If you go up to any set of Chicago Fire fans and ask them what their expectations for the team are, you might not get the same answer twice. For some fans nothing less than an MLS Cup + US Open Cup double every year will do. For others, qualifying for the playoffs is fine. Still others just want a team they can be proud of. And some won’t be happy until Andrew Hauptman sells the team, regardless of what happens on the pitch.
Whatever our expectations are, we’ve all been brought together by one thing: disappointment.
Since qualifying for the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs and getting bounced out by Houston, the Fire’s fortunes have cratered. A late run in 2013, led by the inimitable Mike Magee, came up just short of a postseason berth. 2014 was a year of hapless whatevering. 2015 and 2016 presented back-to-back Wooden Spoons as the Fire filled a niche as the worst team in Major League Soccer and a rife embarrassment to rapidly-dwindling crowds.
Something needed to change.
2017, finally, reminded us all of what this team could be, under the right circumstances. Signing Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty in the offseason offered glimmers of hope that the Fire front office meant was done fucking around. The April signing of the former Bayern Munich and Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger laid all doubt to rest.
The Fire needed some time to find their footing, but once they did they were, ever so briefly, unstoppable. They lost to the Red Bulls on April 29th and didn’t lose another game until July 22nd. They rocketed to the top of a highly competitive Eastern Conference. They were, for a time, legitimate contenders for the Supporters’ Shield. In short, they were unrecognizable to anyone who watched this team from 2013-2016.
But the good times couldn’t last. Some key injuries and other niggling issues caused the Fire to stumble after breaks for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the MLS All-Star Game. They managed to pull it together enough to finish in 3rd in the East, guaranteeing them a Knockout Round fixture at home.
They would go on to lose that game 4-0.
As ignominious as the end of the season was, the 2017 season represented a huge turnaround for a club that had become something of a laughing stock in American club soccer. There’s plenty of work to be done with this team to keep them competitive next season and in years to come.
But for the first time in far too long, Fire fans have reasons to be proud. And to be hopeful.
Here’s our review of the 2017 Chicago Fire season.
The Fire pulled off an incredible turnaround in 2017, blasting off from two consecutive Wooden Spoon seasons to the upper orbit of a competitive Eastern Conference and their first playoff berth in five years. If you could name one thing that was crucial to the Fire’s rejuvenation this year, what would it be?
Sean: I hate to be this reductive, but to me it’s as simple as putting a lot of resources into payroll - i.e., spending money on players. Last year’s structural work wasn’t followed by bargain-bin long shots, as has been the pattern since Blanco left - instead, they went and bought as close to a sure-thing central midfield as they could find, and paid a transfer fee for a guy who just won a Golden Boot in Europe. Then they didn’t blink when Basti fell into their laps, despite the plentiful built-in excuses. Weirdly, spending more money to buy better players with an eye toward creating a balanced roster made the team better. Here’s the crazy part: They could keep going, if they wanted. Will they wanna? All it costs is money.
Jack: The key to the Fire’s success this year was their outside backs. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were incredible this season. Both are sophomores in a league that is not kind to young players, and both, in all honestly, might have performed well enough to lay the foundation for a career with the USMNT. They were dynamic going forward, but more importantly played well defensively. For the first time in three seasons Chicago didn’t get bossed up and down the wings. Definitely two players that will be getting paid as this team goes forward.
Mike: Someone who could score goals. You have to go back to Ante Razov to find a Fire striker that found the net so consistently. Niko was banging in goals for much of the season. Yes, they weren’t always pretty but he’s a proven poacher with an eye for goal. He is one of the pieces that obviously changed the mentality of the squad from a losing one to a winning one. Signings like Niko, Basti and Dax clearly changed the level that this team could perform at. Those new additions plus the emergence of Polster and Vincent as outside made the difference.
Ruben: Their second year players finally improved, instead of stagnating or regressing. If you look at players like austin Berry and Harry Shipp, they didn’t improve at all on their first years in the league, and now find themselves playing elsewhere. Vincent and Polster not only improved, but they became invaluable to the way the team attacks and defend, so much so that the team is a title contender with them, and a pretender without them.
James Bridget: Two things: financial investment in the first team, and letting the soccer people run the soccer ops. While Basti took a pay cut to come to Chicago, he still didn’t come cheap by CFSC standards. Even if it involved some MLS Funny Money somewhere along the way, signing Basti (and Niko, and Dax) required legitimate capital investment. The kind that simply wasn’t forthcoming in 2014, or 2015, or 2016. You can build a successful team in MLS with kids and sharp scouting, you can do it without spending a lot of money, but you have to spend SOME money. The Fire were in a place where they needed to spend money and get some rock stars onto the roster, and they did it. That’s the difference between 10th and 3rd.
Are you satisfied with how far they got in the playoffs? What do you think they could have done differently?
Sean: We know so little of the dynamics behind the scenes that - while, of course, it’s possible to imagine things being different - it’s hard to say how things could’ve been different in this reality. Just to take one aspect up, what was the deal with Basti’s injury? Are they being guarded because he’s a legendary player and he’s awoken the same chronic injuries, and there’s no end in sight, and maybe he’s just done, Arne-style? I dunno.
The Red Bulls lay bare the weaknesses the last three months had explicated: Our goalkeeping situation is terrible and trending downward; the defenders have lost their passing rhythm after so many injuries; if we can’t find you in transition, we can’t break you down. The group mind is a fragile thing, and in the Fire’s high points it was palpable, the Men in Red so confident they almost appeared contemptuous. Greater depth of quality is required to keep that mental swagger around the team a constant. I assume this is the task facing Nelson for 2018.
Jack: I’m very disappointed they lost in the first round. Not necessarily because they lost, but because of how they lost. Chicago was damn near unbeatable at home this season, and they flat out laid an egg against New York. They had no bite to them whatsoever in the play-in game, and I couldn’t believe some of the decisions Paunovic made. The inexperience of both the squad and coaching staff showed in the playoffs, and, frankly, they didn’t deserve to win. I think next year, if they are able to keep the core of the team together, they will be a real contender to win the whole thing. They were 12 months ahead of schedule this season, but I’m still disappointed about how they lost.
Mike: Quite frankly, No. Getting destroyed at home by one of your rivals is just not acceptable. Someone could write a novella on the tactical errors made against the Red Bulls. But how does a squad come out so flat and so lifeless in such a big game. Fire fans have been through a lot in the last few seasons and the ones that have stood their ground through hard times deserve better. I think many including myself were excited about the knockout game just because the Fire took back to back wooden spoons. But in a league where over half the teams get a playoff place, getting a playoff place should be the bare minimum expectation year after year. Simply put, the Fire should have prioritized limiting Basti’s minutes far earlier in the season. He changes the way the team plays and not having him available for the last seven games of the season and the clubs first playoff game since 2012 does the Fire no good. The staff needed to be much more responsible in that aspect.
Ruben: Considering that I thought that they were not going to make the playoffs at all? Hell yeah I’m satisfied. Yes, it hurts to go gently into that good night like that, but at the same time, In every sport other than Basketball, playoffs are a crapshoot. The Fire had a 50/50 shot at winning that game, and they played like crap and lost.
James Bridget: I’m satisfied with the fact that they got there at all. Am I satisfied with how they did once they got there? Not really. Losing a home knockout round game is bad enough, but the manner in which they lost made it a tough pill to swallow. I would’ve much preferred a 1-0 loss or a 2-1 or something along those lines. Seeing the team that had such an incredible stretch of games earlier this season completely surrender within the first 20 minutes of their playoff run was disheartening. I would’ve liked to at least get to the Conference Semifinals, but if it had to end here I would’ve preferred it happen with a little dignity.
Which Fire player do you think had a breakout year in 2017?
Sean: I’m going to pull back the curtain and reveal that my first two thoughts - Matt Polster and Djordje Mihalovic - were already written up by associates, and geez would that be boring to just go ‘yeah, those guys.’ Polster’s advancement came as less of surprise to me than Mihalovic’s, as Matt was a proven pro with an obvious hunger to get on the field. Djordje was kinda playing with house money this year, and he made it come good - now do that again and again, kid, heh.
So I’m going to give a shout out to Joao Meira for demonstrating how important a passing centerback is in playing modern possession football. The expansive, fluid style that marked the Fire’s high point simply isn’t possible if there’s any weak links in the chain - as demonstrated by its ongoing dysfunction after injuries to the back line - but Meira at his best offered more than competence, often setting up sweeping attacking moves with pinpoint mid- and long-range passes to the flanks. Until the All-Star break (when the whole thing went pfft), Meira showed what he’s capable of as a defender in an attacking system - smart, aggressive, and switched-on.
Jack: Michael de Leeuw. The Lion was pretty good in his first season with Chicago, but didn’t really have the chance to get used to the team or the league in the half-season or so he played. This year, with a change in position, he was arguably the best player on the team. He worked harder than anyone else while he was on the pitch, and losing him at the end of the season didn’t help with their playoff hopes. De Leeuw really surprised me this season, and rightfully earned himself a spot in the conversations of MLS talking heads everywhere.
Mike: I’ll go with Djordje Mihailovic. The homegrown player is an excellent academy product and a really bright looking midfielder. At just 18 years of age he has a lot to learn but there should be a lot of optimism about his future. With injuries to Basti and Juninho, Mihailovic was called upon down the stretch and at many times looked like our danger man. It will be interesting to see how the Fire develop him. Id personally like to see play as an attacking midfielder/#10 in front of a solid pairing of Dax and another deeper midfielder. If the Fire get things right in the off season there is no reason why he can’t continue making appearances and developing. We also have to take into account the injury he sustained in the knockout game. As I am writing this there is still no word on the severity of his injury. (Note: It’s a ruptured ACL)
Ruben: I think there are a few players you could say. Djordje and Polster are two very good choices, but I’m going to go with Nemanja Nikolic. History has told me what to expect of European forwards who join the Fire, and it’s not good. (Shout out to Sherjill MacDonald) He won the golden boot in his first year, and just scores goals. That’s refreshing to see in Fire red.
James Bridget: Matt Freaking Polster! A capable CM who got bumped down the depth charts when Dax and Juninho and Basti showed up. Pauno decided to try him out at right back just to get him on the pitch. I figured for sure this would be a disaster. Nope! He flourished in the role, and he and Brandon Vincent ended up forming, for my money, the best wide defender tandem in the league. His ability to get forward and help overwhelm the opposition was absolutely crucial to the Fire’s attacking strategy this season. I’ll be honest, I never thought I’d be able to fill the hole in my heart that was left when Logan Pause retired; Matt Polster is making a strong case for himself.
How would you rate the Fire’s transfer business this year? (We’re including moves made after the season started, like Basti.)
Sean: The interesting thing about all the business this offseason, to me, is that really only Dax and Niko cost transfer funds. Getting Dax for $200k now and $200k in 2018 has to rate as something just on the legal side of fraud, an absolutely magnificent bit of business. The transfer fee for Nikolic was justified around his 15th goal, and the dude ended with 24. Then they got Juninho just for the promise to pay him, and stared and stared at Man U until they just released Basti on a free - Nelson Rodriguez had a very good first third of 2017. Every big move came good almost immediately.
It was the subtler moves he got so, so egregiously wrong that hamstrung this club in the end. Two names: Jorge Bava and David Arshakyan. This team desperately needed a solid, experienced leader in goal, and had decent salary budget to sign one - and what they got was Bava, a guy so clearly past it that I got phone calls from horrified supporters in the preseason. When Grandpa Bava broke down (or was shown the bench in shame, take your pick) we were back to status quo ante from a Wooden Spoon side, Matt Lampson, your starting ‘keeper, but with Bava’s $260k salary carved out of the budget, thankyaverymuch.
Then we come to Arshakyan, whose presence on this roster exists as a sort of traveling roadshow demonstrating the basic incompetence of the Fire’s scouting apparatus. Throughout his two years (!) in Chicago, Arshakyan has never successfully come across as even minimally prepared to compete on this level. His hilarious 10-minute substitute appearance in the playoff game is representative - the guy looks like a small forward from a Division III hoops team who’s desperately trying to convince the cute guy that he plays soccer, too. So maybe if we think of it that way, it’s better - because this dude has soaked up $15 thousand a month and an international slot to maybe star in a crappy John Hughes reboot while we thought he was legit.
Despite these gaping holes in the roster, Nelson crossed his arms and nodded sagely all through the summer transfer period, finally adding a backup keeper at the last minute. The holes stayed the holes. The season went pfft. Were his hands tied financially? Were international slots a problem? Gee, is managing a roster hard?
Jack: Nelson Rodriguez is the best general manager in the league. Like, it helps that he helped make all of the rules on how this stuff in MLS works, but he sure does know what he’s doing. Hands down, though, the best business Chicago did was Nemanja Nikolic. Basti and Dax were important to this team, but they were able to get both of them during their respective offseasons. The fact that they were able to lure Nikolic away Legia Warsaw in the middle of their season was amazing to me. It’s even more amazing when you consider the fact that he had scored 40 goals in 56 games for them. Overall, I give Rodriguez & Co. an A+ on the business they did this year.
Mike: Nelson Rodriguez and Co had a nice year in terms of signings. Going from dead last to the playoffs is completely doable in MLS. It just requires a few new signings to revamp the squad. Basti was undoubtedly the big name but since I am not sure he’s coming back the Dax and Nikolic signings were best IMO. Niko was a proven goal scorer and Dax was a battle-hardened midfielder with plenty of MLS experience. These two pieces will be vital if the Fire are to make the playoffs again next year.
Ruben: I’d give it a B-minus. While Basti, and Dax were fantastic signings, The misses on George (GIANT!) Bava and Juninho were huge misses. I also think not calling back Joey Calistri during the August unraveling to bolster the wings was a rather obvious miscue that could have gotten the Fire a playoff bye.
James Bridget: This is super obvious but for me the Fire’s transfers begin and end with Basti. Yes, Dax was an incredibly important move, and I think we would’ve been a strong team if it were just him and Niko and a smattering of others. But Schweinsteiger lit up the marquee. It signaled that the Fire were finally done fucking around. And yes, he made the team better almost every time he lined up.
What surprised you most about this team and/or this season?
Jack: Djordje Mihailovic. I cannot believe that an 18-year-old actually broke into this team. Young players are often not treated well in this league, and I’m really happy for Mihailovic. Wishing him a speedy recovery!
Mike: Nothing really surprised me much. I was thinking this roster could make the playoffs and they did. If anything maybe just the fact they were third in the East. That is a couple places higher than I expected.
Ruben: THEY MADE THE PLAYOFFS!
James Bridget: I’ve been joking this year that Andrew Hauptman had a bit of a face turn. He started spending money on the first team (finally), he’s letting soccer people run the soccer side of the club operations (say what you will about N-Rod, he at least knows the sport and isn’t just a business exec with a soccer title). He even came down on the right side of the anthem protest issue! I don’t want to pull a Don or anything but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much AH stepped up this year for the club. And I realize for a lot of fans and media outlets (like us) and other stakeholders, there’s no real repairing the relationship with Hauptman. I get that. But I feel like this past year demonstrates that he might have the capacity to change, and that maybe things can get better. And as the Precourt-Columbus scandal shows, things can definitely be worse.
How would you rate Pauno’s job this season? Are you satisfied? Should he stay on for next season? Or do the Fire need a change?
Sean: So hard to say. If Serbia nabs him, I’d feel like they were possibly solving some problems for us. But it’s hard to say, because we have zero access. All we see is what they show us. So we have to sift for clues.
My clues are as follows: The team was demonstrably stupider once Basti wasn’t on the field. All that fancy place-swapping and calm possession just vanished like a mirage, and we were back to looking a whole lot like a midtable MLS side tactically - a little slow on the turn, tending to substitute energy for insight.
There were times during the year that the divisions within the roster - Basti’s undisguised contempt for Niko’s limitations, say, or Joao Meira’s sense of moody isolation - showed up in ways that had me questioning Pauno’s man management. I don’t get the sense that Velko tries to get the various personalities in the squad aimed toward the same goals - he sees the power dynamic as a simple one - do what I say. Which is, of course, terribly limited.
I will say that his contempt for the opinions of the players allowed him to get Djordje the minutes he needed, even when he was struggling and not looking the part and the older players he was displacing were complaining in every direction. If the Fire bring in a massive Homegrown haul in the offseason - which is the scenario of my dreams, frankly - the keeping Pauno might suddenly jump up as a priority for the Men in Red.
Jack: I think he should definitely stay on for next year. I also think he needs to get out of his own way a little bit. Sometimes he makes very questionable decisions with his lineups and substitutions, and, well, he’s going to have to stop doing that because it cost Chicago points this season. If he doesn’t win silverware next season, though, I think we could have a serious conversation about moving on from him.
Mike: Yes, I think he should stay on for next year. The leash should not be very long though. With the signings that came in the expectation should have been to grab a playoff spot and we achieved that. However, the goal next year should be to build on that. A knock out round loss again next season wouldn’t be an achievement in my eyes. We need a playoff win or two. If things are not looking good during the campaign I wouldn’t be surprised if Pauno was on the hot seat.
Ruben: I have questions about his man management and game planning skills, but I think he should stay. This was his second year on his first ever job at a senior level, so I’m willing to give him another year. As others have said though, his leash should be short, and N-Rod should have a list of names and dossiers at his disposal, just in case.
James Bridget: I’m going to tentatively say he should stay. I reserve the right to change my mind during preseason. None of this to say he didn’t do a great job this season, he absolutely did. But I still have concerns that 2017 was a fluke, and that Pauno might not be able to build on this year. I give him a ton of credit for leading this team through the end of the Dark Times and back to the promised land. I just really want to see what he does with this upconing preseason.
Looking ahead to next season, what should be the Fire’s #1 priority to match or exceed this season’s accomplishments?
Sean: Yes, they need to sign a goalkeeper. They’ll have a bunch of money available. I assume they’ll sign a goalkeeper.
What I’d like to see - as I alluded above - is a badass class of Homegrown players as the next sign the Fire are a franchise on the up. I’m talking Grant Lillard and Cam Lindley before Christmas. Boom - we just replaced Joao and Juninho, like-for-like, for (lemme do the math here) ZERO DOLLARS AGAINST THE BUDGET with guys 10 YEARS YOUNGER. Suddenly there’s a whooooole lotta slots and money to get a keeper and fill the other gaps. Get those guys around Dax et al as soon as and as much as possible. That’s what I’d do.
Jack: This is a no-brainer: the Fire need a goalkeeper. Matt Lampson was not good this season. Someone like Sean Johnson, who can come up with big saves when his team needs it, would’ve made a huge difference for Chicago this year. Lampson undoubtedly cost the Fire some points this season, and I think his replacement will be the team’s #1 priority in the offseason.
Mike: This one is tough since I am not sure if Basti is staying or not. There is one glaring hole regardless though, Goalkeeper. We need to find a solid and reliable keeper. Lampson was suspect many times throughout the season. Cleveland and Sanchez may one day get their opportunity but we need to find a top goalkeeper to make a run at this again. The second area which needs to be addressed to me is finding an elite number 10. Someone with a little flair who could play behind Niko and also drift out to the RW position when needed would have done wonders for this team. I want Mihailovic to be given opportunities next year in a similar role but he’s 18 years old. We need to find someone creative to play in between the lines. So for me GK, CAM.
Ruben: A goalkeeper. Full stop end of story. They need someone to keep them in games when they play like crap. (And they will play like crap sometimes next year. It’s the nature of the beast.)
James Bridget: Either find a way to keep David Accam or get a viable replacement. I’d even say that’s a bigger priority than goalkeeper. We need a third magic-maker to complement Basti and Niko, and if it’s not going to be him then we’ve got to try and make lightning strike twice. Also, pay Basti. He already gave up a lot to come here, he wants to be here, keeping him on the roster is the best outcome for all parties. Pay the man.