An American entrepreneur with deep Italian roots, Joe Mansueto is bringing the indomitable spirit of his ancestors to bear on his latest challenge: the transformation of Chicago’s Major League Soccer team.
Local billionaire Joe Mansueto made headlines last September when he bought the Chicago Fire, and the dramatic changes he has made to the city’s Major League Soccer team have kept them both in the news ever since.
This may seem like the latest chapter in a great American success story that began when Mr. Mansueto attended the University of Chicago and continued when he built a major investment firm from scratch and then pledged to give away half his wealth.
But our tale actually has its roots two generations earlier, with Donato Mansueto, a poor laborer from Montefalcone, just northeast of Naples. In the early 1900s, Donato traveled back and forth from Italy to America for a decade, toiling on the railroads and at factory jobs to save enough money to bring his family to the Chicago area.
That indomitable immigrant spirit was passed along to his Italian-born son, Mario, who saw even greener pastures beyond the countless high-paying manufacturing jobs that were available after World War II. Instead, he pursued a medical degree from the University of Illinois and became a successful ear, nose and throat physician in Northwest Indiana.
That drive was inherited by Mario’s son Joe, who founded Morningstar Ventures in his home in 1984 with $80,000, and then painstakingly built it into a global enterprise that earned him a spot among Forbes World Billionaires.
So what would possess one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs to do something as pazzo as purchasing a local soccer club? In a word, family. But the inspiration came from closer to home than you might think.
“I got to love the sport first through my three kids,” he explains. “As they played it growing up, I thought of just how incredible it was in terms of their development. They exercised, had fun and learned life lessons. Then I started to watch professional soccer, and I was hooked.”
As popular as soccer is in Italy and around the world, Mr. Mansueto readily admits the sport has a long way to go in America. And yet, he still sees reasons for hope. “It’s 90 minutes of nonstop action, and it fits in very well with the modern lifestyle. I think soccer has a great future in this country, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
He also sees his involvement in the team as a way of giving back to a city he loves.
“Chicago has incredible sports fans, and we need a world-class soccer club,” he says. “I’d like to take the club to the next level and give that back to a city that has meant so much to me.”
Mr. Mansueto is taking over a team with a storied past and an uncertain future.
The Chicago Fire set Major League Soccer ablaze in their inaugural season, winning the MLS Cup Championship in 1998 as well as the U.S. Open Cup, which pits professional and amateur soccer teams against each other in a single-elimination tournament.
Since then, the team has never won another MLS Cup, and it has taken home only four more U.S. Open cups, in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2006. Reduced to embers, the Fire sputtered through their lowest average game attendance last season. While other MLS clubs were drawing huge crowds and adding victorious hardware to their shelves, the Fire and their fans were running on fumes.
Enter Joe Mansueto and, with him, the winds of change.
The team is now in local hands after spending its entire history under the sway of parties and individuals who lived far from Chicago. The front office has been revamped, and a new head coach and assistants have been hired. A new squad boasts younger players with more speed. And Fire home games will once again be played in Soldier Field, the site of the team’s former glory.
There has been a rebranding as well. The Chicago Fire Soccer Club will now be known as the Chicago Fire Football Club, embracing the European name for the sport and reflecting the team’s commitment to becoming an ambassador for the global game in Chicago.
The crest has been transformed as well. Once patterned after the city’s fire department logo, it now sports two mirror-image clusters of three triangles, with a red cluster pointing downward and a gold cluster pointing upward.
“As we head into Soldier Field with a fresh start, it was an opportune time to change the crest,” Mr. Mansueto explains. “I love our name: the Chicago Fire. It’s the story of our city. The city burned down in 1871, and the people of Chicago rolled up their sleeves. Not only did they rebuild it, but they built it bigger and better. It’s that spirit of pushing through in the face of adversity that the crest represents. It has downward flames representing the Chicago fire and, emerging from that, is a victor, a champion, and hence, a crown. I love that as a metaphor for our club and for our city.”
It’s reminiscent of the tale of the phoenix, a mythical bird that bursts into flames only to arise, renewed, from its own ashes. And what better venue for the rebirth of the Chicago Fire than Soldier Field, with its Greco-Roman columns harkening back to the Colosseum, where gladiators battled to the death millennia ago.
Imagine the phoenix rising above the pillared stadium and flying in triumph along the lakeshore. Now picture Donato Mansueto gazing upon that edifice for the first time. How his spirit must have soared as he thought back on the grand architecture of the homeland he left behind. And imagine how it would have felt to know that his grandson would be sending his own team of warriors into battle there. Soccer may not be a match played to the death, but Italians live and die by their teams, with success or failure shaping our joy, sadness and very identity.
As high as Mr. Mansueto has soared into the corporate stratosphere, he has never lost touch with his roots, traveling to Italy frequently and gladly sharing stories of his journeys. “Certainly, Italian values — the closeness and importance of famiglia, love of life, good food and warmth — have pervaded my outlook on life,” he explains.
It’s something invisible we all as Italian Americans share. It’s in our core and in our hearts. It’s the drive we inherited from our ancestors, the passion we display in the things we do. Joe Mansueto isn’t Italian because of all the trips he has taken to Italy. He’s Italian because of how he lives his life. He’s simpatico.
He plans on attending every Fire home game with his family and as many away games as he can. “The team is a family, and everyone is a member,” he shares. “I encourage the readers of Fra Noi to become a part of that family.”
And so our tale continues, with a new chapter being written every time the club takes to the field. Go Fire!
The above appears in the April 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.