A few weeks ago I wrote a piece over at theAthletic.com about Bastian Schweinsteiger’s arrival and how it compared to the Fire’s last big name signing in 2007. I spoke to the Fire’s General Manager at the time, John Guppy about the buzz and excitement created by Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s arrival and how a short-notice announcement of an introduction turned into 5,000 people showing up at Toyota Park to greet him.
Some of Guppy’s comments pertaining to Schweinsteiger and how he can help the current team were included in the Athletic.com article, but he also shared some recollections of the hoopla surrounding Blanco’s signing that I felt should be explored in another piece. Blanco being in the news recently brought my attention back to 2007 and his arrival in Chicago.
“It’s probably one of the most memorable days of my three-and-a-bit years with the Fire but the way that it all played out was a little backwards because of the way the schedule had to work out,” said Guppy who is founder of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing based in Naperville. “(The announcement) was on a Monday and on a Tuesday we did the official press conference. The Monday, we did the unveiling and the introduction to the fans at Toyota Park. We didn’t even announce that. We basically just informed some folks at Univision that this was going to happen and we just listened to the chatter in the market place just explode over the next few hours in the Hispanic community over the fact that he was coming.”
Guppy’s recollection included surprise over the crowd starting to gather at midday in Bridgeview in anticipation of Blanco’s short-notice presentation.
“My office used to be in the corner of Toyota Park on the front side by the plaza. At five o’clock in the afternoon we did the unveiling. At twelve o’clock there was like seven or eight people just standing, almost forming a line in front of my office. I was like – what are these people doing. It gradually grew and it took me a while to realize that they were here already for the Blanco event. That line just grew, and grew, and grew. Our unofficial count was about 5,000 people that came to that happening. We were shocked at that many people, on that short a notice, and it was really just purely through the power of just who he was. We obviously knew his status, but to see that in the flesh was very rewarding and exciting. We knew that we were about to begin a new chapter with the club with a player that has a gravitas, has a status, that frankly we didn’t have at that time and had never had. I probably shouldn’t say never, because I don’t want to discount the power of the Nowaks and Stoichkovs of the world, but certainly we didn’t have at the time,” he recalled.
“The energy and excitement that his arrival brought to the club just gave everybody a boost. You could walk a little bit taller. You’re chest was maybe out a little bit more. You just felt that you had reached a different place as an organization and he hadn’t even kicked a ball to that point.”
What made the introduction event even more impressive was the fact that word spread the old fashioned way, before the instant news days of Twitter and Facebook. “There was no social media (back then). That was purely Univision radio and maybe their TV guy kicked in, I don’t even know. It was incredible. Absolutely incredible,” said Guppy.
“Now I look at the Schweinsteiger stuff and I’m comparing 500 people (at O’hare) to 5,000 people, but I think it’s totally different. I’m still a big believer of star power in MLS. I’m a big believer in Homegrown talent and I’m a big believer in trying to find younger international talent to kind of nurture them along but I still think there is tremendous value in established senior star power. That’s what the Stoichkovs, and the Schweinsteigers, and the Blancos, bring to the table. I think it’s great. It’s a great signing for the Fire. We haven’t really had a signing like that since Blanco. They’ve signed a few over the last decade but certainly nobody of that status.”
Blanco and Schweinsteiger are two different types of players, and certainly two different types of characters off the field but both are big impact signings on multiple levels.
“The impact of (Blanco’s) arrival you saw in every aspect of the club. Of course, you saw it on the field, once he started playing. You saw it in the locker room. You saw it on the practice field. You saw it in the front office. Ticket sales guys have a very hard job. (It) was very hard job ten years ago compared to today but I think they were more energized. I think you saw it in the community and every aspect of the business. We definitely saw an instant impact in interest for the Fire, whether it would be advance ticket sales, walk-up ticket sales, group ticket sales, merchandise sales, sponsorship conversations – which is a longer discussion – but it definitely helped that as well. The impact of his arrival was felt immediately throughout every aspect of that organization.”
A further comparison of the two shed light on the differing considerations taken into account ten years ago and present day when it came to landing a big-name player for the Fire.
“I think it’s a little different,” said Guppy. “If you’re just talking purely from a commercial standpoint, I think it’s a little different. Ten years ago, the corporate interest in reaching the Hispanic community through soccer was even greater than it is now. Today it has become more about millennials. Within millennials, you have multi-cultural so Hispanics are still important. Ten years ago there were brands that they circled and Hispanics were an audience that they had to reach. When they thought about it in Chicago, they thought Mexican. When we signed Blanco, there in some ways was an obvious connection to that audience, a sport that they loved, and a player who they idolized. The corporate interest was much more direct. With Schweinsteiger’s arrival, I think it’s more about relevance. I think the Fire is more relevant today than they were a week ago in the corporate world because they signed this big time player. They’re paying attention. The White Sox push out ‘welcome to Chicago’ tweets and the Bulls are pushing things out. If you’re a CMO of brand, you’re thinking – ‘this guy’s somebody’. I do think the Fire will feel a positive impact from the business standpoint, but I think it’s different from the Blanco signing just because of the time and the audience specifically that he was popular with.”
Guppy doesn’t think skeptics of the signing should concern themselves with the fact that Schweinsteiger is now 32 years old. Utilizing tactical knowledge combined with staying physically fit should help him overcome any diminished skill due to advancing years.
“I wouldn’t be concerned about his age,” he said. “Blanco was 34 and we had concerns about his fitness as well. If you look back on that, he didn’t use his athletic ability. That was who he was. He was all about his mind and his vision and his touch. Schweinsteiger is similar. If you watch how he plays, he’s an extremely smart player. So long as he can stay athletically fit, he doesn’t have to be that dynamic presence that he was in order to be an impact player. I’m sure those are all the reasons why it’s something they wanted to do. I think both sides probably still have some questions marks, and that’s probably fine but it would be great if he does succeed and he’s here for two or three seasons. That’s the type of impact that you’re looking for.”
The early returns are positive but there is still plenty for Schweinsteiger to achieve in order to reach Blanco’s level in his time here.