and the lighting of a smoke bomb. Although only a handful of individuals were involved in the incidents, the general manager unilaterally banned all ticket holders in the section for the remainder of the season, and later doubled down. We, along with many other fans, chose to boycott the remainder of the season (save for the Munich trip, which had already been arranged) and discontinue our season tickets in solidarity with our fellow supporters.
The entity that had been our outlet for bringing people together, our favorite escape, our excuse for wild tailgate experiments, our arbiter of travel plans, was now a cause of stress and anguish, well beyond a lovable loser.
By February of this year, the Fire’s supporters and front office reached a deténte. The ban on our fellow supporters was lifted, and most of our friends returned and renewed this season. The announcement of new ownership and a return to Soldier Field have helped reinvigorate the conversation about the club, infusing it with that kind of cautious optimism lovers of a loser cling to in the offseason.
Although most of our friends returned from the boycott, Una refused, insisting “they’re dead to me.” The release of the home schedule, once a thrilling ritual infused with the sacredness of the liturgical calendar, now makes her feel numb. We now fill our weekend days with recording podcast episodes, with open house visits, with meal prep. I have become a more enthusiastic participant in the mundane, responsible household matters; she an empowering cheerleader for my extracurricular pursuits.
It was strange at the beginning of the 2019 season, attending Fire functions or watch parties, being amongst the community without her, my anchor, the person who brought me to this place for the first time and taught me to love this club, this group of fans. But I was able to reflect and appreciate what we had created in our five years in the terraces, in the parking lot, at away matches and two-pole builds. This past season, we continued working together, refocusing our passion and energy for the local game at tifo builds and tailgates for the Red Stars, Chicago’s professional women’s side. I plan to still be involved with the community around both sides in the season to come while she is sticking to just the Red Stars for now. I am excited for what the future holds and what we can build together, alongside our fellow supporters (of both teams), troubling, poorly-received rebrand be damned.
Una did relent once last season, and so we found ourselves in The Harlem End for the Fire’s last home fixture in Bridgeview. It felt like a homecoming, like a return from the dead, and also the closest thing either of us will come to being part of a Bravo reunion episode. Someone gave her Malört in a can. By the time we were 10 minutes into the match, singing along to a Fire-ified version of “Tequila,” she conceded, “Yeah, I did miss this.”
In jumping around, shoulder to shoulder with her and our other friends, feeling the sting of the red smoke that hissed around us after a Fire goal, I remembered why I missed the heady nostalgia of those early seasons of our fandom. What kept me in the increasingly sparse supporters’ section in Bridgeview, drinking in an unpaved parking lot with some people who I love and a lot of people who I like when they’re not tweeting, season after season, loss after loss, is that my love for this messy, bumbling local soccer team grew out of experiencing something my partner loved.
We experienced the team as a team.