Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise the Chicago Fire has confirmed that it will return to Soldier Field in 2020, with the team’s new owner and general manager, Joe Mansueto, stating the news makes the “best worst kept secret official”.

Speculation over the Fire’s return to the stadium it called home from 1998 until 2001, and then from 2003 to 2005, has been rife in recent months with the announcement being made at an event held yesterday (Tuesday).

The Chicago Fire is now scheduled to open its 2020 season at Soldier Field on March 21 against Atlanta United. All regular season home games will be played at Soldier Field, with the deal being setup to ensure all games will be scheduled so as not to interfere with the home games of primary tenant, NFL American football franchise the Chicago Bears.

The new agreement is for an initial term of three years, with two additional three-year terms and two additional one-year terms. SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois has been home to the Fire since 2006, and the team will continue to utilise the stadium as a training facility and headquarters for youth development programs.

“Our club needs to be located centrally where all of Chicago can enjoy it,” said Mansueto. “Soldier Field is the perfect location. In my view, part of being a world-class city today is having a professional soccer team located downtown. You see what’s happening in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Their Major League Soccer teams are bringing their cities together and have become an important part of the cultural fabric of the city. We will make that happen for Chicago too.”

The Fire moved a step closer to playing at Soldier Field last month as it announced that owner Andrew Hauptman had sold his controlling interest in the club to Mansueto. Hauptman oversaw the conclusion of an agreement between the Fire and the Village of Bridgeview allowing the team to move back to Chicago. The Fire received approval from the Chicago Park District board to move toward an agreement to play at Soldier Field.

The Fire in July reached an agreement with Bridgeview for an amended lease deal that allowed it to explore playing future games at other local stadia. The deal included a “significant” contribution from the Fire towards the development of a multi-sport recreation and entertainment centre in Bridgeview, as well as higher annual lease payments to the village.

Mansueto added at a press conference: “Bridgeview was terrific for us, but to take this club to the next level in terms of reaching all of Chicago we need to be located centrally. I think it will change the whole tenor of the club and what it means to the broader Chicago region.”

MLS had adopted a strategy of encouraging its teams to develop soccer-specific stadia, but that stance has relaxed of late. The Fire will now return to sharing the 61,500-seat Soldier Field with the Bears and MLS commissioner Don Garber is convinced the move from the 20,000-capacity SeatGeek Stadium will prove a success.

Garber said: “We have been focused on soccer-specific stadiums, but we have two really big stadiums that are in the urban core which are not soccer-specific, Atlanta and Seattle, and they are working pretty darn well.

“We understand that markets have unique needs and communities have different focus 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 hard to achieve.”

He added: “The fan research we’ve carried out has demonstrated Chicago is a top two or three soccer market in North America. We’ve seen the success of MLS All-Star Games, and Gold Cup Games and Copa America matches, and are convinced the market exists. The Chicago Fire have to work hard to recapture that interest in their club.”

Image: Chicago Fire