I had two big questions for myself when preparing to write this preview. Question #1: When’s the last time Chicago Fire, sorry, Chicago Fire FC, could legitimately be described as a “good” team in the MLS patheon? Question #2: How do I write an interesting preview piece about a club that no one who plays MLS Fantasy on the regular actually thinks has players worth rostering?
Other folks will have to be the judge of how well I answered the second question. Thankfully though, the team’s website has an extensive and passionately written recap of every season in the club’s history which enabled me to offer a decent answer to the first question. The last time the Fire were, IMO, officially “good” was 2017. In 2017 Nemanja Nikolic won the Golden Boot. That same year the team finished third in the Supporter’s Shield standings, were seeded third in the Eastern Conference playoffs and…lost in the knockout round to NY Red Bulls. Other than 2017 it’s basically been a lost decade for the franchise. The last time the Fire actually won a playoff game? 2009.
The standard and near universal take on the Fire going into 2020 is somewhere between “It’s gonna be a dumpster fire.” and “They should at least have a better season than expansion sides Nashville and Miami.” New coach? Check. New Sporting Director? Check. New Technical Director? Check. New branding? Check. Missing big pieces from the last few years like Schweinsteiger, McCarty, Gaitan and the aforementioned Nikolic? Check.
Yep, it doesn’t look good. But let me tell you a quick story about an MLS side that was filled with lots of “new stuff”, projected not to do much of anything, and wound up winning the MLS Cup and, six days later, the US Open Cup. That side? The 1998 Chicago Fire. I had season tickets for the Fire’s inaugural season at Soldier Field (My dad still has, and wears, the commemorative hat I got for buying said tickets.) The sightlines were garbage, especially down in the corners, but the soccer was pretty damn good. During one stretch the team won eleven straight games. Not “went unbeaten” in eleven straight, “won” eleven straight. Bob Bradley patrolled the sidelines. (Yes, that Bob Bradley. Michael Bradley was like eleven so I suppose he was also probably patrolling the sidelines as well.) Peter Nowak bossed fools in the midfield. Lubos Kubik and C. J. Brown anchored the backline. Zach Thornton minded the nets (except when Jorge Campos was making promotional appearances). Ante Razov and Josh Wolff played up top. Future NY Red Bulls coaches Jesse Marsch and Chris Armas (IMO the best defensive midfielder in USMNT history to never play in a World Cup) locked down defensive midfield.
So you see, anything can happen in MLS. The Fire will probably be solidly mediocre to poor again this year, but you never know… Also, what’s with all the hating on the franchise’s rebrand? It’s a logo and some colors people not a cure for cancer or a massive overhaul of the tax code. It’s not worth getting worked up about.
Tactics & Key Players
Based on the way things have looked during the Fire’s preseason matches I suspect that new manager Raphael Wicky will roll out a 4-3-3 to start the season. One caveat to this prediction: The team played a 4-5-1 in their final preseason match against the Galaxy.
Goalkeeper: Kenneth Kronholm returns for his second season minding the nets, but he went off injured in the Fire’s preseason finale so keep an eye out for his backup, MLS / USL journeyman Bobby Shuttleworth.
Defenders: There should be some decent continuity along the backline. Jonathan Bornstein, Johan Kappelhoff and MLS’ Rodney Dangerfield, Francisco Calvo, all return. Although he’s listed as a midfielder Brandt Bronico has spent time along the backline during preseason. The club also signed Yugoslvian defender Boris Sekulic in the off-season.
Defensive Midfielders: Bronico spent alot of time in defensive midfield last season. The team also has Michael Azira and homegrown Mauricio Pineda on the roster.
Attacking Midfielders: Winger Przemyslaw Frankowski and US international Djordje Mihailovic are set to return. The team also added La Liga veteran Alvaro Medran who’s expected to take over Gaitan’s role in the center of the park. Nineteen year old Argentine Ignacio Aliseda was just signed as the team’s second DP, but he basically had no preseason with the team so I think it’ll be a while before he gets effectively integrated into the side.
Forwards: MLS veteran C.J. Sapong and new DP signing Robert Beric are expected to handle most of the duties up top, but Kiwi Elliot Collier had a strong preseason. Fabian Herbers, acquired in the off-season from Philadelphia, is also kicking around on the depth chart.
Schweini, Dax McCarty and Nico Gaitan are gone. So is Veljko Paunovic. In addition to the rebrand, new owner Joe Mansueto has brought the team back to the city. This season they’ll be playing matches at Soldier Field instead of out in the ‘burbs in Bridgeview.
Key stat (of sorts): I just read through all of those “Ranking the Top Players for MLS Fantasy in 2020” articles that Reid Connelly and Schuyler Redpath have posted over on the MLS website. Other than Calvo and Beric no Fire player made it onto any of the lists. Let’s just say I doubt I’ll have any Fire players on my roster for the first few weeks of the season. But, who knows? If the team strings together some decent results and the matchups look promising it might be worth taking a flyer on Sapong, Beric, Medran, Collier, and possibly Aliseada once he gets integrated into the team.
Based on what I’ve gathered from the preseason matches here’s how I think the team may line up against the Sounders on Sunday, March 1.