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Entering 2018, newly-stable Fire still looking for someone to pull the strings

Men in Red need reinforcement to build on 2017’s great step forward

MLS: Eastern Conference Knockout Round-New York Red Bulls at Chicago Fire
Matt Polster’s blossoming into a top-level MLS wingback was perhaps 2017’s biggest surprise, and reason for continued optimism in ‘18.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

As I reviewed my 2017 PreSeason Tactical Thoughts piece, I was struck by how far our Fire have come in the short space of one season. To go from back to back last-place finishes in 2015 and 16 ... to flirting with first place and the Supporters Shield last summer ... to finishing third in the Eastern Conference and third in the Supporters Shield is a tremendous accomplishment. Yet clearly the project has a ways to go after the Men in Red were destroyed by New York Red Bull in the playoffs after staggering badly against packed defenses down the stretch.

The status quo

As our Fire move into 2018 Preseason mode, let’s begin at the end of December 2017. The current 20 players on the Fire roster, listed by position as a sort of depth chart, are on the following graphic. I’ve arranged the players in the formation that seems to be the team’s default in 2017, a 4-2-3-1 that plays like a 4-3-3 at times:

2018 Fire Roster by position

For the graphics-impaired, that’s

  • GK: Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson, Stephan Cleveland, Richard Sanchez
  • RB: Matt Polster, Drew Conner
  • CB: Johan Kappelhof, Jonathan Campbell, Christian Dean, Grant Lillard
  • LB: Brandon Vincent, Jorge Corrales
  • CM: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Brant Bronico
  • RW: Luis Solignac
  • CAM/Second striker: Michael de Leeuw, Djordje Mihalovic
  • LW: David Accam, David Johnson
  • ST: Nemanja Nikolic

Clearly everyone hopes and anticipates both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Richard Sanchez will re-sign for the 2018 season - so they’ve been included in this Preseason 21.*

The Departed

For contrast, let’s look at those Fire players from 2017 who have had their contract options declined.

  • Player who will not be back: Portuguese centerback João Meira has already announced his departure from the club. Former Homegrown Player Collin Fernandez has already signed for 2018 with USL side Phoenix Rising.
  • Players who probably won’t be back: Veteran wingback Michael Harrington had fallen so far out of favor that he dropped to third spot at right back behind midfielder Drew Conner. While Patrick Doody had a strong start early in 2017, he fell out of favor as the season progressed .... the signing of Corrales at left back may have been the final nail.
  • Players who still may be back: The Fire declined to purchase the option on the loan for Juninho, but the club also protected him from the 2017 MLS Expansion Draft - so something may be going on behind the scenes to bring him back for 2018.
  • While on loan to the Roughnecks, Joey Calistri earned 3rd place in minutes played, was tied for 2nd in goals scored and 2nd in assists, but way down at 74.1% passes completed while on loan to the Roughnecks.
  • Matej Dekovic is 24 but he only played 228 minutes across 6 games with 2 starts while on loan to the Roughnecks.
  • John Goossens future with the Fire depends upon his body’s ability to regain his international caliber fitness and touch.

What to look for in January

The acquisition of depth is the critical issue for the Fire as they head into 2018 preseason.

As we look at the players currently under contract, tactically the Fire seem to be planning to build around the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 scheme. Starting from the back, the current Chicago roster has depth at keeper, across the defense and ... that’s about it. If we project into the future after both de Leeuw and Mihailovic return, they both would add depth, but they will have to fit into an existing structure rather than claim a spot from the outset.

If the Men in Red plan on playing the 3-1 on attack, they will obviously require one major acquisition - He Who Pulls The Strings in the middle. None of the players on the 2017 roster filled that niche - Juninho, McCarty and Schweinsteiger all looked deeply uncomfortable in that role last season. While the Fire played excellent ball control football during their run to the top of the standings, ultimately opposition defenses were able to sit back, clog the middle and frustrate Chicago, as the team were never able to successfully pick that lock. Signing a DP caliber schemer should be the No. 1 priority for 2018.

So: one DP-level schemer, one CB, one or two DMs, two or three LWs/RWs and one or two CMs/AMs (while waiting for de Leeuw and Mihailovic) are minimum requirements on the Fire’s 2018 shopping list; those acquisitions would bring the roster to 26-29 players and improve the competition at each position.

Since this MLS and not the Premiership, the Fire cannot go out and buy 9-10 All-Star caliber players on the international market, so it will be interesting to see how and with whom our Fire fill those roster spots by the start of February training camp.

Vox Populi

A couple of questions to discuss in the comments section below ….

  1. Which spots in the first XI need an upgrade before preseason training?
  2. Which players do you think will be re-signed from the 2018 Options declined list?
  3. Since the Fire will be bringing potentially four keepers into PreSeason, are any of them trade bait within MLS?
  4. Which players (at which position) within MLS should the Fire try to acquire?
  5. Which players (at which position) from outside MLS should the Fire try to acquire?
  6. Which current college players do the Fire consider/go after at the upcoming MLS Draft - anticipating that they are successful and sign Lillard as one of their 2018 HGPs?

*Updated January 12th.