James Bridget Gordon: Alright friends. We're at a little over the midpoint of the season and the Fire are still on break for the Gold Cup. While we have a little time, let's take stock of what the season has brought so far.
So first, be honest: did any of you think the Chicago Fire would be on top of the Supporters' Shield table in July?
Sean Spence: Top? No way. Better, certainly.
Jake Payne: I think its safe to say nobody thought the Fire would be on top.
Alex Picchietti: Not a chance, IMO. Improvement was expected, but this was completely unpredictable.
Jake: I think the most shocking thing is the consistent play. After that 4-0 against Atlanta United they've really kept playing consistently. They even did well the games without Dax and Accam. And Schweinsteiger for that matter.
Jack Kelly: I'm in Belgium currently, so here's my take on the season so far while I have a minute: the Fire are really damn good. I thought they were going to be good, but nowhere near this good. And let me clarify what I mean by good. I predicted that the Fire would finish comfortably in a playoff spot and maybe stir the pot—that, to me, is good. But, I've had the pleasure of watching their first half of the season and that definition has changed. Good, to me, now means best in the league. That every team should be afraid to play us, and that we very well could be taking home silverware this year. Like I said, they're damn good.
Also, NR is a genius. He and Pauno have done everything right to put this team together, and are even utilizing our USL affiliate to the fullest. Chicago is back on the soccer map thanks to those two.
Sean: Their hit-rate on the players they’ve brought in is much higher than what we’ve grown used to - I’m thinking in particular of that offseason where they brought in, like, five Uruguayans who didn’t stick. Another encouraging sign (especially this season) is that they’ve had the courage to reverse course when something isn’t working out - Bava, Harrington, Arshakyan, etc.
James Bridget: They (thankfully) haven't had to deal with any huge injury concerns, but even when it's come up the Fire have seemed to just... find ways around it.
Jorge Bava has been dealing with that elbow thing for a few months, but it didn't matter because Matt Lampson stepped up in a big way. We've had weeks where Accam or Basti had to sit out and the team found a way to get a result anyway. Considering how fragile this team has been in previous seasons, that's just remarkable.
Jake: I don't think Lampson has been getting the credit he deserves, hes been exactly what the Fire need. Someone to stop the occasional shot or two. Also deserving credit is Kappelhof.
Alex: And to that point, it seems like everything has gone right. From Vincent taking a big step forward, Lampson and Polster slotting in and doing a great job, Niko arriving just in time...
James Bridget: Which brings me to my next question: which Fire player would you say has been the biggest surprise so far?
Jake: So obviously Niko is really good and he was bound to make an impact, but I would have never guessed he'd be at the break being the golden boot leader.
Sean: I was just glad we bought a striker who scores goals, not a guy who looks like maybe, someday, given some care and nurturing he might score goals.
James Bridget: I'm also going to say Niko. I was really skeptical about him, because we've been burned by "no-name" DP strikers from Eastern Europe & South America before and I was seriously expecting him to be another JLA. I was completely wrong about him, and I'm absolutely delighted to be wrong.
Coming up at a respectable 2nd place in terms of surprise packages-- Matt Polster at RB.
Mike Tooley: Biggest surprise for me has been the emergence of Polster at RB. During preseason I was skeptical about him moving over there as I wanted to see him develop at CM. But he's taken his chance at RB and ran with it, very impressive.
I'll give Basti an honorable mention as a surprise player. I never doubted his quality but I have been pleasantly surprised in regards to the minutes that he has been able to play. A lot of people were questing how fit he would be when he came over and he's excedeed my expectations in that regard.
Sean: I completely underestimated Basti. I didn’t realize - AT ALL - how thoroughly he’d metamorphosed into a German Xavi, a guy who thinks about the game from this almost orbital perspective. He’s so much better than I realized that I’m a little ashamed, frankly.
Alex: Hard to say anything but Nikolic. In a transition year, to be leading the league in goals scored (and 33% more than 2nd?!) is insane. And then he says he isn't even playing his best soccer yet.
James Bridget: Yeah, let's not forget that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Fire. (Although I suppose every year for the last 4-5 years has been a rebuilding year.)
So we've talked about the What and the Huh a little bit, but I want to try and take a stab at the Why. Why have the Fire been able to turn things around so much this season? Right combo of players? Good timing? Luck?
Alex: I think it's a combo of good players and a manager/coach that knows how to use them.
There was a game earlier in the season that Pauno took off Accam when the Fire were pressing for a late goal, and Accam looked pretty angry. (It was either the NYRB or the LA game.) Pauno stuck to his guns and Accam came back even more hungry the next match, and the Fire have taken like 26 of 30 points since then.
Point being, Paunovic has been the man for this job.
Mike: There are a ton of reasons, but if I had to narrow it down it would simply be that Nelson and Pauno struck gold on all three of the big signings. Dax, Basti and Niko have all been excellent. Its pretty rare that you'd sign three players and that they would all work out.
Going into further detail— two of those signings are central midfielders. Throw in Juninho and you have a completely new midfield makeover. It is the most important area of the field to control so maybe its no surprise as to the Fire's rapid ascent into a contender.
Ruben Tisch: I don't think Pauno gets enough credit. Last year was tough for him. He had to settle in to an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar rules. He had a team that really didn't care save Accam/Polster/Kappelhof, and seemed to just be another foreign coach failure in a long list of MLS foreign coach failures. This year he has a team that believes in what he's trying to accomplish tactically, better players, and while, yes, he sometimes makes errors in subs and things like that, this is his only his second year in his first senior level job. He's outperforming his station.
And the biggest surprise player wise for me is João Meira. He wasn't just meh last year, he was so actively bad, he was benched for Jonathan Campbell last season. In just 6 months he went from "I never want to see him on the team sheet" to "I hope he starts every match.” Jack did a great write up for us on his performance last week.
Jack: Yeah I've been very happy with Joao this season. I'll be sad to see him leave if he goes back to Portugal.
Sean: I mean, this roster is constructed with a whooooole lot more money than the previous editions, so it’s important to keep that in mind - but damn, have they gotten so, so much right. The central midfield reconfiguration has completely changed the way the team approaches games, and that competence seems to spread outward from the middle. The defenders communicate well and anticipate each other. The movement in the attack is compelling and creates chances reliably. It’s just all come good.
Alex: Question for the room: do you think the Fire's rapid rise says anything about MLS as a whole this season?
Ruben: I think it's just one of those things. The Fire have quality players. It would be one thing if the East were still the weaker conference, but It's the better of the two, quality-wise. The league power dynamic swing actually makes this more impressive, to be honest.
Sean: I think there’s a growing realization that the game of musical chairs for an MLS franchise is winding down, which creates greater pressure on current stakeholders to prove their worth or GTFO - either of which we could be seeing play out here.
James Bridget: So I hesitate to ask this because we were all way, way off in our predictions at the start of the season. BUT. What are your predictions for the rest of the season?
Alex: I see the team slowing down their blistering pace just a touch. I think they'll still have a good shot at the Supporters Shield, and a deep run in the MLS Cup is on tap. It should be a really fun second half.
Jack: I'm expecting silverware. There's two options left, so, your guess is as good as mine for which one it is.
Ruben: I think they'll make the playoffs. Anything after that is a crapshoot.
Sean: I think #cf97 win the Supporters Shield in a canter - meaning Basti et al watch the final dead-rubber regular-season match from the sidelines. The playoffs? Who knows.
James Bridget: Alright, I'm just going to say it. I think we're going to the MLS Cup Final.
I don't know if we'll win, and I don't know if we'll win the Shield (the margins are so, so thin). But I think we're going back to the big dance.
Fire vs SKC. You heard it here first.