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Roundtable: Broken Slippers

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In the last Roundtable of the year, the Hot Time crew unpacks the playoff loss to NYRB & discusses the Amazon Stadium proposal

MLS: Eastern Conference Knockout Round-New York Red Bulls at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

James Bridget Gordon: Alright friends, Happy Monday. Welcome to the last Hot Time Roundtable of 2017. (Man, that feels sad to type.)

Alright so, the Fire got into the playoffs and then got whomped 4-0 by the Red Bulls. Normally this is where I would ask everyone What Went Wrong, but I'm not going to do that this time. For one, we all plainly saw what went wrong, and it's exactly the problems we've been talking about all year. And second, part of the reason why we dig into that question is so that hopefully there can be some learning from mistakes for the next game. There is no next game. The season's over.

Instead I want to zoom out a bit. There's been a debate for much of the season that only got hotter after the loss last Wednesday. The Fire played really well in the first half of the season, and from May to early July looked nigh invincible at times. And then the Gold Cup and ASG happened, and they just didn't have the same magic. (The injuries to key players didn't help.) So they stumbled in the second half of the season, pissing away their Supporters Shield chances by Labor Day and only hanging on to a home Knockout Round game by the skin of their teeth. And then they had back-to-back heavy losses at the end of the regular season and the playoff game.

So this is the question running around in cf97 circles right now, and it's the question I want to pose to all of you: are the Fire a fundamentally good team that struggled down the stretch and then faceplanted in the postseason? Or are they a fundamentally bad team that went on a hot streak early in the summer before regressing to the mean?

Sean Spence: I don’t think that stretch of great form was an illusion, despite the Fire’s inability to reproduce it again after the All-Star break. The Men in Red were genuinely playing fantastic football - but it took the best 13 guys healthy, on the same page and in good form for it to happen, which points out how perilously thin MLS rosters really are. Without Brandon and Matt at wingbacks, we don’t get width and can’t create chances. Without Dax, we get countered down the middle. Without Basti, we lose the ability to devise novel solutions on the fly, which was the hallmark of that winning streak, in my opinion. Without both João and Johan, there’s at least one central defender that pressers can confidently attack, which undoes the attempt to keep the ball. And so on.

It does illustrate the kind of investment - in both dollars and time - that’s necessary to build a stable, winning roster in MLS. By which I mean - Dear Andy: Reverse course and the knives come out.

Ruben Tisch: I think that they're a good team going through growing pains, like all teams do. Regardless of the star power, the core of the team is still quite young. Polster, Vincent, Mihailovic, ect. Are still kids, and they're still developing players.

Mike Tooley: I'd go with the first option. I think this is a good squad that peaked too soon. They were running on fumes down the stretch.

James Bridget: FWIW I'm inclined to agree. I also want to say that I understand where the folks on the other side of the argument are coming from.

Some of them, anyway. There are a few who just refuse to acknowledge the club do anything good or useful while Andell Holdings is in charge, and that nothing that happened this season matters because #HauptmanOut.

Mike: Yea, if you are going to go around and criticize everything the Fire do fine. But you have to also accept and acknowledge that they did some very good things this year.

The 'nothing that happened this season matters' comment made me think of a convo I had with some friends recently. Basically one of the arguments made was that if the Fire drop back down next year and miss they playoffs again, then this solid season we had truly doesn’t matter and it will be like it never happened. Would anyone agree with that? I think we had a nice season but we need to follow it up and move in the right direction again next year. Consistency is key.

James Bridget: My feelings on the ownership and executive leadership of the club are complicated and largely informed by the relationship between them and Hot Time. But I try to give credit where it's due. And the club put together a strong first team this season.

Mike: I am in the same boat and there will definitely be a number of Fire fans who will just refuse to see this season as a successful one even though they made some big strides.

Ruben: I completely agree. It's one thing to have a trophy or bust mindset with a good team, but with a team recovering from two wooden spoons in a row, you have to recalibrate your expectations.

Sean: I’m a little leery of your pre-emptive frustration with what you expect to hear from long-time Fire fans, Mike. That said, I’m hoping to see them build strength on strength over the offseason. So much rests upon which Homegrowns sign up.

James Bridget: Speaking of expectations, let's check in with our own. We're going to talk about this a bit more in our season postmortem later in the week, but just as a quick pass sort of thing: how did the team's performance this season match up with how you thought it would go back in February?

Ruben: Better. I thought they wouldn't make the playoffs. I'll take 3rd.

Mike: Slightly better. I think I said 5th or 6th the East way back when we did predictions. I certainly didn't expect there to be any talk of a supporters shield at any point of the season and the Fire were relevant in that conversation for a little while.

Sean: I don’t remember what I expected at the start of the season, frankly. Fourth in the East, maybe? But I’ll remember this team for being much better than that, and for demonstrating how fragile a well-functioning squad can be.

James Bridget: Yeah, I'll be honest, I thought we might sneak into the playoffs if we had some good luck come our way. I never imagined 3rd place, and I definitely didn't expect to be Shield contenders at any point. I'm honestly kind of blown away, even with our bad run of results in the latter half of the season.

So just to tie off the NYRB game: do you see any way the Fire could've pulled a win out? Or did they have too much working against them?

Ruben: They could have won. Pauno got the tactics wrong. They were outnumbered in midfield all night, and never adjusted.

Sean: Game state is such a huge issue with this team that I totally believe they could’ve won, and in some realities won fairly easily. The first goal was almost everything to this team; give them a fluky one to start off and it could’ve been quite a bit different. All of that is to discount the distinct impression that Jesse Marsch had his Red Bulls better prepared ...

James Bridget: I definitely think Pauno made a mistakes with tactics and then didn’t adjust quick enough. But I also think these have been problems with the team all year long. So in one respect I feel like they were doomed here— the same problems that plagued them against NYRB have been recurring themes, and if Pauno wasn’t able to make those adjustments earlier in the season I don’t think he could’ve done anything here.

So I want to end the Roundtable with a story that's just starting to gain some steam. Chicago is pushing hard to convince Amazon to build their second headquarters here, and apparently part of the proposal involves building a new soccer stadium. There were some new developments yesterday involving a recently-formed LLC and some trademark applications. The Fire may or may not be involved with the new stadium discussions, and so far no one who is or might be connected to this wants to talk about it.

What do you all make of this?

Sean: I have a good friend who swore to me, a year ago, that the MLS master plan for the Chicago market was to shutter the Fire and start over. He had shadowy sources that never materialized. But I can say that reading ‘Chicago Wind’ and ‘Chicago River’ had me thinking back to that conversation.

Ruben: I think it would be cool to have the team back in the city. But I'm worried about all the things that come with a stadium in the city. Parking and transportation, public financing of the stadium, etc.

But I'm not going to really pay much attention to this until pen is to paper and construction is starting.

James Bridget: What about the possibility that the Fire aren't involved in these plans? What if this is an expansion team?

Ruben: That's fine, I guess. I really don't have an opinion on this whatsoever. I think it's interesting, but beyond that, I'm not concerned about it.

James Bridget: That’s fair.

FWIW I really don't know what to make of this. I'm categorically against Amazon opening up shop in Chicago, and whatever's going on with soccer in the city I'd rather it happen without Amazon's involvement. But, we'll see, I guess.

James Bridget: We’re just doling out hot takes left and right today.

Ruben: I've got Hot Takes, but not about soccer.

James Bridget: Sure, let's hear it.

Ruben: CoolMatt69 is a better D.Va then Zunba, and the US has a shot at getting by South Korea in the quarterfinal this weekend.

James Bridget: It took a while, but you finally got some Overwatch takes in our Roundtable. Well played, Ruben. Well played.