This is the first of a two-part retrospective on the 2018 season. Part two will run next week.
The 2018 Chicago Fire season could have been one to remember.
They had just come off a third place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2017 and the feeling was the Fire could only improve. If the baseline was third, then surely the Supporters’ Shield would at least be in reach.
The offseason was exciting for almost all the wrong reasons. Nelson Rodriguez was made a league punchline when his wax wings flew too close to the sun. In order to make a big splash in the transfer market, he allowed himself to be played by the agent of Colombian talisman Juan Quintero.
Meanwhile, he sold one of the Fire’s best attacking pieces, David Accam, to Philadelphia for seven figures in combined TAM and GAM and maybe some Krakus Ham. With that they signed Aleksandar Katai. Add to that their draft day haul of Mo Adams and Diego Campos, the Fire left Philadelphia with the fanbase feeling good but not terribly excited. But hey, Bastian Schweinsteiger was back for a full season! And the team wouldn’t really miss Joao Meira. Sure, it might not be as smooth sailing as most of last year was, but surely the Fire would make the playoffs...
Preseason was fine, if unexciting. Brandt Bronico and Joey Calistri looked good enough to fill the holes left by Djordje Mihailovic and Michael de Leeuw. Richard Sanchez looked replacement-level; yes we’d like an upgrade, but the fort would hold. Katai looked good. And then there was this Elliot Collier guy, who was exciting, if not terribly skilled.
I felt cautiously optimistic going into the first game of the season against Sporting Kansas City, I was even there opening day. The lineup was a 4-5-1 with a backline of Polster, Kappelhof, Christian Dean (who won the starting job in camp), and Brandon Vincent at left back. A central mid trio of Basti, captain Dax McCarty, and new signing Tony Tchani. Katai and Luis Solignac were on the wings, with our hero Niko up top. The Fire lost a seven-goal thriller, with a Niko brace and Katai opening his account after going down 2-0. But then, as would become a bad habit this year, they absolutely blew it in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Despite the blown lead, I felt positive that things were going the right direction. Unlike the playoff game and the end of last year, the Fire didn’t roll over and die like they might have last year. The defensive lapses could be coached out as long as there was consistent partnership in the back and everyone stayed in position.
However, a 2-1 loss to Minnesota United in Week 2 doused that optimism. There was no consistent backline. Polster and Dean were out, Rafael Ramos and Kevin Ellis were in. Schweinsteiger was out, Collier was in. And the tinkering never stopped. Pauno never seemed to commit to a lineup. He was always tinkering with everything, trying to find the perfect combination that would unlock last year’s form and send them to the top of the East.
The rest of March and April saw the Fire continue to tread water. Wins against the Crew (with a clean sheet) and the New York Red Bulls gave fans some hope. The Fire were capable of beating good teams. They only lost one other game those two months, the 1-0 loss to the LA Galaxy where the Fire were unfortunate enough to get Zlataned. Draws with Portland and Toronto rounded out the first seven games of the year, and the Fire entered May 2W-2D-3L. Eight points is not where you want to be after two months, but there were some growing pains, and they were playing well.
May is when it all started to fall apart.
It started with a 2-1 loss to Atlanta. They then went W-L-L-W-L in their next five, with the Ls coming as a result of piss-poor performances. The Fire gave up three goals in each of those losses, conceding nine in total and scoring just three themselves. The defense was unraveling. Richard Sanchez was becoming a problem. And the goal scorers had gone quiet.
However, there was one positive, and it was a really big one. The 1-0 win over Montreal may be memorable for Kevin Ellis’ game winning goal, but I’ll remember it as the Mo Adams Game. The reason the Fire won and kept a clean sheet was because Mo Adams just smothered Ignacio Piatti, not letting him get any time on the ball to create anything and following him all over the park like a dog with a bone. This was the game where I knew— and I think, we all knew— that the Fire were better with Mo Adams on the pitch. Too bad no one told the coaching staff that.
On the flipside, June was really good for the Fire. They didn’t lose a single match, including two Open Cup ties on the road against Columbus (in penalties) and Atlanta. They beat NYCFC and San Jose in league play and drew against New England, Colorado, and Seattle. They were even in a playoff spot. They went sixth with that win over New York. At the end of June, the Fire had a respectable 26 points. Far from last year’s mark, but they were trending upward from the start of the year.
Unfortunately they didn’t stay that way. The second half of the year was an absolute trainwreck, and had me questioning everything.
Next week, we’ll go through the eight-game losing streak, figure out where it all went wrong, and try and pick up the pieces going into the offseason.