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Fire hopes World Cup boosts profile in Chicago sports landscape

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Updated: June 24, 2014 11:35PM

Fire chief operating officer Atul Khosla has seen the crowds at the Grant Park World Cup viewing parties. He has seen fans jam in front of the massive screen to cheer their hearts out for the U.S. team as it tries to survive the Group of Death.

That’s all encouraging for Khosla, but he doesn’t want Chicago’s soccer passion to end when a world champion is crowned next month. He wants it to move to Toyota Park and the Fire.

To make that happen, Khosla said the Fire business side began planning for the World Cup last year. They planned for their media buys and marketing campaign, which has included airing commercials during game broadcasts and putting players and team branding at Grant Park and other events. Mike Magee, the MLS MVP last year, and assistant coach Clint Mathis were on stage for both parties at halftime to break down the games while putting in the occasional plug for the club.

Khosla said the plan is working. The Fire have increased engagement with fans and have gotten access to more televisions. They also have received positive feedback.

“Our marketing strategy doesn’t end here,” Khosla said. “This is one big pillar, but this is a pillar. And we’ve got to aggressively market the club on an ongoing basis.”

Before the World Cup, soccer wasn’t discussed much by general sports fans. Even though the Fire’s announced attendance is up from last year, their social-media and online engagement is stronger and they’ve started a weekly radio show, the team is far from the mainstream conversation.

Khosla acknowledged that, and the Fire’s 2-4-8 record in MLS play might not attract the casual fan to Bridgeview for games such as the U.S. Open Cup match Wednesday against the Columbus Crew.

“Chicago’s not a dumb group of sports fans,” Magee said. “If we win and play hard and play well, the city will embrace us. We’ve kind of gotten the competitiveness down and we’ve got some young players, but we obviously need to get the soccer better. If we start winning, the fans will come.”

Even with their record, the Fire might attract some soccer fans eager to keep getting their fix of the sport after the World Cup. The club also is opening a soccer center next year that will help strengthen its place in the sports community.

But the Fire probably won’t get too many better chances than this summer, though Khosla said, “Our approach is not hinged on this one month.”

“Getting mind share, clearly this month will provide a boost,” Khosla said. “But getting mind share and keeping mind share needs to be done on a consistent ­basis.”

NOTE: Midfielder Alex received his U.S. green card Tuesday, giving him permanent resident status and opening an international roster spot for the Fire.

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