The Chicago Fire is 12 games in to 2016, roughly one third of the 34-game season. And with only two games on the calendar in June, it is a perfect time to reflect on how things have gone and consider where things might be headed.
The quick recap is things have been bad. Very bad. The Fire is once again the worst team in MLS with only two victories and a deflating 11 points. Despite the poor numbers, the season has been eventful in a sort of chaotic, sad, interesting way.
I'll do my best to rank the "top" moments and observations from the firs third of the season.
1. Chicago gets off to worst 10-game start in club history
This is one of the reasons the season has been difficult to watch. In an era of poor soccer for Chicago, 2016 started out as the worst of the worst. Seven points in 10 matches with five losses quickly cemented the Men in Red once again as the league punching bag. Opposing fans are probably starting just to feel sad for the Fire. I'd have to believe there is little joy left in even giving Fire fans a hard time at this point. To make matters worse the Colorado Rapids, who shared the basement with the Fire last year, are atop the Western Conference with eight wins and 28 points. The front office can't claim winning a building team takes time. The stats don't lie.
2. Getting to know Veljko Paunovic's system
Anytime a team gets a new coach, it has to be one of the top storylines of the season. In his rookie campaign, Veljko Paunovic has yet to establish himself as someone to hitch the wagon to long term. He has a great energy, perhaps overly positive public persona and a desire to play winning soccer. But saying win at all costs and actually trying to win at all costs are two very different things. After a spectacularly entertaining 4-3 loss to New York City FC, Paunovic went ultra conservative with a 5-3-2 lineup. The result was great defensively as the team had a shutout streak of 415 minutes, setting the club record. Unfortunately, the Fire offense was completely nonexistent, failing to get a shot on goal on two occasions. Paunovic might be the right man for the job, but he needs to find a much better balance.
3. Offensive Woes
You can't talk about this team without talking about how they try to bore the other team to death by not putting any shots whatsoever on goal. The Fire have 36 shots on goal this season. 36. Real Salt Lake, which has played only one more game than Chicago, has 21 MORE SHOTS ON GOAL! Chicago is far and away the most offensively anemic team in the league. If the Fire is going to lose the rest of the season, please just lose by trying to win. At the end of the day there is no point difference for losing 1-0 as opposed 4-3. Attack and be vulnerable. It's OK. Just please, get more shots on goal.
4. Shutout Streak
On the other hand, the team had a nice run of 415 minutes without giving up a goal. A lot of the credit for that streak can go to the delightful surprise that has been the center back pairing of Jonathan Campbell and Johan Kappelhof. The newcomers have had their gaffes, but they have been far better than I ever expected. A competent center back pairing has been an issue for the Fire for a while now, so having one problem solved is a relief.
5. David Accam is everything
The team is lost without their speedster. He has played in less than half the games yet is second on the team with three goals in only five appearances. More than once he has made something out of nothing with his speed, including the spectacular breakaway against Orlando City. Accam remains the number one reason to tune into the Fire, but there is a sense of inevitability surrounding his eventual departure. Accam is 25 and knows he is valued by teams with brighter futures than Chicago. Enjoy every moment with Accam, because there may not be many left.
6. Lampson/Johnson saga
There is perhaps no player as beloved as Sean Johnson. Shockingly, the multi-capped U.S. goalkeeper was told to grab some pine in favor of the journeyman Matt Lampson. Lampson's surprise start lasted for nine games, which included the club record shutout streak. He was impressive but also had some nervy moments including an absolute back breaking turnover against Montreal that led directly to a goal. Johnson has started the last three matches, where the team has gone 1-1-1. Time will tell if the Milkman is back for good.
The anti-Accam. Gilberto has not been able to do much of anything right. He has taken some of the most off-target shots ever seen at Toyota Park and has blundered passes at inopportune times. As the highest paid player on the team, the fan scrutiny is deservingly intense. Gilberto has taken a leave of absence from the team because his mind is not right, according to the club. A mixture of personal and professional reasons have kept the Brazilian from rejoining the team. Rumor has it the club is shopping Gilberto or possibly contemplating buying him out. Regardless, Gilberto is another in a long line of Designated Player misses and there is no reason to believe his eventual replacement will break the trend.
8. The youngsters can play
Campbell has been a revelation. The rookie has played with the physicality and confidence of a veteran in the demanding position of center back. While he is certainly the standout of the bunch, the Fire have a group of young players that have flashed potential. Rodrigo Ramos has been more good than bad as a right back with offensive skill. Brandon Vincent has been up and down but still has that national team potential. Joey Calistri has been a versatile and useful player, showing offensive and defensive capability. Alex Morrell is fast as hell.
9. No midfield threat
This team has no true central attacking midfielder. John Goossens has had some moments and Aruturo Alvarez had an incredible opening game against New York City FC but there is no consistent threat for the Fire in that position. Was trading Harry Shipp a good idea? I don't know. Shipp has three assists and no goals in roughly the same amount of minutes as Alvarez has three assists and one goal. But just because Shipp isn't lighting the world on fire does not mean Alvarez is the answer. The Fire have Michael de Leeuw coming in July and perhaps he can bring some life to that position. Without a consistent threat in the middle, teams will continue to make life extra hard on Accam and Kennedy Igboananike.