After a hot start to 2017, the Chicago Fire faded down the stretch. Can the Men in Red put it together for a whole season?
Off-Season Grade: B
Is it possible to add little to a team and significantly improve it? You’re about to find out that answer, Fire faithful! In previous years, under the late, great Frank Yallop, wholesale roster line-changes were a common feature. But those days are over. Maybe, just maybe, deep down inside you miss Yallop’s English accent. You miss all seventy five long balls from Lovell Palmer per match. Just say it and we can move on.
Yet, Veljko Paunovic has a team that is more or less his, finally. His loss of David Accam was soothed by the $1.2 million in allocation money sent westward from Philadelphia. With King David gone, Matt Polster is presently the longest tenured player in Chicago at three seasons. He’s the only member of the Fire who might remember what it’s like to play alongside Shaun Maloney. Most others have erased it from their memory. Basti’s presence helps.
And to further that rapid loss of memory, the Fire filled a Joao Meira-sized hole in the defense with homegrown center-half Grant Lillard. Rafael Ramos, a Portuguese right back, was acquired from Orlando to duel for minutes with erstwhile utility man and official friend of Total MLS, Matt Polster.
However, the biggest defensive question will be who ends up starting alongside Dutchman Johan Kappelhof. Jonathan Campbell, Lillard, Kevin Ellis (trialist), and Christian Dean do not all inspire confidence on name recognition alone, but one of them will be beside Johan for better or for worse.
Campbell recently suffered a facial fracture against Nashville SC and is out of the equation for the foreseeable future. Kevin Ellis is by far the most experienced of the lot, despite only playing five games for SKC last year. It wouldn’t be out of the question to hear his player introduction before the Fire open up the 2018 season.
Chicago’s midfield only has three additions to speak of. Accam’s sizable void was filled by Aleksandar Katai, a Serbian winger on loan from La Liga’s Alaves. It’s necessary that he strikes up a partnership like that of Accam and Nikolic from early 2017. Mo Adams, a 10th overall SuperDraft pick and first Englishman in a Fire shirt since Matt Watson, comes to the club with only one goal under his belt in two years at Syracuse. He is a Generation Adidas signing.
Tony Tchani is the most recent midfield addition (as of today, 2/28). The Fire snapped him away from the Whitecaps (with TAM heading the other direction), adding to what is already a crowded center midfield in Chicago. A Cameroon international, Tchani will have to fight for time alongside Schweinsteiger and McCarty. Perhaps this means that Matt Polster’s hopes of returning to the center of midfield are virtually eliminated. Either way, he is experience that certainly could not hurt the Fire’s depth in that position.
The only forward addition the Fire have made in the 2018 transfer window is Jon Bakero, an attacker out of Wake Forest and recipient of the NCAA’s MAC Hermann Trophy as the top player in college soccer. He was the fifth overall draft pick, and one for which the Fire even traded up with Minnesota to acquire. Any SuperDraft selection at this point must make an effort to become as useful as the last quality pick the Fire made: Matt Polster.
Overall, offseason business leaves the Fire roster at a mere 22 players. There are only two goalkeepers on the roster (Stefan Cleveland and Richard Sanchez), who have a total two (dos, zwei, due) MLS appearances combined. Additionally, considering the fact that Jonathan Campbell will be out for the foreseeable future, that number is now at 21.
Whether or not trialists like Alan Gordon, Albert Ruiz, Kevin Ellis, or Omar Castro find their way onto the final roster, the Fire’s depth is a vulnerability. And their keeper situation might be their biggest flaw.
But given Pauno’s 2017 success story, and despite the awful and sudden exit from the MLS playoffs in 2017, Fire fans have every reason to be just as optimistic as last season. An international legend, who for all intents and purposes loves the city of Chicago, is still around for another year. A golden boot winner still has yet to be whisked away by European offers.
They have kept the core of a competitive side in tact. And that is where the new storyline begins: establishing long-term consistency. Remarkably, if Paunovic survives the season he will become the club’s third-longest tenured manager. But, the Fire receive a ‘B’ simply for not doing anything outlandish to improve to the squad, and not hampering it severely all at the same time.
Key Player: Nemanja Nikolic
“Can he do it again?” is, truthfully, the only question that matters. Much of the Fire’s defensive deficiencies were glossed over in 2017 by all 24 of the Hungarian’s goals. If he does it again he can solidify himself alongside the likes of names that cost far more than $3 million, such as Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa. He was able to stay healthy for the majority of 2017.
Given Michael de Leuuw’s slow recovery from an ACL injury sustained last September and Luis Solignac’s limited role, the Fire are still heavily dependent upon Nikolic. But, he already stayed healthy and bagged a grip of goals for Chicago once. Why can he not do it again?
Best Case Scenario: Chicago bows out in the knockout round makes the East Semifinal
Pauno’s team simply choked. The swift defeat handed to the Fire by the Red Bulls last October was over as quick as it started. This writer might have just sat down fifteen minutes into the match to find the Fire down 2-0. But anything above a knockout round loss can be deemed as a success. It is progress, even if only a little.
Taking a step back, it is important to consider that the club hasn’t had stability and success over any extended period of time since 2012-13. Furthermore, the Fire haven’t made it beyond a knockout round since 2009.
In that sense, success is reaching that semifinal and making Dennis Hamlett proud.
Bold Prediction: The Fire remain injury-less and do the above.
There are few ways that Andrew Hauptman can salvage a modicum of trust between himself and the supporters. Perhaps a tenured coach with two consecutive successful seasons under his belt is his way in.
But, even the oft-disdained owner and fans can agree that it is almost certainly uplifting to see Toyota Park full again, and not just on Independence Day. Results. Basti. Niko. Repeat.